Myanmar’s junta has passed a law that grants it sweeping powers over aid delivery, prompting warnings of a “catastrophic” effect on services to those in need in the crisis-hit nation.
Sources inside aid agencies in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian that the new rules would severely impact their ability to reach vulnerable communities, likely resulting in wholesale shutdowns of some programmes.
The “registration of associations” law, introduced late last month, bans any “indirect or direct” contact between aid providers and groups blacklisted by the junta, including political organisations that act as gatekeepers to the needy in some areas.
The law will apply to aid agencies, which includes international organisations such as Oxfam, as well as local aid groups known as domestic civil society organisations, or CSOs.
The law requires international and domestic aid groups to have a government-issued registration certificate to legally work with communities in need. However, humanitarian officials in Yangon say that they believe most CSOs will refuse to register with junta officialdom, meaning that existing networks may no longer be able to operate lawfully.
The military ousted a democratically elected government in February last year, prompting mass protests across the country, which were violently suppressed. More than a million people have been displaced since the power grab, according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, with a further 15 million facing moderate to severe food insecurity.
A senior official from an international agency in Yangon said they expected that the new measures will “fundamentally transform the way aid works in Myanmar” in ways that they fear will have “catastrophic” effects on services to recipients.
“Most CSOs will refuse to follow the law and register because in their view, it legitimises the [junta] and the coup,” meaning they will be exposed to “huge amounts of risk”, the official said. This leaves the international aid agencies with the choice of having to keep working with unregistered CSOs, working solely with organisations that do choose to register, “which could have an impact on what forms of assistance can be delivered”, or curtailing their operations, meaning “less aid, obviously, in most scenarios”, they said.
Other officials from humanitarian agencies who spoke to the Guardian echoed these assessments. Many “CSOs are not registered to start with and they will likely continue [as they are]”, despite the heightened dangers, said another Myanmar-based official, who asked not to be identified.
“For CSOs, who are now the backbone of most programs, this is pretty devastating,” a third humanitarian based in Yangon, said. The ban on contact with forbidden groups will really hurt access, making whole programmes “impossible”, they said.
Representatives of UN agencies in Yangon declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian.
A junta spokesperson did not immediately respond to emailed requests for a response.