Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis: What role for the international community?

The February 2021 coup in Myanmar led to the overthrow of the existing government and served as a catalyst for increased violence and deteriorating humanitarian conditions country-wide. What is the existing contribution of the international community, including the EU, and how can Brussels improve its response to better tackle the humanitarian and security implications of the current crisis?

The February 2021 coup in Myanmar led to the overthrow of the existing government and the (re-)installation of military rule. This event served as a catalyst for outbreaks of violence and deteriorating humanitarian conditions country-wide, dynamics which are still evolving six months later and have prompted concern and response from the international community. This paper will examine the ongoing situation, beginning by contextualising Myanmar’s current political crisis and its development since the February 1st coup. An analysis of the regional security implications is then offered, in addition to an evaluation of the responses of international actors to date. The role of the EU, as the world’s largest humanitarian donor, is examined closely. Finally, this paper contributes to the discussion on effective humanitarian aid in the context of Myanmar’s crisis by offering three reforms to the EU response: (1) working closer with refugee-receiving neighbouring countries, (2) improving delivery of existing aid flows, and (3) targeting the fundamental security issues at the heart of the humanitarian crisis.


Myanmar, a country which has battled with internal conflict and violence for decades, experienced an additional blow to its stability on February 1st 2021 as a military coup caused the overthrow of the civilian-ruled government. Since this date, the international community has feared for the humanitarian and security consequences of the upheaval, including the potential for the coup to exacerbate the pre-existing insecurities of many groups of the population. Such fears have been confirmed by recent accounts, such as United Nations press statements and UNICEF Humanitarian Situation Reports highlighting the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Myanmar. As protests continue, fatalities rise and access to essential supplies diminishes, the effectiveness of the international community’s response to the crisis become a question of central importance. To improve on their current response, the international community – in particular the EU – should offer a combination of practical short-term solutions aimed at alleviating humanitarian suffering and longer-term strategies that tackle the deeper security issues framing the current humanitarian crisis. 

The context of the current humanitarian crisis

On February 1st 2021, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power from the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government, headed by state counsellor of six years Aung San Suu Kyi. Initiated shortly after a general election in which the NLD party won by a landslide, the coup marked a return to military rule which had defined Myanmar’s governance for much of the twentieth century. In response, NLD politicians in exile, political allies and ethnic minority groups have aligned to establish the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), through which they seek international recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate government. The NUG has evolved to establish its own military wing and has even joined forces with domestic rebel groups against the military junta, but to date, it still has not been formally recognised by any foreign government.

Widespread unrest has been rampant since the coup, including daily protests across the country which often turn violent. Frequent violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law have been reported, including accounts of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians by state security forces. Security forces are reported to have killed over 800 civilians and arrested almost 6000 in the first four months of the coup. Furthermore, pre-existing violence between state security forces and ethnic minority groups in many parts of the country have also been exacerbated. As a result, a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Myanmar is unfolding, with nearly 200,000 civilians so far having been forced to flee their homes. 

The presence of violence, in collaboration with the ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ formed of civil servants boycotting work in protest against the junta’s rule, has generated significant economic difficulties and impeded the state’s provision of many essential services, exacerbating the humanitarian issues across the country. The rapidly deteriorating situation is particularly pronounced in southeastern Myanmar, notably in Kayah state, where a June 8th UN Report emphasised the critical need for urgent access to food, shelter and healthcare for both fleeing and remaining populations. The report also noted that many displaced civilians are seeking shelter in neighbouring Shan state, with the potential to spill across international borders. On August 1st Min Aung Hlaing announced the extension of the national state of emergency until August 2023, highlighting the continual turbulence in a country that is also battling a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

Implications for the wider region

The post-coup instability is not the first incident of conflict in Myanmar having a potential impact on neighbouring states, as the ethnically diverse country has experienced multiple outbreaks of widespread violence in recent years. In 2016-2017, violence against the Rohingya ethnic group in the northwestern Rakhine State caused around 860,000 Rohingya to flee mostly to neighbouring Bangladesh, many of whom never returned. Historically, victims of other clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups have also resulted in civilians fleeing to Thailand and other destinations, where they have often lived in poor conditions. Although the coup has not yet led to a significant increase in displacement along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, it has made the prospect of returning home even less feasible for refugees already residing in Bangladesh, and it has undoubtedly added pressure to the already-precarious humanitarian scenario there. Additionally, the risk of a mass outflow of refugees in the near future should not be underestimated. 

