International Finance Institutions: repurpose unspent Myanmar funds to support COVID-19 relief

13 Oct 2021

International Finance Institutions: repurpose unspent Myanmar funds to support COVID-19 relief through trusted partners

International Finance Institutions (IFIs),

We urge you to fund COVID-19 vaccinations and relief to Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations, by repurposing funds allocated to the democratically-elected government in 2020. We urge you to
send funds through organizations with the capacity to deliver aid to vulnerable Myanmar residents, including ethnic communities and people in detention. Accordingly, we call on you to respond to
this letter by 27 October, by facilitating a meeting with key non-junta stakeholders.

It is critical to not channel relief through the junta, which has shown that it badly needs funds for itself and has no will to protect the population. The junta has worsened the pandemic in Myanmar,
and therefore clearly lacks the competence, priority, or trust required to address it moving forward.

Funds available for assistance

Starting in 2020, IFIs allocated billions of dollars in financing to fund COVID-19 prevention, care, and relief, as well as economic recovery, in Myanmar. On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) illegitimately seized power, detaining opponents and giving General Min Aung Hlaing supreme power. As of February 2021, consolidated COVID-19 response support was roughly USD 1.6 billion, including USD 818.53 million from the World Bank Group (WBG), USD 394 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and USD 356.5 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

On 17 February 2021 (and again on 17 March), we urged you in a letter to halt lending obligations, and suspend disbursements, pending grants, and loans across all sovereign and non-sovereign operations. We noted that funding the regime even to provide healthcare—rather than supporting civil society and EAOs—would legitimize the junta, fund its campaign of terror, and force people conscientiously objecting to engagement with a murderous, illegal regime to interact with it.

We welcomed your institutions’ decisions to freeze loans in light of events since February. However, halting disbursements led to hundreds of millions of allocated dollars remaining unspent. Consistent with IFIs’ original intention to help people by funding their civilian government, we now call on your institutions to pursue the innovative strategy of repurposing funds to effectively address the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Turning off the tap for a bad actor

The junta’s actions make clear it is not concerned about people’s health or COVID-19 suppression—funding will not change this. Since seizing power in February, its overt tactics of repression (e.g. internet blackouts), unintentional gaffes (e.g. decimating COVID-19 testing as cases grew), and a myopic focus on self-preservation have led to skyrocketing COVID-19 infections and deaths.

In addition, the junta brought new conflict to previously peaceful areas, intensified conflict elsewhere, and killed, injured, tortured, or arrested thousands of civil society members, medical staff, journalists, politicians, and others. In the first eight months of this attempted coup, there were 5,042 attacks on civilians or armed clashes that failed to protect them, a 588% increase from the same months in 2020.

On top of this, through its socially and economically destructive activities, the junta has hurt people’s capacity to fend for themselves in Myanmar. Since February, at least 80% of bank branches in Myanmar have closed at least temporarily. The junta capped ATM withdrawal limits and stymied internet banking. The Myanmar kyat lost over half its value, the ADB forecast that Myanmar’s economy would shrink by 18.4% in 2021, and UNDP said that 48% of Myanmar’s population could be living in poverty by 2022.

Despite growing humanitarian crises, the military junta has continued to focus on self-enrichment and the purchase of weapons with which to create further harm. In May, the junta-run Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) sold almost 10,300 tons of timber, with plans to auction off another 14,181 tons, from a stockpile of 200,000 tons previously confiscated by the NLD government. In June, the junta-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE) held a secret meeting with gem industry leaders; sources in the gems industry said that some exporters planned to falsify certificates of origin and sell stones in Thailand, to evade UK and US sanctions on MGE. In July, Russia delivered a consignment of Su-30SME fighter jets to Myanmar.

Your institutions must recognize Myanmar’s high fragility, conflict, and violence. For example, WBG and ADB must apply their Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence 2020-2025 and FCAS-SIDS approach, respectively. Such strategies call for strong safeguards while applying innovation and flexibility in stakeholder partnership and operating structure, to deliver humanitarian and emergency aid to health emergencies driven by failed governance and de facto governments. There are now appropriate options for IFIs to deliver critical COVID-19 response, because there are willing and able partners they can tap.

An opportunity to help those in need

Historical marginalization, a highly centralized bureaucracy, and decades of civil war have impoverished ethnic border areas’ health and general infrastructure, including electricity. Many ethnic administrations have health departments, but these see little funding from Myanmar’s central government and rely greatly on foreign assistance. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 are weak; vaccination is generally non-existent.

