UN official says Myanmar's people are in 'a severe crisis'

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.’s top humanitarian official in Myanmar said Thursday the Asian nation's people are living in “a severe crisis,” with a level of poverty not seen for at least 20 years.

Andrew Kirkwood said in a virtual briefing to U.N. correspondents that the number of people in the country needing aid has tripled to 3 million since the military takeover on Feb. 1 while a total of 20 million are living in poverty, or nearly half the population.

Speaking from Yangon, the country’s largest city, Kirkwood said the crisis is the result of increasing communal strife, the military ouster of the country’s democratically elected government and the coronavirus pandemic, which had “a devastating third wave” of infections this summer.

“So, effectively, what we have here is a crisis, on top of a crisis with yet another crisis on top of that,” he said.

When Myanmar’s army seized power from the government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, it claimed with scant evidence that the general election her party won last November in a landslide was marred by widespread voting fraud. The takeover sparked street protests that security forces tried to crush. The pushback has left more than 1,100 people dead, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and right groups.

The conflict has moved from widespread protests on city streets to clashes with ethnic armed groups and so-called Peoples Defense Forces.

Since Feb. 1, Kirkwood said, the U.N. food and cash assistance program has reached more than 1.4 million people in rural communities all around Myanmar as well as in some urban and semi-urban centers.

“We are saving lives. We are making a difference,” Kirkwood said. “But we’re also quite frustrated that these numbers aren’t higher and that we aren’t able to reach all of the 3 million people who we know need urgent humanitarian assistance.”

Kirkwood, who is the acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, cited “significant operational challenges” including roadblocks and travel in the country, pandmic restrictions, and overall insecurity. He called on all parties “to use their influence to facilitate the safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and also our humanitarian supplies.”

Kirkwood cited serious underfunding of the U.N. appeal as another key factor.

“We have requested a total of $385 million to reach those 3 million people this year,” he said. “Today, we’ve received about a third of that. And that means we have a funding gap of roughly $250 million. And that means in turn that we won’t be able to reach everybody who needs our assistance.”

Kirkwood also called on parties to the conflict to “depoliticize our humanitarian and COVID-19 response efforts.”

“Emotions are running very high here,” he said. “Many people are frustrated, and some people frankly confuse the delivery of humanitarian assistance with taking sides in the conflict.”

Kirkwood said the 1 million people assisted by the U.N. before the military takeover were mainly in border areas where conflicts have gone on for decades and where the U.N. has found ways to work.

“Now, the conflict there is increasing,” but he said the more acute problem is in new areas of displacement where there have been clashes between the military and the People’s Defense Forces

“The 2 million people are in these new areas of conflict,” Kirkwood said, pointing to current hotspots in western Chin state “where we’ve seen tens of thousands of people displaced over the last couple of days -- entire villages have been displaced, people living in forest, with very, very little.” There are also places in the center of the country, “in the so-called Bomar heartland,” he said.

Kirkwood said that without major new funding, it will be impossible for the U.N. to help the 2 million people who need help now, and some of the 20 million who may need it soon.

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