More poignantly, since February 1st the majority of refugee outflows have occurred on the Myanmar-Thailand border, particularly as a result of airstrikes and violent clashes in southeastern Karen State in March and April 2021. While many are reported to have since returned across the border, the situation is far from stable, as violence in border regions sporadically re-erupts and the sizable quantities of IDPs and refugees from before the coup remain. 

The destabilising effects of refugee inflows on nations such as Bangladesh and Thailand are numerous. Besides the direct impact of cross-border instances of violence, such forced displacement can cause disruption and insecurity for civilians living in border areas, as well as putting significant pressure on domestic infrastructure and resources. By destabilising the domestic security situation, such dynamics not only worsen the living conditions of Thai and Bangladeshi populations, but also of the very groups seeking refuge in the first place. The regional implications of the crisis caused by civilians fleeing to neighbouring countries is an aspect of the situation recognised by the current EU response, as part of its current funding package is dedicated specifically to addressing these regional repercussions. However, the potential risks of a further deterioration in the conflict on regional security – including the catastrophic risks of outright civil war and Myanmar’s state system crumbling entirely – put regional security in serious jeopardy. 

What is being done?

In light of the serious security consequences of the coup for both Myanmar and the broader region, steps have been taken by the international community to address the security and humanitarian impacts of the coup. In April 2021, a Five-Point Consensus was agreed upon at an ASEAN summit called especially to address the situation. The Consensus called for five imminent steps to be taken – including the cessation of violence, the beginning of political talks, and the naming of a regional special envoy – although progress on implementing these points to date has reportedly been ‘painfully slow’. This is partly the result of the junta’s clear lack of respect for the agreement, evidenced by their continued violence. Furthermore, the Consensus has faced criticisms for inherent faults, including its exclusion of the NUG from the progress plan and lack of clear timeline for implementation. An effective response to the security situation might therefore involve taking a closer look at the existing Five-Point Consensus, including how commitment to its terms can be secured and implementation of the process sped up – although this is primarily the responsibility of ASEAN and its member states, rather than outside actors such as the EU.

In terms of the humanitarian situation, significant pre-existing need in Myanmar has resulted in a response from the international community spanning multiple years. As a result of the past decade of uncertainty (most notably the 2017 Rohingya crisis and other outbursts of regional ethnic conflict) robust international mechanisms such as the OCHA Humanitarian Response Plan and the World Food Programme Strategic Plan were already in place prior to the current political crisis. Renewed conflict in Rakhine and Chin states in 2020 coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the humanitarian situation in recent months, which has deteriorated further as a result of the coup.

The detrimental impact of the coup on Myanmar’s humanitarian situation is two-pronged. Firstly, the political crisis has created a fresh need for aid, as increased levels of violence and reduced functioning of the economy and public services leave populations in greater need of support. Yet it has also jeopardised existing aid and supply, creating a second wave of impact. Following February 1st, key state donors such as the United States began to review (and even halt altogether) their existing aid commitments to development projects in Myanmar which distributed funding to the government. Although the majority of international aid flows through non-governmental channels, state involvement had increased in the years following the 2011 democratic reforms, risking further destabilisation through the withdrawal of long-term development funding for the country. NGOs have similarly suffered from funding and personnel withdrawals, as political events have severed the relationship of trust between local and international actors. Furthermore, the increase in violence following the onset of the coup has made the logistical challenge of delivering existing aid extremely challenging, as involved organisations battle with blockades and road closures, and direct security threats to humanitarian workers

How to improve the situation?

Much like the security situation in Myanmar itself, the international community’s response has exhibited weaknesses since long before the coup. Existing humanitarian programmes in Myanmar were already experiencing significant funding gaps before 2021 – for example, OCHA’s Response Plan was only 67% funded in 2020.  Additionally, much of the funding that has been obtained cannot currently be operationalised due to severe cash shortages preventing organisations from accessing existing funds, resulting from the Civil Disobedience Movement and the shutdown of many centralised administrative systems on which local organisations in particular relied. 