Armed conflict preceding the coup has resulted in around 370,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), almost entirely in ethnic border areas. Fighting since February 2021 has displaced over 200,000 additional people. In addition, several thousand anti-coup activists and their families fleeing violent junta crackdowns are now seeking safety and shelter in non-Burman ethnic-controlled zones on the Thai-Myanmar Border.

There is also serious concern that detained populations are suffering through the pandemic and desperately need assistance. On 16 August, Human Rights Watch condemned the lack of measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar’s prisons, where it described sanitary conditions as “abysmal.” It called on prison authorities to carry out widespread testing, release prisoners posing little security risk, and publicize information on COVID-19 prevalence in prisons.

Capable and willing partners (not the junta)

Unlike the junta, civilian and humanitarian aid groups have shown they are serious about combating COVID-19, as well as poor healthcare generally, and could make significant progress with additional funds. The National Unity Government (NUG)—Myanmar’s civilian government—has created a National Health Committee and a National-Level Commission on COVID-19, and established itself as a willing liaison between foreign donors and local communities.

Non-governmental health organizations already have infrastructure for healthcare delivery, and have ably provided healthcare in border areas for decades, including emergency public health responses to displaced persons during the pandemic. They coordinate through the Ethnic Health Committee (EHC), comprised of independent Community-Based Health Organizations (CBHOs) and Ethnic Health Organizations (EHOs) under the structure of ethnic organizations such as the Karen National Union (KNU), Karenni National Peoples’ Party (KNPP), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Shan State-based, and Burmese groups.

International humanitarian aid groups, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have extensive experience delivering aid independently in conflict situations and totalitarian government settings, and should therefore lead relief efforts in urban and detention environments.

Consequently, we call on IFIs to do the following:

 Respond to this letter, by 27 October 2021, by facilitating a meeting with key stakeholders—the EHC, NUG bodies, and international humanitarian aid organizations—to discuss avenues of assistance. All stakeholders are open to discussion of delivery protocols and targets and will welcome your response.

 Repurpose and provide funds to the EHC, NUG National Health Committee, and NUG National-Level Commission on COVID-19 to address COVID-19 needs in Myanmar, particularly in border areas.
 Repurpose and provide funds to the ICRC, and other groups with the proper mandate, to address COVID-19 in detention facilities and ensure independent aid delivery in urban environments.
 Ensure that all aid for Myanmar residents goes across borders rather than through the junta.


The undersigned,

 ေ ရာင်စဥ်အာားမာန်
 ADIVIMA, Guatemala
 Alternative Solutions for Rural Communities (ASORCOM)
 Arakan CSO Network (ACN)
 Arakan Rohingya Union
 Arakan Watch
 Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)
 Association des Démocrates Thaïlandais Sans Frontières
 Athan - Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)
 Australian Karen Organisation (AKO)
 Back Pack Health Worker Team
 Bank Information Center
 Building and Wood Workers International Asia Pacific
 Burma Action Ireland
 Burma Campaign UK
 Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN)
 Burma Medical Association
 Campaign for a New Myanmar
 Coalition of Rohingya Organisations in Malaysia (CROM)
 Community Empowerment and Social Justice Network (CEMSOJ)
 Democracy, Peace and Women’s Organization -DPW
 FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights
 Free Burma Campaign (South Africa)
 Fresh Eyes
 IFI Watch Myanmar
 International Karen Organisation
 Global Witness
 Info Birmanie (France)
 Initiatives for International Dialogue
 Institute for Asian Democracy
 International Accountability Project (IAP)
 International Campaign for the Rohingya
 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
 International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific)
 Justiça Global
 Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN)
 Kachin Women’s Association Thailand
 Karen Women’s Organization (KWO)
 Manushya Foundation
 North South Initiative
 Odhikar
 Pa-O Youth Organization
 People’s Watch - India
 Public Services International - Asia Pacific Regional Office
 Refugee Council of Australia
 Shan MATA
 Shape-Sea
 Southern Youth Development Organization
 Tampadipa Institute
 Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma (TACDB)
 Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA
 Universal Peace Federation Myanmar
 US Campaign for Burma
 Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)
 Women’s League of Burma

358 Burma organizations wishing to remain anonymous for their safety

And individual signatories:
 Su Su Wai
 Dr San San Oo
 Lway Poe Jaing Kee
 Jude Smith
 Kyaw Myint Malia
 Ai Uchida
 Margaret Roc
 Aung Lin Zaw
 Saskia Kunst
 Kyaw Kyaw Tun
 Lway A Sandar Win, Ta’ang Women’s Organisation

