Burma: A forgotten crisis?

14 November 2023

I spoke to a friend this morning. He’s been hiding in an undisclosed location for more than 1,000 days. The military seized control of his homeland, Burma, in February 2021. They threatened to attack his village and interrogated some of the villagers. My friend is one of their targets.

He told me that, whilst in hiding, he received “the best gift in years”: twenty portions of dried rat meat! It is a bit like eating rabbit, apparently. Gamey and delicious. “Despite so much suffering”, he said, “there is light in the darkness. I was so happy to receive these rats.”

The thought of rodents for supper makes me smile. It also jolts me out of my comfort zone; to think of my friend, deprived of such modest pleasures for so long. I cannot fathom what it must be like to flee my home and to hide away for fear of being captured and killed.

The world’s media takes little interest. But the killings haven’t stopped.


Burma’s population is a similar size to England. About 54 million – half of whom are estimated to be living in poverty. Deprived of food, medicine and shelter, more than 18 million people require humanitarian assistance. A third of those in need are children.

Corrupt military figures, meanwhile, continue to wield much control. They enforce an ultra-nationalist agenda that ‘to be Burmese is to be Burman and Buddhist’. This impacts ethnic minorities (non-Burmans) and religious minorities (non-Buddhists) in particular, who have suffered decades of repressive military rule.

The world’s media takes little interest. But the killings haven’t stopped. I and my colleagues receive frequent eye-witness accounts of severe human rights abuses and brazen attacks on civilians, including mass executions, arbitrary arrests, burning of villages, aerial bombings, cases of torture and sexual violence.

People across the country face a rapidly-growing crisis.


My friend is one of nearly two million people to flee their home since February 2021. The mass displacement of civilians and their loss of farmland has contributed to a drastic reduction in food production. Shopping prices are trending upwards. Currency value is falling. The banking sector is nearly paralysed.

People across the country face a rapidly-growing crisis. The question therefore arises: what can be done to stop it? Here (below) are four of the options being discussed, followed by five recommendations.

Without cross-border humanitarian assistance, vulnerable communities are left to fend for themselves.


Option 1: Diplomacy. A sensible course of action – if it can be guaranteed that power-sharing would bring an end to human suffering. But Burmese opposition leaders and civil society groups are clear: this is not the time for mediating ceasefires or a negotiated settlement: “No dialogue can take place until the military junta stops its violence”, they say.

Quite right. Persecuted minorities shouldn’t be forced to engage with, nor yield to the demands of, their oppressor. Mediation should always be voluntary. Foreign powers must be very careful to avoid actions that could be construed as legitimising the junta’s right to rule, such as allowing army generals to participate in international forums, stage sham elections, or dominate peace talks. Lest we forget: the military is guilty of genocide.

Option 2: Targeted communities resort to both non-violent and violent means of resistance. E.g. In northern Shan state, the Three Brotherhood Alliance (a coalition of ethnic armed organisations) recently launched a series of counter-offensives against local military units. They recovered control of 100 strategic outposts, which prompted the junta’s first public acknowledgement of the challenge it is facing. A glimmer of hope, perhaps, to the wider pro-democracy movement.

Yet the armed resistance is riddled with division. And even their keenest supporter would admit that retaliatory attacks carry a high risk of perpetuating the cycle of conflict. The Three Brotherhood offensive provoked a horrific response from local military commanders, who doubled down on their efforts to suppress the opposition in Shan state. More than 30,000 civilians were displaced. Innocent families were, once again, caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Option 3: Equitable, safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance. This is among the top priorities of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART). We believe strongly in the Right to Life, irrespective of a person’s belief or background. We are proud to stand alongside isolated minorities who are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and healthcare. There should be no obstruction to aid.

Herein lies another problem. When applying for licences to conduct our operations, organisations like HART are faced with many layers of bureaucracy and a labyrinth of legal injunctions. The registration process has become so complicated, and the penalties for inadvertently violating the rules so severe, that many aid agencies are reluctant even to try. I’ve heard reports from inside the country that humanitarian workers face frequent intimidation. And in some cases detention and arrest.

Armed troops disrupt the flow of essential supplies to non-military-controlled areas. As a result, civilians are increasingly dependent on indigenous networks for emergency relief. This is especially true in the border regions; remote jungles and forests where access to basic services is very limited.

Indigenous networks are perfectly placed to locate entry points along the border for the informal delivery of aid. It is risky business. The law forbids the provision of relief to areas not controlled by the military. But without cross-border humanitarian assistance, vulnerable communities are left to fend for themselves.

Option 4: Sanctions. Western nations, including the UK, use strong rhetoric to condemn the military. They speak plainly about human rights violations and, since day 10 of the military coup, have imposed restrictive measures against military officials and army-linked firms. Most commentators agree: strong words and targeted sanctions are steps in the right direction. The latter, in particular, is an effective means of limiting access to fuel and finance, which curtails the military’s ability to perpetrate atrocities.

Commentators also agree, however, that countries like the UK should be doing much more. As one UN official said recently, “children cannot eat political rhetoric”. After 1,000+ days of junta brutality, the people of Burma deserve more than “empty promises” or “UN resolutions that go nowhere”. Individuals in high office need to show more oomph, i.e. principled, consistent and decisive application of international law.

Take bold steps to address impunity... Do not let Burma slip from your agenda.



  • Take bold steps to address impunity. Bring the military regime before the International Criminal Court.
  • Impose further targeted sanctions, not only against individuals in the military, but against lucrative military-owned enterprises.
  • Identify indigenous networks – either ad hoc groups or established ethnic community-based organisations – and partner with them to increase cross-border humanitarian assistance. It will save thousands of lives.
  • When issuing press statements or hosting meetings, avoid words or actions that could be construed as legitimising the military’s right to rule.
  • Do not let Burma slip from your agenda. Play your part in drawing international attention to the plight and resilience of the Rohingya, Shan, Karen, Chin and other minority groups.


Sam Mason is CEO of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART). Much of his professional life has focused on human rights advocacy. He formerly worked in the UK Parliament, whilst supporting development projects overseas.

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