Relatedly, existing aid is struggling to reach the areas where it is most needed due to access restrictions and the deteriorating security situation, raising questions over how aid can more effectively be transported to target areas. As the primary implementers of humanitarian projects, the effect of these barriers facing NGOs serves a second blow to humanitarian aid in addition to the reduction in funding for both state- and NGO-administered programmes following the coup. The contemporary need for safe passageways to allow humanitarian supplies and personnel to pass is emphasised in recent UN statements on the Myanmar situation, although this too is a continuation of a problem first witnessed before the coup – previous epochs of military rule saw ethnic minority border areas blocked from international assistance, and outside access to rebel-controlled areas (e.g. parts of Kachin state) had been similarly difficult at times during the recent years of the Suu Kyi government.

The perceived continuity between the current and historic hurdles to providing effective humanitarian assistance in Myanmar highlights the need to address the country’s more fundamental, long-term security challenges if a solution to the ongoing crisis is to be found. Current humanitarian operations show that, without this step, any provisions or secured funding will have limited impact on their immediate targets – as well as failing to address the core problems. Thus, the next steps for international actors to improve humanitarian outcomes should also address the roots of this insecurity, namely the coup itself and the smaller pockets of ethnic conflict that are simultaneously destabilising parts of the country. Indeed, this vital interlinkage between security and humanitarian outcomes is recognised by existing international humanitarian provisions, which emphasise the need for humanitarian action to occur alongside longer-term resilience- and capacity-building that tackle ‘underlying structural issues’.

What can the EU do?

As the world’s leading donor of humanitarian aid, with EUR 10.3 billion allocated for the period 2017-2027, the EU already has a significant impact on worldwide humanitarian projects. Europe has also been a longtime provider of aid to Myanmar, offering support since 1994, and scaling up its assistance in 2017 following the increased violence in Rakhine. At the beginning of 2021, Brussels had already allocated EUR 20.5 million to “address the immediate needs of displaced and conflict-affected communities in Myanmar”, committing an additional EUR 9 million since the coup to address the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation through the provision of healthcare, food assistance and protection services. 

Thus, given the scale of the EU’s current financial contributions, simply suggesting that Brussels should commit more funds is not an effective recommendation. Moreover, to suggest so would fail to recognise the major logistical and security challenges preventing existing aid from effectively reaching its target recipients. Therefore, in answering the question of how the EU – and the international community generally – can more effectively address the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, we must look beyond the volume of aid, to how aid is used and implemented. 

Since the EU’s humanitarian wing, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Operations (ECHO), does not implement its own programmes but rather funds operations implemented by partners, for Brussels this approach would in part involve working collaboratively with said organisations. The opportunity for deeper collaboration is vast, as ECHO works with 200+ partner organisations spanning UN agencies, IOs and NGOs, and one of their stated responsibilities is to “ensure that its partners’ goods and services reach the affected populations effectively and rapidly in order to respond to real needs”. Moreover, the broader national and regional environment should be considered, as countless external factors limit the effectiveness of the EU’s current aid operation.

But how can this be implemented in practice? There are a number of possible routes which could be followed. Firstly, the EU and its partners can encourage neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh to not send back refugees, and support them in improving their ability to host those fleeing across borders. As of late, allegations of torture of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the controversial shipping of 20,000+ refugees to uninhabited islands to ease overcrowding of camps in Cox’s Bazar have outlined the struggles of the Bangladeshi government to cope with the scale of the refugee crisis, to the detriment of the living standards of the large number of refugees in the country. This significant pressure on infrastructure, governance and resources has already been exacerbated by the coup, and has the potential to become significantly worse in the future.

Addressing such problems first requires acknowledging that the responsibility to host is not entirely on the host state, but equally that incentives such as attractive development and trade deals may be one part of the solution. While Bangladesh has been resistant to such offers in the past, the fallout of the coup and the dangerous prospect of a nearby failed state on its own stability may change that. Furthermore, this option would also allow the EU to utilise its negotiation experience and diplomatic sway directly, without having to rely entirely on its implementing partners to effect change. Other possible incentives such as third-country resettlement could also be promising, but only if the commitment of third-party nations such as EU members can be obtained.

