The release of a report by the Karen Human Rights Group this week suggesting that UN agencies working in Burma in oppressed rural communities are helping to keep the military regime in power was challenged by the UN yesterday.

The United Nation’s Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar said in a press statement the conclusions concerning the UN’s work are incorrect and do not reflect reality.

“It is regrettable that, prior to publication, the authors of the report were not able to review or discuss with UN agencies, or even with the UN Humanitarian Coordinator on some of the assertions in the report concerning UN agencies,” the statement said. “The UN response to alleviation of the suffering in Myanmar [Burma ] is defined by a strict adherence to basic humanitarian principles.”

However, the KHRG claims that, “Given the restrictive environment in which international aid agencies operate, it is questionable how effectively these principles, which requires input from local peoples regarding their needs and concerns, can actually be adhered to.”

The KHRG report, titled “Development by Decree: The Politics of Poverty and Control in Karen State,” claims that development programs initiated by the military government with support by NGOs, including UN agencies, “become tools of oppression and generators of poverty.”

The KHRG says such humanitarian aims also augment development implemented under the Burmese regime and is “synonymous with control.”

The KHRG said it was not making a blanket statement against all aid, but that aid should be implemented in a way that “minimizes its harm and maximizes its benefit.”

“We believe that debate has to move beyond ‘to aid or not aid’,” said Kevin Heppner, the founder of the KHRG. “Debate should be about how these agencies are operating.”

The report claims, for example, that funds for a compulsory castor and jatropha agriculture scheme are being diverted from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the project has been the source of widespread forced labor and extortion. The project aims to produce biofuel for military use, the report said.

In addition, the report says the United Nations Economic and Social Council for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) support of the SPDC in the development of the “Asian Highway”-a transnational network of roads-in Karen State has “involved land confiscation and the forced labor of local villagers, all without compensation.”

Bangkok-based ESCAP officials appeared to be unaware of such human rights violations.

“We have not received any reports or even claims that forced labor is being used anywhere in the development of the Asian Highway,” Barry Cable, the director of ESCAP’s transport and tourism division, told Inter Press Service.

Heppner, however, told The Irrawaddy that some UN agencies failed to respond to the KRHG’s query on how their funds were utilized and if they were aware of any abuses by the country’s junta.

The KHRG also has concerns that UN agencies and international NGOs have become increasingly eager to engage with the regime despite widespread rights abuse by the Burmese army.

Stephen Hull, the author of the report, said at a press conference in Bangkok that “some UN agencies like UNDP are talking about engagement with the regime…addressing poverty without talking about politics.”

Last December, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, argued that groups that were critical of international aid to Burma “considered efforts to help the country’s poor futile or even detrimental to the greater objective of regime change.”

The authors of the ICG briefing, titled “Myanmar: New Threats to Humanitarian Aid” cited the European Commission as stating: “The international community needs to be able to continue humanitarian operations without conditions.”

But the ICG, the European Commission and the British government have consistently opposed cross-border humanitarian aid from Thailand to displaced villagers in Karen State, the KHRG said.

“Only very recently has the British government via the Department for International Development (DFID) released a small amount of funds for cross-border assistance in response to prolonged criticism of their traditional policy of refusing such aid.”

On the other hand, the UN has worked to build bridges with the regime in a bid to help the country’s most vulnerable people. In early April, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Margareta Wahlstrom, met with several military officials in Burma’s new capital Naypyidaw.