Webinar on “Myanmar’s Humanitarian Challenges in 2023”

Myanmar continues to face daunting humanitarian challenges in 2023. The military coup in 2021 compounded humanitarian needs which arose prior to and during the pandemic. Cyclone Mocha in May 2023 added to mounting humanitarian needs. In this webinar, four speakers with policy and/or research experience shared their assessments of Myanmar’s humanitarian challenges and responses in 2023.


Tuesday, 20 June 2023 – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme invited former Ambassador Robert Chua, Dr Alistair Cook, Ms Hnin Htet Htet Aung and Mr Kyaw Hsan Hlaing to reflect on Myanmar’s humanitarian challenges in 2023, paying attention to the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha. The webinar, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, Myanmar Studies Programme Coordinator, attracted the interest of 104 attendees.

Clockwise from top left: Ambassador Robert Chua, Ms Moe Thuzar (moderator), Dr Alistair D. B. Cook, Mr Kyaw Hsan Hlaing and Ms Hnin Htet Htet Aung. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Past experience and lessons

  • Until Cyclone Mocha (a Category 5 storm) in May 2023, Cyclone Nargis (Category 4) in May 2008 was Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, attracting international attention and criticism. At the time, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military government was initially reluctant to allow humanitarian actors and agencies access to the cyclone-hit areas
  • Within May 2008, however, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers worked out a tripartite mechanism with the SPDC, called the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), to facilitate international aid to Myanmar, and built trust and cooperation between Myanmar, ASEAN, and the international community via the UN. The TCG worked cohesively, focusing on saving and rebuilding lives. 
  • The TCG’s Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) comprised officials from Myanmar, ASEAN, and the UN, local civil society volunteers and NGOs. Employing UN and World Bank assessment methodologies to identify urgent humanitarian needs and assess damage, the PONJA assessment report essentially produced the post-Nargis recovery and reconstruction plan.
  • In 2008, lacking satellite capacity, the Myanmar authorities could not gauge the full extent of the devastation. Eventually, the SPDC allowed a six-month deployment of ten UN helicopters, facilitated by the TCG, to access cyclone-affected areas, enabling the delivery of international relief aid. The Cyclone Nargis experience thus brought new ways for the authorities in Myanmar to engage and cooperate with the international community.
  • The Nargis and Mocha experiences differ mainly in the steps taken for early warning and evacuation, and available satellite tracking technology. Though Mocha did not cause as many casualties as Nargis, current political tensions in Myanmar have affected the pace and efficacy of responses.
  •  At this juncture, it is worth considering the convening of an Inclusive Humanitarian Forum (IHF), a fresh proposal of self-reliance from local stakeholders in Myanmar. ASEAN members are aware of the IHF proposal, which Dr Noeleen Heyzer, immediate past Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General on Myanmar had presented to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, and which includes partnering with ASEAN to complement humanitarian work on providing shelter, food and medicine to people in need.
  • The IHF objectives address the humanitarian assistance aspect of ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus, and aligns with ASEAN’s position regarding a Myanmar-owned, Myanmar-led approach. As such, ASEAN could support the convening of the IHF under the broad rubric of the Five-Point Consensus. The IHF’s inclusive approach may be viewed as a TCG variant, and a starting point of healing the country through dialogue among all Myanmar stakeholders, including civil society, to reduce the suffering of people in need.

Gaps between pledges and needs

  • Various appeals to assist Myanmar’s humanitarian needs are significantly underfunded. For example, in 2023 alone, only 14.7 percent of the UN’s Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan was launched in January 2023, and 25 percent of the 2023 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis have been met.
  • Over 75 percent of humanitarian needs in Myanmar thus remain unmet even though the overall budget for the global humanitarian system has nearly doubled over the past decade.
  • Though the number of humanitarian agencies has increased by 10 percent in the last decade, driven by growth in national and local NGOs, needs are still outpacing available resources. There is also a lack of available data and evidence on the actual amounts of funds that reach communities in need. The majority of (international) funding goes to the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). International humanitarian assistance accounts for 1.7 percent of the money flowing to crisis-affected countries.
  • Most of the funds deployed for crisis situations come from sources outside the global humanitarian system. Thus, there should be more effort to ensure that assistance reaches the intended recipients directly or through support networks.
  • The formal humanitarian system has not adequately recognised or supported community-led and grassroots efforts. Local communities act as first responders in crises, but their capacities face many constraints (particularly in the present context in Myanmar). A new way of working is required, driven by affected communities themselves to meet their own needs with international support.
  • Trust between humanitarian actors and affected communities is crucial for effective response. Neutrality and inclusivity are important principles to ensure equitable support. The current situation in Myanmar thus requires a change in approach and recognise that the formal humanitarian system does not have sufficient resources or access. The affected communities in Myanmar deserve better support and a people-centred approach.