Secondly, engaging practically with influential actors on the ground is a recommended step for improving aid flows and allowing existing resources to better reach target communities. Pushing the junta and its leader Min Aung Hlaing to open access to roads and cease its targeting of humanitarian groups and civilians could offer a clear starting point. Although negotiating with such a group is no easy feat, the EU has already imposed (and recently extended) sanctions against the junta, which may sufficiently pressure the group into facilitating humanitarian access in the future. Similarly, greater pragmatic communication with the non-state armed groups who control certain areas of the country could allow for significant leaps forward in the delivery of humanitarian aid. This approach may be more suited to implementation by some of the EU’s programmatic partners, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross who are specialised in engagement with armed groups.

Finally, the EU also needs to consider the fundamental security issues at the heart of the crisis. Although more effective provision of humanitarian aid helps to fulfil vital short-term needs in the population and partially contributes to the stability of the country, it fails to tackle the core problem. Thus, to be more effective in its continued assistance, the EU should consider addressing these issues more directly. While the ultimate solution to Myanmar’s security problems must be homegrown, the EU can facilitate this by re-evaluating its policies of engagement with major security actors going forward. The Tatmadaw must feature in any long-term solution and are slowly expressing interest in gaining diplomatic recognition from the international community, however the military’s current willingness to engage in constructive dialogue is extremely limited. Thus in the immediate future, focusing on and developing coherent relations with the NUG may prove more promising for Brussels, as the more open and cooperative of the major security actors. 

The possibility of officially recognising the NUG is a pertinent option, and one which reflects both the EU’s concern with democracy and its policy to date of refusing to officially recognise the junta. If the EU conditions this recognition on the NUG becoming genuinely representative of all ethnic groups within Myanmar (including the Rohingya), this policy could meaningfully contribute to the easing of ethnic tensions and the development of a long-term peace – a point highlighted by David Camroux, EIAS Advisory Board Member, in EIAS’ Discussion on the Future of Myanmar event earlier this year. The NUG’s promise to recognise the Rohingya’s right to citizenship is particularly crucial to the equation, as if this commitment were to be realised, a policy of recognition would undoubtedly reshape this grave source of insecurity for the country.

Furthermore, to complement such measures, ECHO also needs to provide continued funding to long term development and capacity-building projects which are essential to long-term stability in Myanmar. Like other major international donors, the EU suspended parts of its development aid to the country following the coup, and Stefan Fantaroni of the European External Action Service has explained that part of its crisis response to date is the rechannelling of these funds to civil society groups and the population directly wherever possible. However, there is clear room for improvement in the effective refunnelling of aid, which would allow for the resumption of critical developmental projects without the risk of strengthening the junta. Moreover, further empowering local organisations may provide additional benefits to the logistical barriers impeding current EU aid delivery.


The interlinkage of the current humanitarian situation in Myanmar with the country’s deeper security issues signals that contemporary responses are limited in their effectiveness, but equally opens up new opportunities for longer-term solutions. Building upon its existing financial commitment to Myanmar, the EU should consider a variety of policies moving forward which have the potential to relieve humanitarian suffering both immediately and into the future. In order to ease the contemporary suffering amongst refugee populations and control the risk of a future spillover into a regional security crisis, Brussels should provide greater assistance to refugee-hosting countries. To address the logistical and security issues inhibiting delivery of existing aid and assistance, the EU should consider engaging directly with the actors involved in domestic tensions by leveraging its relationship with NGOs and civil society organisations. Finally, to have a longer-lasting impact on Myanmar’s stability and humanitarian outcomes going forward, alleviation of the deeper-rooted security issues that underlie the country’s current crisis should be prioritised through engagement with major security actors and the continuation of vital development projects. 

However, the EU cannot effectively address these issues alone. Given both the internal complexity and vast international consequences of the ongoing crisis, a coherent international response galvanising all stakeholders is necessary if civil war is to be avoided. If the EU can work alongside stakeholders such as domestic groups, neighbouring states and ASEAN, a durable solution to Myanmar’s humanitarian plight is more likely to be found in the foreseeable future. 

Author: Holly O’Mahony, Junior Researcher, EIAS

Photo credits: karl-ferdinand on Pixabay