On 2 May 2009, countries around the world marked the one year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 140,000 people and devastated the lives and livelihoods of an estimated 2.4 million survivors. On this sad occasion, the international press was swamped with appraisals of humanitarian efforts to date in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Much of this debate has focused not only on the effectiveness of the response itself, but on the various ways in which achievements (or failures) over the past year prove or disprove the political claim that humanitarian aid can be given to Burma without bolstering what The Economist, for one, has called “the dreadful regime”. Whether explicitly or not, the debate hinges on the principle of “Do No Harm”, which Mary Anderson argues should be central to humanitarian aid.

International aid to Burma has often been heavily criticised, despite evidence to support claims that aid can still be delivered within a restricted “humanitarian space” and without “doing harm”. Especially vocal in their criticisms are exiled Burmese dissidents, and particularly some of the agencies and opposition groups based on the Thailand-Burma border. Since the crushing of the student demonstrations in 1988, the latter have been involved in providing assistance to Burmese refugees in Thailand and, subsequently, in delivering essential cross-border humanitarian aid to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) affected by the chronic emergency in the eastern ethnic states of Burma.

One year after Nargis, the increasingly fiery debate between international aid organisations working within Burma and organisations based on the Thailand-Burma border reveals fundamental ideological divides that need to be taken into account by those interested in the politics of aid in Burma.

In his New Mandala post of 3 May2009, Dylan Grey highlights the vigorous public debate, which was sparked by the publication in March 2009 of After the Storm: Voices from the Delta by Emergency Assistance Team-Burma (EAT-Burma) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Centre for Public Health and Human Rights. EAT-Burma was created in response to Cyclone Nargis, through the collaboration of several Burmese Community-Based Organisations located on the Thai-Burma border. Since its inception, EAT-Burma has worked covertly (i.e. without state authorisation and going through “unofficial” channels) with local organisations and individuals inside Burma to provide relief to those in need. EAT-Burma argues that this extra-legal humanitarian aid effectively reaches “those not receiving aid or not receiving sufficient aid from the military regime or international humanitarian operations”.

The report published by EAT-Burma in March 2009 denounced human rights abuses by the military junta in the wake of the cyclone and called for “the international community to more carefully review the political reality in the delta region in the military-ruled country before further assistance is delivered. Dylan Grey notes in his post that such arguments provoked a strongly-worded reaction from INGOs in Burma.

After the Storm, the INGO response, and subsequent public statements of EAT-Burma are interesting texts for what they reveal in terms not only of the politics of aid in Burma, but also competing definitions of and claims to legitimacy by humanitarians.

Perhaps what is most immediately visible in these reports and statements is the idea that EAT-Burma is an organisation of the people, speaking for the people of Burma. The very title of the report — After the Storm: Voices from the Delta — presents EAT-Burma as the porte-parole of the cyclone victims. The rejoinder to the INGO attack on this report includes statements such as: “having truly independent community members conduct human rights interviews in settings of anonymity and maximum protection from the SPDC, USDA, and other junta-related entities, has meant that people felt free to report what they had witnessed or experienced first-hand. This is why we maintain that these voices from the Delta are exceptionally candid, uncensored and cannot be dismissed.”

Linked to this is the explicit argument that, because they are of the people and for the people, EAT-Burma aid workers can more effectively empower a community-based response to the cyclone and involve local communities in the reconstruction efforts, thereby making the latter more sustainable.

Also emerging from these public statements is the idea that, because they do not have to accommodate their work to the dictates of the regime, organisations providing aid through unofficial channels, are a “purer”, and therefore more legitimate, form of humanitarianism. The image of being above corrupting political influences is further reinforced by appealing to a discourse of human rights, which in the contemporary world is more often than not taken as belonging to the realm of the sacred and unquestionable — as opposed to the profane world of politics.

However, while groups providing aid through channels that are not sanctioned by the SPDC can indeed be seen to be carving out “humanitarian space”, the way in which they carve out this space is — as Ashley South has argued — in no way politically neutral. Through the very act of providing aid outside of channels that have been approved by the state and thereby undermining state sovereignty, organisations such as EAT-Burma are making a fundamentally political statement. Humanitarian legitimacy here is intricately linked to the demonstrated illegitimacy of the regime – and by association, of those who engage with it.

What does this mean? There are several fundamental issues here.

While international humanitarian organisations might not agree with the arguments put forward by organisations such as EAT-Burma, these organisations can and do work effectively with communities in need — thereby carving out significant humanitarian spaces inside Burma — and have considerable influence within the country and beyond. And since legitimacy is such a core issue in humanitarianism, international aid agencies working inside Burma should perhaps stop to consider how their own claims to legitimacy are judged (and often dismissed) by others and how this might in turn be determining the types of reactions to their work.

Groups working through extra-state and extra-legal channels might also benefit from recognising that while international aid organisations working within Burma don’t have the same types of legitimacy and don’t make the same political statements as they do, this does not mean that they necessarily have no legitimacy, that their ultimate goals are no less “good” in humanitarian terms, and that their work cannot be seen as potentially complementary efforts to expand humanitarian space. Some organisations working inside Burma (e.g. ICRC) legitimise their work through the ideology of a-politicism. While a different tactic to taking a political stance against a regime perceived as illegitimate, this legitimisation is nevertheless useful for the particular type of ‘humanitarian aid’ that organisations such as ICRC provide.

Finally, public debate is good. It brings different opinions into contact and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas. Critical appraisals of post-Nargis relief efforts have provoked a much needed dialogue between those “inside” and those “outside” Burma. However, what is needed now is not only greater debate but also efforts towards increased understanding and collaboration — otherwise there is a risk of the current discussion becoming what is called in French a “dialogue de sourds“.