The Limitations of Humanitarian Aid
When a people are, as the U.S. Committee for Refugees describes the Karen, “one of the most ignored groups in one of the most difficult humanitarian emergencies,” humanitarian aid is obviously of the essence. We contacted Tim Heinemann, director of Worldwide Impact, a non-profit organization currently focused on supporting the oppressed people of Burma, for insights into the plight of the Karen people.
“We are rather missing the point with humanitarian intervention as the sovereign panacea for what ails Burma,” Heinemann said, perhaps reflecting his experience in the U.S. Special Forces. That’s because, “U.S. aid goes largely to NGOs working the Thai side of the border helping refugees who have [already made it] to Thailand. The refugees back in Burma running for their lives and doing all the dying [get but] a token trickle of humanitarian aid in the form of rice and medicine that is best described as pitiful.”
Meanwhile, the refugee camps in Thailand are a “corrupt bunch of enclaves. Refugees have to bribe their way in to get housing. Control of rice really means control of money. Only a percentage [of rice] gets into the mouths of refugees. [One need only witness] how many $45K Toyota four-wheel-drive trucks are being driven by ‘rice men.'”
An American woman who recently worked with the Karens in the border region pointed out to us that, “Thailand technically doesn’t consider most of the Burmese ‘refugees.’ It hasn’t signed refugee conventions defining refugee status.”
Refugees or not, Heinemann states: “NGOs spend millions training and educating refugees who want nothing more than to either just nest in the camps or escape to the West.” Some Karens have been admitted to the United States under a refugee resettlement program and have established enclaves in Bakersfield, California, as well as St. Paul, Minnesota and Utica, New York. But, says Heinemann, “Nothing is offered to those refugees who would like to return with skills to Burma and re-take their homeland.”
Confirming Thakabaw’s statement about “European political NGOs which are pro-junta,” Heinemann adds, “The NGOs do not want to be connected to ethnic pro-democracy groups or governments in exile because this reflects political bias and can affect donor support.”
The American woman agreed: “Humanitarian aid within Burma is controlled by the junta. Groups doing work there need to fly below the Thai and junta radars, and, while they need funding, most avoid [media attention] for security reasons.” Thus her desire to remain anonymous.
In fact, Heinemann reveals, refugee “camps have become revolving doors for the [junta] to dump popular opposition cross-border on their way eventually to the West.”
Meanwhile, however, “international corporations are making billions on the backs of forced labor and eviction of ethnic peoples from ancestral lands over 2,000 years in their possession. All because it’s these peoples’ misfortune to be sitting on top of abundant natural resources and hydro-power potential.”
“Burma,” Heinemann maintains, “is just a very caricaturized microcosm of a ruthless 21st century free market without rules and morality.”
To counteract the effects of the junta and amoral international corporations, he says, “Enlightened entrepreneurs and consumers with conscience need to isolate thugs that pass themselves off as government. The SPDC spends one dollar per capita on health education and welfare annually [unconfirmed]. It uses organized, institutionalized terrorism against its people. It has the greatest child soldier populace in the world. All this should be an indicator that something is not quite right and well beyond humanitarian aid’s scope and reach.”
Heinemann concludes: “Humanitarian aid as a substitute for military intervention reflects such a limited understanding of the situation as to cause real concern about U.S. government ability to ‘get it’ in such troubled regions.”