For civil society engagement and further questions, please contact:
Elana Berger, Executive Director, Bank Information Center,
Frederick, Campaign Coordinator, IFI Watch Myanmar,
Debbie Stothard, Coordinator, ALTSEAN-Burma,

IFIs committed at least USD 820 million in COVID-19 financing to Myanmar for 2021 (ADB 250m, G20 Debt Service Suspension 100m, EU 60m, IMF 350m, World Bank 60m)
      o Both the World Bank Group and ADB said that they froze disbursements
        after 1 February 2021.

 A COVID-19 crisis reached its peak in July—following the junta’s relaxed restrictions—with overwhelmed hospitals turning away patients amid nationwide oxygen shortages. The regime acknowledged 6,000 deaths and 141,908 infections in July alone—likely a gross underestimate as Yangon cemeteries were reportedly processing 1,500-2000 bodies per day.

The junta has actively undermined COVID-19 response.
      o The junta and affiliated militias violated international humanitarian law,
        by targeting healthcare workers and destroying community-organized
        detection and treatment infrastructure.
      o As of July, Myanmar was one of the most dangerous places on earth
        for medical staff
: the junta had arrested at least 157 healthcare workers,
        wounded 32, killed 12, issued arrest warrants for 400 doctors and 180
        nurses, and occupied at least 51 hospitals. The WHO recorded 260 attacks
        on healthcare over Feb–Jul 2021, 45% of 575 documented globally—more
        than any other country.
      o As deaths soared amid oxygen shortages, the junta ordered that oxygen
        be denied
to private clinics and ordinary citizens. Doctors accused the
        military of funneling supplies to military hospitals. Several incidents were
        reported of soldiers forcibly confiscating oxygen from charities.
      o Meanwhile, the majority of Myanmar’s 1,777 government hospital cannot
        run properly because of staff shortages, electricity cuts, and junta

Junta forces have both crippled and weaponized vaccine distribution.
      o In June, the junta arrested Htar Htar Lin, the former director of Myanmar’s
        COVID-19 vaccination program, and charged her with treason, punishable
          by death or life in prison.
      o In August, they arrested former political prisoner and Hanthawaddy U Win
        Tin Foundation Secretary U Kyaw Aung right after he received his
        COVID-19 vaccination in Yangon. Many people in Myanmar are reportedly
        avoiding getting vaccinated due to mistrust of the junta.
      o In an August poll, 59% of (5,000) respondents said they would not accept
        a vaccine from the junta. 

Junta forces have even posed as medical workers to commit human
rights violations.

      o On 5 Aug, two gunmen wearing PPE shot a married couple at their shop
        in Yangon Region, killing the husband and injuring the wife; locals claimed
        the regime was behind the attack.
      o On 22 Aug, junta police officers opened fire on the house of a man
        believed to be involved in anti-coup protests in Magway Region, killing
        a civilian, after reportedly arriving in an ambulance.

The junta failed to protect prisoners from COVID-19.
      o In August, Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about inadequate
        COVID-19 prevention measures in detention facilities, describing sanitary
        conditions as “abysmal.”
      o Only 600 prison infections have been reported, likely a gross
      o On 23 Jul, prisoners and staff at Insein prison gathered to protest the lack
        of COVID-19 treatment and prevention measures. The next day, the ICRC
        reiterated its readiness to help by resuming its visits and activities in places
        of detention, which were suspended due to the pandemic.

Ethnic health providers have played a key role in responding to the
, and are now organizing vaccine distribution in ethnic areas.
      o The Chin National Front started administering Covishield vaccines on
        15 Aug.
      o The New Mon State Party opened five temporary medical centers and
        18 checkpoints in the areas it controls, and is reportedly conducting a
        vaccination campaign.
      o The Kachin Independence Organization has vaccinated at least 20,000
        people with Sinovac from the Chinese Red Cross. The Shan State
        Progress Party has similarly vaccinated over 3,000 people.

The National Unity Government (NUG) is the legitimate government of Myanmar. It was formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), 76% of whose members are Myanmar’s elected representatives. The NUG has wide recognition both domestically and internationally.

 In July, the NUG formed a National-Level Commission on COVID-19. It includes NUG ministers, ethnic health representatives, and other health experts.

Burma Action Ireland

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