UNICEF signs $3m agreement with Myanmar junta, leaked documents show

The UN child rights agency says it will use any available channels to provide aid, but critics claim the junta stands to benefit by controlling where it goes

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has planned to allocate more than US$3 million for military-controlled humanitarian projects in Myanmar, according to recently leaked documents.

The New York-based agency—whose mission statement is to “advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential”—co-signed contracts with junta officials and budgeted a collective $3,242,500 for two “government-led” projects inside the conflict-riven country.

The first, led by the junta’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, is a social policy project that aims to assist with the delivery of humanitarian cash transfers and promote access to assistive technologies for children with disabilities; it was allocated a budget of more than $1.107m. 

Until an early August reshuffle, the social welfare ministry had been led by Dr Thet Thet Khine, sanctioned by both the European Union and the United States. UNICEF’S regional representative to Myanmar, Marcoluigi Corsi, met her in April, when they discussed the “promotion of cooperation between the ministry and UNICEF,” according to regime-controlled media. The ministry is currently headed by Dr Soe Win.

The second initiative, led by the Ministry of Cooperatives and Rural Development, is a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project that aims to provide drinking water, plumbing and access to sanitation services. It was allocated a budget of $2.135m.

Neither of the projects, co-signed on August 17 and 18 respectively, were announced on UNICEF’s website.

In both cases, UNICEF declared in the leaked documents that its country office in Myanmar would “ensure that funds are used effectively and will share accountability and responsibility for managing the project’s operations with the relevant ministries.”

It further stated that the projects would be implemented via UNICEF’s existing Myanmar office, “as per consultation with States and Regions Administration approval.”

The signed documents, however, do not specify any authority or third party that might oversee the agreement or ensure that such funds are not misappropriated to benefit the military dictatorship.

In a statement to Myanmar Now on Wednesday, UNICEF did not comment directly on the documents in question, but simply noted that its “workplans” are not indicative that funds have been sent. 

The agency maintained that it has strong internal mechanisms to monitor the financial implementation of their projects, including third party monitoring. When asked who was responsible for that third party monitoring, UNICEF did not clarify.

UNICEF also said that it impartially works with “all available and effective channels,” including civil society organisations, NGOs, the private sector and state delivery systems.

Rights advocates and civil society organisations have criticised UN agencies for carrying out aid operations in Myanmar under the oversight of the junta, and for signing memorandums of understanding with the illegitimate government while refusing to do the same with the democratically elected National Unity Government. 

Opponents claim such an approach gives legitimacy to the coup regime, while at the same time failing to provide support to the large displaced populations outside military-controlled areas.

In its 2023 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan, released in January, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) observed that as many as 2.3 million people who were prioritised for humanitarian assistance live in areas that are difficult or very difficult to access, “mainly due to active conflict and military operations or the de facto authorities delaying or refusing [travel authorisations].”

A September 8 update revealed that such access restrictions had only increased, “further hindering timely and efficient aid delivery to affected and displaced communities.” The result is a heavily shackled model of humanitarianism that allows for the distribution of goods and services as the junta sees fit: that is, in military-controlled areas, which are largely limited to urban zones.

As critics of the UN have pointed out, this preferentially allocated aid also plays straight into the junta’s notorious “Four Cuts” policy, by which the military attempts to cut the civilian population off from food, supplies, medicines, and other essentials in order to pressure the resistance into conceding defeat. 

Such humanitarian partiality has proven devastating in recent months, as the Myanmar military has deliberately withheld aid from areas that were among the most heavily impacted by Cyclone Mocha, which hit Myanmar’s western Rakhine State in May. UN agencies were among the aid groups that were denied access to the affected areas, a decision that the organisation’s own humanitarian coordinator described at the time as “unfathomable.”

UNICEF confirmed to Myanmar Now that there continues to be challenges accessing many parts of the country.

Further complicating the situation in Myanmar, however, is new legislation imposed by the junta in October 2022 that granted it sweeping powers over humanitarian assistance inside the country.

The so-called Organisation Registration Law (ORL) made it mandatory for non-governmental organisations and associations to have a regime-issued registration certificate in order to legally work in the country. It also banned the provision of aid to areas not controlled by the junta, as well as any “indirect or direct” contact between aid providers and those deemed to be in opposition of the military council. 

The latter is a designation that the junta has taken to applying broadly, indiscriminately persecuting civilians across the country over their alleged support for the resistance movement. Following the rollout of the ORL—which does not mention UN agencies—representatives from local and international aid groups voiced fears that the restrictions would severely impact their ability to access communities in need. 

They also expressed concern that acquiescing to the ORL and providing aid under the supervision of the junta would legitimise their coup, which saw the military overthrow Myanmar’s democratically elected government and illegally seize control of the country in February 2021.

Those unwilling to cooperate with the regime are forced to operate unofficially within Myanmar—risking a fine of more than $2,500 and a maximum five-year prison sentence—or cease their humanitarian activities altogether.

Last November, Khin Ohmar, chair of Myanmar civil society organisation Progressive Voice, told news outlet Deutsche Welle that the ORL “la[id] bare the junta’s total disregard for the safety and well-being of civilians suffering from its constant atrocities.”

She said that enforced registration with the junta would mean that “humanitarian agencies [would be] forced to stop partnering with local responders who have been on the ground delivering relief since day one.” 

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