Q&A: Outgoing ICRC Myanmar head on humanitarian response in protracted conflict

Jürg Montani, the outgoing head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Myanmar. Screengrab from YouTube

Jürg Montani, the outgoing head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Myanmar, has been leading humanitarian response and action in a time of political and social transition with many bumps along the way — including by-elections this past weekend, which have seen the government of Aung San Suu Kyi lose popularity for failing to meet public expectations.

Myanmar has struggled with political upheavals and human rights abuses since 1962, when the nation’s nascent democracy fell victim to a military coup. In the intervening decades, the generals in charge ran an oppressive and corrupt dictatorship that left Myanmar one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Numerous ethnic conflicts — some predating the junta — have remained protracted and bloody, leaving thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

In 2011, leadership was handed back to a civilian government, and 2015 saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party win the nation’s first democratic election in decades. But the situation is still volatile.

Montani visited Canberra this week for discussions on Myanmar with the Australian government and presented a seminar at the Australian National University. Devex took the opportunity to discuss Montani’s experiences, and the lessons learned from working in areas under protracted conflicts. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your mission in Myanmar began in 2013, and since that time there has been a great deal of change, including political change. What have been the biggest challenges in leading a humanitarian response during that time?

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Working in Myanmar has been absolutely fascinating.

I was there first under Thein Sein’s administration, who had a very clear commitment to the work of the ICRC. We were able to build up our operation in Myanmar considerably to reach areas of conflict that the ICRC should have been reaching.

We did have a long-standing operation prior to this time, but we have been able to build it up and we are now the second largest ICRC operation in Asia — that in itself was a challenge.

Yet transition to the new administration under Aung San Suu Kyi was more challenging — expectations on the administration were enormous. We need to be a bit realistic, as Aung San Suu Kyi inherited an administration and public service from the previous government, and didn’t have an entourage of very experienced politicians or policymakers. We knew it would be difficult and we were ready for a rocky transition.

One of the bigger challenges we have, purely from the humanitarian point of view, is that her government is prioritizing development. Probably rightly so. However, we are trying to put across the message that you cannot have a peace process drawn out over years without addressing the immediate needs of the population in the most affected areas. And this needs humanitarian action.

As part of the humanitarian response in Myanmar, what does the ICRC require from the new government to get the job done?

We need a certain stability in overall policy and good working-level relationships — the relationship that we have with most ministries is incredibly important.

But we need the administration to show an understanding of — and commitment to — the importance of humanitarian action. Humanitarian action supports development goals and the peace objectives of the government. Under Thein Sein’s administration we did have this clear policy decision. With the new administration, there is hesitation.

If we get the political support for what we do, achieving our goals and objectives will be easier.

What are the lessons Myanmar can provide us with, in terms of providing a humanitarian response in areas of protracted conflict?

We’ve had a slightly rocky time in Myanmar. At one point we went head-to-head with the government when we felt the dialogue was not strong enough. The ICRC rarely goes public but it did so in 2007. So internally there were lessons learned about Myanmar.

Myanmar can also teach us about planning. At the beginning of our engagement in 1986, we started with a physical rehabilitation program. That program has remained relevant and essential throughout the 30 years we have been operating and has even been built up further over the past few years. That is a good indicator of what long-term planning can do.

And how we can operate in a way that allows people to benefit longer term is a situation we are learning from in Myanmar. That work is going further today to contribute to understanding the importance of humanitarian action to development effort and getting away from that idea of humanitarian and development as separate entities. They really can’t be. This is an area that we have particularly learned about, and are putting a lot of effort in.

We need to have more of a dialog with the big development players earlier on, regarding what the ICRC is doing and how we are doing it, to ensure the way we are operating makes it as easy as possible for the development actors. It’s a dialogue we are learning.

When you are discussing Myanmar with organizations such as the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defense, what do you want to communicate to them about the situation and humanitarian priorities?

We definitely want to highlight the importance humanitarian organizations play, and the fact that these situations will not go away quickly — therefore there is the need for support from governments such as Australia.

Australia seems to understand the ICRC and what it does very well, but we need to ensure that support continues. We’re currently discussing multi-year funding to provide stability to programming and providing us with more weight in our dialog with government.

Indirectly, we are hoping some of the discussions with the Australian government come through in their own dialogue with authorities, so they too can be a vector to carry the message of the importance of humanitarian support in Myanmar.

You are soon to finish your role as head of delegation in Myanmar. What will occur during the transition period and what is your next challenge?

I am finishing at the end of June, which is getting very close, after four years — the maximum of any head of delegation. Unfortunately, this time there will not be any direct handover, but there will be a week when the new head of mission comes to Myanmar so I can introduce them to key people. And I have two very good deputies who will hold the fort.

I am back off to the Middle East next, to Jordan. This is one of the most interesting places to work, as it is a hub of the humanitarian world without being directly in the middle of the conflict. We also have delegations in Iraq and Lebanon, where threats are part of everyday operations, but Jordan has the advantage of being involved in all of it, but with the advantage looking at it a bit more broadly.

Can you explain the reasoning behind a four year maximum term as head of delegation?

The basic reasoning is twofold — the longer you are in a country, the more difficult it can be to remain neutral and impartial. Field staff, who are out in the field every day, have assignments limited to between one year and 18 months. Head of delegations are a bit more remote, as the role is more political and more distant — it’s about relationship building.

The other reason is that you have to support people. There are some positions that you just can’t leave people in — there are some difficult positions, emotionally and in terms of stress — so we need rotation among the heads of delegation to allow people to come out of certain contexts.

There may be some circumstances where it is decided this is not the right time for change, but it has to be very well argued. The aim is minimum of two, expected three, maximum of four. I personally believe that at times going beyond four can be useful. After four years in Myanmar I feel at ease. I have a certain level of understanding and relationships with enough people that I can make it work. But I do understand the institutional need for rotations.

You have worked in a number of countries providing humanitarian support — are there lessons you can take from one area of conflict to another?

You learn that they are all very different. I have lost count of how many I have worked in over the past 20 years — perhaps a dozen or more — and they are very difficult to compare. You don’t compare Somalia to Sudan or to Myanmar.

What is different is how we navigate the different political situations, the support we receive, the capacity to respond and the level of physical risk as part of a response.

But there are some basic things that remain the same, and that is the approach and principles of a response that helps with problem solving or planning.

The other constant is the way people are affected by conflict. Whether you are in Sudan or Myanmar, when livelihoods are destroyed, or someone loses a father, son or daughter, personal experiences are very much the same, and the ways of responding to that are the same.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.