Helping Myanmar’s suffering masses

Updated On: Oct 06, 2006

There is no doubt about the dismal human rights record of the Myanmar military junta, and that situation in Myanmar for the majority has deteriorated over the years. 

Imposing sanctions to register disapproval of the regime has unfortunately been the easy option adopted by most governments. Under this option, the “collateral” suffering of the people has been seen as unfortunate but necessary. This week, the humanitarian problems in Myanmar have been highlighted in a documentary in theUK as well as several articles in the papers in the region.

Part of the reason for the insecurity of the military junta in Myanmar is the fact that the central government does not have effective control over the entire country. There are insurgency movements (along ethnic lines) in different parts of the country. Ironically, these insurgency movements have arisen partly due to the repressive nature of the military junta itself. This week, the government has launched massive attacks against the separatist groups in the Northeastern part of Myanmar.  Channel 4 in the UK has produced a documentary (“Dispatches: Burma’s Secret War) showing how the government soldiers have used rape as a weapon against the ethnic minorities to “breed out the resistance.” The ongoing civil war within Myanmar has resulted in a steady stream of refugees to the neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand.

The international community appears to be divided on the means to improve the situation. While the EU and the US has generally preferred to take the politically popular option of sanctions, the ASEAN members as well as China and India have embarked on overly-ridiculed option of engagement. Yet both policies have yet to accomplish their desired policy outcome- of a more democratic Myanmar and relieving the sufferings of the people. The United States is now attempting to use the United Nations (UN) Security Council to put more pressure on Myanmar. A three member delegation of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) has also arrived at the United Nations headquarters in New York on 4 October to discuss possible action on Myanmar. The delegation called for UN mediation for political dialogue among the stakesholders to work out a coordinated international strategy for Myanmar. ASEAN needs to play a stronger role in bringing the international community together to discuss the issue of Myanmar.

Such coordination of efforts has been long over-due. However in the short to medium term, the issue of how best to address the needs of the people in Myanmarshould be of utmost concern. In particular, there are three areas that ASEAN members should focus on- health, education and migrant workers.

Myanmar’s health sector is virtually non-existent. Some estimates suggest that 40% of the population has tuberculosis. On 7 September 2006, the Back Pack Health Worker Team published a report, “Chronic Emergency” highlighting the dire state of the health among the Burmese in Eastern Myanmar. It estimates that 15% of the children are malnourished. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has called for more international support and funding to vaccinate children in Myanmaragainst measles.

The other area in which ASEAN members could bring a role is in increasing access to education to Myanmar students, particularly in the higher education.Myanmar’s once proud Rangoon University has lost its lustre or “dead” as one Mandalay-born graduate of a Singapore institution told the Straits Times. The poor state of facilities and standards of teaching has pushed many bright Myanmar students overseas. Under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), some of the ASEAN governments have agreed to provide scholarships to students in Myanmar. More should be given.

The lack of job opportunities and prospects in Myanmar has also led to a mass emigration of Myanmar workers to the region. About 600,000 of the 900,000 registered migrant workers in Thailand are from Myanmar. About 40,000 Myanmar workers are estimated to be working in Singapore. Although the Myanmarmigrant workers could earn more overseas than back home, they often have to pay exorbitant agency fees and taxes to the host country and the Myanmargovernment. The revenue gained from these migrant workers account for why the Myanmar government has encouraged this overseas employment phenomenon. TheMyanmar government is also reportedly collecting 10% of the migrant workers’ overseas earning. However, for the Myanmar workers, life is only marginally better abroad compared to back home. This is another area in which the ASEAN governments can help- improving the conditions for the migrant workers in their respective countries. Net labour importing countries such as ThailandMalaysia and Singapore could help to play a greater role in ensuring that these workers are not overly exploited by employers and are paid a decent income.

The documentary in Channel 4 argued that investment from foreign firms was responsible for supporting the military junta. This is surely true. However, simply preventing companies from investing in Myanmar and preventing the creation of a means of livelihood for those employed are not solutions to Myanmar’s problems. Allowing the situation in Myanmar to deteriorate further so as to incite a rebellion in the country against the incumbent regime is the implicit assumption behind the imposition of sanctions. Changing the regime is a necessity but the costs of the means to accomplish that end must be considered as well. There has yet to be any plan on the reconstruction of Myanmar should the military regime fall or be replaced. Here, ASEAN must play a role. It must start planning for the future of MyanmarNOW.


Pressures Mount on Burma’s Junta (Christian Science Monitor, 4 October 2006)

ASEAN Members Urge Binding Measures For Democracy in Myanmar (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 4 October 2006)

Education Shows the Sorry State of Myanmar (The Straits Times, 4 October 2006)

Myanmar Crackdown on NSCN (K), ULFA (Hindustan Times, 3 October 2006)

Inside Burma’s Rebel Army: The Struggle Against a Regime Supported by Foreign Firms (Independent, 2 October 2006)

Myanmar to Vaccinate More than 13 Million Children Against Measles (2 October 2006)

Overseas Employment Boom As Myanmar Outsources Manpower (Agence FrancePresse, 1 October 2006)

Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma(Report published by Back Pack Health Worker Team, . Report Available fromhttp://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/ChronicEmergencyE-ocr.pdf)

New Aid Fund Set up to Fight Diseases in Burma (ABC Transcripts [Australia], 18 September 2006)

Singapore Port Hires Myanmar Workers (MyanmarTimes, 7-13 February 2005)