The International Committee of the Red Cross’ Jürg Montani highlights the need for medium-term thinking to complement immediate humanitarian action in the context of Myanmar’s ongoing conflicts.

In 2016 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) marked its 30th anniversary in Myanmar. This ongoing engagement reflects both humanitarian needs created by long-running violence and insecurity in this Southeast Asian nation, and the reality that the ICRC faces in many long wars where emergency relief and development assistance must be provided concurrently, not sequentially.

Humanitarians can – and do – respond to long-term humanitarian needs alongside more urgent needs, in the same neutral and impartial way that relief assistance is provided. But the tendency remains to view humanitarian action as ‘emergency’ responses, and long-term activities as ‘development work’. This is despite the fact that long-term action can certainly be considered humanitarian when it addresses structures that threaten human survival.

As with many other humanitarian organisations, the ICRC has recognised that a binary paradigm of relief and development doesn’t reflect the reality that people are affected by humanitarian crises caused by protracted conflicts. This realization is evident in our work in Myanmar.

Conflict has ebbed and flowed in Myanmar since its independence in 1948. Currently, multiple internal conflicts between government forces and non-state armed groups continue, with recent serious incidents in Kachin, Rakhine, and north Shan states. In the decades between, protracted conflicts have resulted in cumulative degradation of basic services and livelihoods across Myanmar in addition to numerous humanitarian crises.

In our experience, protracted conflict contexts are characterised by episodic intensity of fighting, affronts to human dignity through diminished living conditions, fragility of social, economic and environmental systems that sustain communities, and prolonged internal displacement. As a humanitarian organisation, ICRC cannot ignore the suffering caused indirectly by protracted conflict.

ICRC’s operation in Myanmar is our 2nd-largest in Asia, which reflects the nature of humanitarian needs and crises as a result of protracted conflict and violence. In addition to providing food, water, mosquito nets, shelter, cooking implements to people displaced by fighting, we are addressing some of the social, economic and environmental consequences of conflict and supporting people’s sources of resilience.

Landmines and unexploded ordnance are a serious issue in Myanmar and continue to claim victims. The ICRC has a long-term commitment to support people with physical disabilities and help them make a difference in their lives, and has been providing prosthetic services at the Myanmar Red Cross Hpa-an Orthpaedic Rehabilitation Centre for over a decade. At present, the network of ICRC-supported physical rehabilitation centres is expanding to Kachin and east Shan states, enhanced by Myanmar Red Cross mobile prosthetic repair clinics. These services provide prostheses and orthoses to people who have lost limbs, often from the landmines and explosive remnants of war that litter the country, and enable them to regain mobility, independence and dignity and overcome some of the obstacles that face people with disabilities.

In addition to our expertise in prostheses and rehabilitation, we have embarked on a primary-health-care project in northern Shan and Rakhine townships where access to, and the quality of, basic health services is disrupted due to armed conflict and restrictions on movement. This project seeks to increase the capacity of medical personnel and address the low rate of medical attention, particularly for maternal and infant health and vaccination programs.

Prisoners across Myanmar also benefit from regular ICRC visits and provision of humanitarian assistance in places of detention within the country. Throughout several years of cooperation with authorities, we have observed significant improvements in the living conditions and treatment of detainees. We are engaged in a constructive dialogue and negotiations with prison authorities to support the reform of the current prison system.

At internally displaced people’s camps, life becomes semi-permanent for people who have had to flee their homes due to violence and haven’t been able to return for years. In many cases, the fighting has separated families who desperately need to restore contact with their loved ones. Jointly with the Myanmar Red Cross, we assist displaced people locate their relatives and restore contact. We support particularly vulnerable displaced families with conditional cash grants that enable them to establish businesses or other safe means of income. This program contributes to the local economy and doesn’t distort local markets, while protecting people from poverty, malnutrition and exploitation.

Conflicts take their toll on the environment and natural resources too. Collecting firewood not only exposes people to danger and delays children from attending school – in large scale it affects biodiversity, climate and soil quality. Since 2014, the ICRC has been distributing environmentally-friendly fuel sticks made from rice husks, a by-product of rice processing which would otherwise be discarded, to reduce deforestation.

Humanitarian assistance ensures that immediate needs are met, but also contributes to creating an environment more conducive to the success of peace processes. Our medium-to-long-term contributions to stability complement our emergency relief work, an approach increasingly essential to humanitarian action globally. While our activities have evolved over the decades, our commitment to the people of Myanmar, particularly those affected by conflict and violence, remains as strong as ever.

Jürg Montani, Head of the ICRC Delegation in Myanmar, is in Canberra to discuss the ICRC’s humanitarian operations. On 4 April 2017, he gave a seminar at the ANU Myanmar Research Centre and spoke at the Australian Institute of International Affairs.