08/25/2023 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) — Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat and current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs for the United Nations, recently visited war-torn Myanmar (commonly known as Burma) to review relief efforts in the southeast Asian nation.
Griffiths also holds the position of Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN—one he has held since July 2021. At that time, the Burmese military had just wrested control of the country from the democratically elected civilian government.
Griffith’s visit drew criticism from rights groups and civil society actors, who pointed out the irony of the UN’s head of relief operations posing for handshakes and photo opportunities with General Min Aung Hlaing, who heads the military government’s attacks on civilians. Min Aung Hlaing has been accused of blocking the delivery of critical aid and of severe attacks against civilians.
In July, Volker Türk, the UN’s human rights chief, expressed his concern about the military’s blocking of aid and attacks on humanitarian workers, 40 of whom have been killed since the coup. “This obstruction of life-saving aid is deliberate and targeted, a calculated denial of fundamental rights and freedoms for large swathes of the population,” Türk told the Human Rights Council.
“15.2 million people are in need of urgent food and nutrition support,” Türk said. “The need for unhindered humanitarian access throughout Myanmar has never been more urgent.”
Earlier this month, a panel of UN experts found that war crimes committed by the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known, have become “increasingly frequent and brazen” in the last year. “Our evidence points to a dramatic increase in war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country, with widespread and systematic attacks against civilians,” said Nicholas Koumjian, head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), according to a Reuters report. “We are building case files that can be used by courts to hold individual perpetrators responsible.”
Though worsening, the violence in Burma is far from new. Ongoing since the country gained independence in 1948, the conflict in Burma is the world’s longest ongoing war and has caused an estimated hundreds of thousands of fatalities since its inception. Most of the victims are among the civilian population, which the Tatmadaw is known to attack indiscriminately with airstrikes and brutal ground operations.
Türk and civil society groups recommend greater focus on direct engagement with civil society groups providing relief services on the ground to circumvent Tatmadaw interference in the aid. Military presence in the country, however, renders this type of aid extremely dangerous.
Still, the Tatmadaw seems to be losing ground in its fight to control the country. Recent reports suggest that anti-junta militias have gained significant ground in recent months, reducing the area under solid Tatmadaw control to as little as 17%, according to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.
Burma is a patchwork mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. Though a strong majority of the population is ethnic Burman, and an even greater percentage is Buddhist, the communities that make up the remainder are well-established, well-organized, and for the most part predate the formation of the modern state by centuries.
In many cases, Burma’s ethnic minorities have taken on a distinct religious identity as well. About 20-30% of ethnic Karen are Christians, while other groups—such as the Chin—are over 90% Christian. This overlap of ethnic and religious identity has created a volatile situation for believers. In Chin State, for example, the majority of the population is Christian, creating a target-rich area for the military.
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