Myanmar migrants in Thailand take part in a protest against the military coup in their home country, in front of the United Nations ESCAP building in Bangkok on March 7, 2021. (Photo: Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

Myanmar and the United Nations: Fighting for a Seat at the Table

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A China-US pact to retain the envoy at the United Nations appointed by the former National League for Democracy government has effectively deferred the decision as to who will represent the country at multilateral organisations like the UN.

The wavering international spotlight on Myanmar flickered brighter this week, when attention turned to who would occupy Myanmar’s seat at the United Nations (UN) for that body’s 76th General Assembly (UNGA) that kicked off on 14 September. 

Two entities are contending for a seat at the table. The State Administration Council (SAC) is the military junta that seized power in Myanmar on 1 February. In the aftermath of the coup, the National Unity Government (NUG) emerged on 16 April as the interim government representing the resistance to the junta. Both entities have been asserting their right to Myanmar’s seat at multilateral forums, mainly the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

In the run-up to the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting on Myanmar on 24 April, calls from civil society and the Myanmar people to support the NUG reached a fever pitch. A similar wave of support occurred ahead of the 76th UNGA. On 10 August, Myanmar netizens launched a viral Facebook campaign titled ‘Accept NUG, Reject Military’. True to form, the junta responded by throwing the book at dissenters. It has charged artists and celebrities supporting the campaign under Section 505(a) of the law.

The onus is now on the international community to decide between the SAC and the NUG. A brief issued on 11 August by the independent Special Advisory Council on Myanmar discussed the merits and drawbacks of four scenarios: a) accepting the NUG’s credentials; b) accepting the SAC’s credentials; c) deferring the decision on the matter but keeping the incumbent Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun in Myanmar’s seat; or d) deferring the decision and keeping Myanmar’s seat empty. The Council comprises three individuals: the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, the former chair of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and one of the former members of the mission.

On 11 September, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights joined over 300 civil society groups in sending an open letter to the UNGA petitioning for Kyaw Moe Tun to be retained in Myanmar’s seat. Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government, openly defied the SAC in a statement to the UN on 26 February. The SAC charged him with treason and dismissed him. Nevertheless, he has continued in his current position at the UN and has continued to speak out against the SAC. 

The collective view is that any move that blocks the SAC’s representation at multilateral forums is a win.

Supporters of the NUG’s bid were concerned that China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council, might block any decision in the NUG’s favour. The two countries also sit on the UN Credentials Committee that would decide on the matter. The concerns intensified after the NUG declared a ‘people’s defensive war’ against the military junta’s on 7 September.

It appears that for all the odds stacked against it, the NUG has some breathing room. On the eve of the 76th UNGA, Foreign Policy broke the news that the United States and China had reached a ‘pact’ to maintain the status quo with Kyaw Moe Tun in Myanmar’s seat and to defer the decision until November. The report noted that Russia, the European Union, and ASEAN had endorsed the pact. 

This is not a victory for the NUG by any means. Still, Myanmar’s Facebook-sphere is jubilant: going by the Foreign Policy report, the SAC has been dealt a blow in its assertions of being Myanmar’s legitimate representative. Knowledge that the US-China pact required Kyaw Moe Tun to refrain from making anti-junta statements will not dampen attitudes in Myanmar. The collective view is that any move that blocks the SAC’s representation at multilateral forums is a win.

Diplomatic compromises, however, give rise to questions on how the international community will address the uncertainties of resolving Myanmar’s political crisis. Though the compromise will give everyone some breathing space till November, the continuing tragedy of deaths, detentions and arrests in Myanmar has resulted in public scepticism of multilateral diplomacy. 

Analysts are remarking that the compromise is akin to kicking the can down the road, revealing that both China and the US wish to avoid the Myanmar credential tussle taking centre stage at the UNGA. The gains here are diplomatic: both US and China are in agreement about the undesirability of the SAC in power, and the opportunity has presented itself for a rare display of shared concern between the two geopolitical rivals. 

The deferral till November, however, does not resolve the quandary of how ASEAN will treat the SAC’s participation in key meetings. The 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits are scheduled for 25-28 October in Brunei, which currently holds the rotational ASEAN chairmanship for 2021. 

Negative sentiment among ordinary Myanmar people towards ASEAN is growing. In their view, ASEAN has been slow in implementing the grouping’s Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar, including the appointment of the ASEAN Special Envoy. In addition, the SAC’s continued attendance at ASEAN meetings has fanned more negative sentiments in Myanmar. The deferral means that there is still a possibility that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would occupy the Myanmar seat at the ASEAN Summits in October. 

In addition, the US-China pact on Myanmar’s UN credentials has not been able to stop the violent action-reaction cycle in the country, where armed resistance is met by a violent response on the part of the military. The potential spill-over of instability across Myanmar’s borders because of these clashes continues to alarm Myanmar’s neighbours, with implications for ASEAN’s proposed humanitarian and diplomatic interventions. Indeed, China has been making efforts to engage with the NLD and other resistance entities in Myanmar. 

That the SAC is now feeling increasingly cornered is evident. Yet, the military machinery continues to motor on with its disproportionate might against poorly armed resistance fighters as well as civilian populations. 

The SAC may experience more cornering moves in the near future. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives and the Senate are coordinating to introduce a bill that levies new and heavier sanctions against the junta and also providing humanitarian aid, cash support for the pro-democracy movement, and continued engagement with the NUG. 

In the end, it is worth noting that the diplomatic pact, whether at the UNGA or ASEAN, comes at a price: recognising and validating the voice and representation of the people of Myanmar at the table.

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