Challenges and options

  • Myanmar’s present humanitarian challenges stem from political instability, violent crackdowns against groups and people opposing or resisting military rule, and the economic downturn exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Residents in Chin State, and the Sagaing and Karenni regions face dire conditions due to the Myanmar military’s “four cuts” counterinsurgency strategy (practised since the 1960s) which restricts access to food, funds, information, and recruits in areas that the military deems are supportive of activities or groups against the military.
  • Over decades, the Myanmar military has violated international conventions and humanitarian laws, such as impeding the passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. Competency issues and lack of coordination within the humanitarian community also hinder the delivery of aid during crises.
  • There is some hope that international actors are now considering delivering aid directly to the people and engaging in humanitarian diplomacy to address the current crisis and its humanitarian fallout in Myanmar. There are different approaches based on different interests. For example, Myanmar’s neighbouring countries such as Thailand, China, and India prefer a humanitarian diplomacy approach, engaging with the State Administration Council (SAC) military regime. The ASEAN and UN also discuss/negotiate their responses with the SAC. However, the present crisis has also shown where concerns about transparency in this approach may arise, as the SAC claims credit for facilitating or accepting international assistance while continuing airstrikes and attacks against civilian communities.
  • The Government of Japan has announced an emergency grant aid to assist those affected by Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Japan’s Official Development Assistance program to Myanmar is limited to non-military assistance. However, Japan’s continuation of existing ODA projects in Myanmar after the 2021 coup has also drawn criticism from human rights groups.
  • Negotiations with the military regime in Myanmar may be inevitable for humanitarian diplomacy. However, the international community must also consider alternative options and consult with stakeholders in Myanmar other than the military.
  • One such alternative lies in coordinating humanitarian responses with the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic revolutionary organizations, and civil society groups on the ground, in order to reach communities in territories or areas that are not under direct military control, or in areas that are harder to access, e.g. areas in central Myanmar, or those not directly along Myanmar’s borders.

Cyclone Mocha experience in Rakhine

  • Prior to Mocha’s landfall, the SAC issued cyclone preparedness alerts in seven townships in Rakhine State on 12 May. Some local SAC officials also held a traditional ceremony to divert the cyclone. However, the United League of Arakan (ULA) which is the administrative wing of the Arakan Army (AA), had started preparing since 7 May, for evacuating communities in the direct path of Mocha. The ULA evacuated more than 102,00 residents within five days.
  • Post Mocha, the SAC has carried out disaster relief activities only in Sittwe (Rakhine State’s capital). On the other hand, the ULA established a new committee called “Cyclone Mocha Emergency Response and Rescue Committee for Arakan” and opened five humanitarian aid centres in territories under ULA/AA administrative control.
  • Both the SAC and ULA have separate statistics concerning the extent of the damage caused by Cyclone Mocha. There are notable discrepancies between the figures presented by the two parties, highlighting conflicting accounts of the cyclone’s impact.
  • In Rakhine State, the ULA has access to local communities, and does not await SAC’s approval to act. Even so, humanitarian assistance and supplies are usually routed or delivered through or to central-level locations. For example, humanitarian assistance and supplies from India were delivered to Yangon rather than to Sittwe.
  • The SAC and ULA/AA have employed different engagement approaches domestically for post-Mocha response. Though the SAC has restricted humanitarian access for international organisations, it attempted to increase its engagement with regional governments by using its political leverage. The ULA/AA, on the other hand, increased engagement with allies among the ethnic revolutionary organisations for Cyclone Mocha response.
  • The current constraints that UN agencies and international organisations face with regard to post-Mocha response access underscores the importance and value of more direct communication/coordination with local civil society organisations, through informal or partner networks, for more effective and timely responses.

Participants sought speakers’ further insights on ‘approved’ local NGOs with which external actors could coordinate to bring assistance to cyclone-affected communities, current aid assessment and delivery efforts by ASEAN and the UN, the feasibility of the proposed IHF, specific barriers to humanitarian intervention, the NUG’s capacity to coordinate humanitarian aid, the AA’s humanitarian response efforts, and ASEAN’s next steps in dealing with the SAC.