Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on "Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day" in Taunggyi, Shan state on May 2, 2021. (Photo: STR / AFP)

Myanmar: Recognition is the Name of the Game

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Myanmar’s State Administration Council and the National Unity Government are battling to win international recognition. Which party triumphs in the end depends on both external factors and internal dynamics.

The United Nations (UN) Credentials Committee has again deferred its decision on Myanmar’s representation at the UN. The move denies the assertion by the State Administration Council (SAC) junta, which seized power on 1 February 2021, that it represents Myanmar at the global body. This second deferral, which follows the first in September, suggests future deferrals at the UN as long as the SAC remains in power.

The decision provides a fillip for the National Unity Government (NUG), which emerged on 16 April and was formed by lawmakers elected in November 2020. The NUG’s emergence catalysed a ‘battle’ for diplomatic recognition, which has focused on both the UN and ASEAN.  Both the SAC and NUG assert that they are Myanmar’s rightful representative at these fora. While the SAC holds ‘effective control’ of the country through its repressive state apparatus, it can be argued that the junta’s constitutional legitimacy is in doubt. The manner in which the Myanmar military seized power, the disproportionate use of force against coup resisters, and its past history of repression and intimidation, also undermine the SAC’s legitimacy quest.

The NUG, on the other hand, has popular support at home, among the diaspora, and the sympathetic ear of interlocutors from several countries. International interactions with the NUG have mostly stopped short of outright recognition, however. Exceptions are the resolutions passed by the EU Parliament and the French Senate in October, and the Czech Republic’s recognition of the NUG’s Liaison Officer in May.

The UN Credentials Committee decision strengthens the position recently taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to bar the SAC from its Summits (though the grouping kept Myanmar’s status as a member state open). The UN question aside, Myanmar’s legitimacy battle has mainly been played out in ASEAN.

In April, ASEAN invited SAC junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to a leaders’ meeting, to negotiate a response to the Myanmar crisis. The Five-Point Consensus that emerged from that meeting required the general’s commitment. ASEAN’s decision — and its silence regarding the NUG’s request to attend the meeting — was widely criticised. The fact that ASEAN’s regular meetings in all sectors of cooperation and with Dialogue Partners continued to accept SAC representatives in Myanmar’s seat elicited concern that ASEAN was in effect recognising the SAC (though some ASEAN members had communicated with the NUG individually). In the end, the SAC’s subsequent flouting of the Five-Point Consensus — in particular the requirement to cease violence — adversely affected ASEAN’s credibility and its central role in responding to the Myanmar crisis.  

Together, the UN and ASEAN decisions are now sending a strong message to the SAC. An emergency ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 15 October agreed that the ASEAN Summits and related meetings with Dialogue Partners on 26-28 October would invite a ‘non-political representative’ from Myanmar. The historic move effectively barred the SAC chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, or his ministerial representative from the Summits. That 15 October meeting also mentioned the NUG for the first time in an official ASEAN document.

A seat at the table implies representational recognition. Having the power to accord or deny that seat constitutes important leverage in how the international community chooses to interact with the SAC or NUG.

Barring the SAC is not ASEAN’s preserve alone. In June, the World Health Organisation kept Myanmar’s seat empty at the 74th World Health Assembly. In early October, the UN Secretary-General asked to postpone the ASEAN-UN ministerial meeting, to avoid giving any tacit recognition to the SAC. After the first UN deferral in September and ASEAN’s Summit disinvite, the COP26 climate meetings at Glasgow also disinvited the SAC. China bowed to ASEAN pressure for the special ASEAN-China Summit on 22 November; there was no Myanmar representative present. The same ASEAN position held for the ASEM Summit hosted by Cambodia on 24 November. Indonesia has not invited Myanmar to the upcoming 14th Bali Democracy Forum. But SAC representatives attended the 89th Interpol Meeting in Turkey in November.

These developments are both symbolic and substantive. A seat at the table implies representational recognition. Having the power to accord or deny that seat constitutes important leverage in how the international community chooses to interact with the SAC or NUG.

In the interim, the SAC and NUG have pulled out all the stops to garner recognition. The SAC retaliated to the ASEAN disinvitations by not sending any representative to the ASEAN and related Summits, and challenging ASEAN on its Charter provisions. Their message seems to be ‘SAC or nothing’.

The NUG has stepped up interactions with a range of interlocutors, and appointed representatives in third countries (Australia, France, South Korea) as well as an Ambassador to ASEAN. The NUG Ministry of Foreign Affairs website lists meetings with parliamentarians from Canada, Australia, the European Union, Spain, Japan, and with senior government representatives from the US, Germany, and Sweden. There are also statements related to ASEAN, and acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.

The battle for diplomatic space is also affected by the action-reaction cycle of violence triggered by the military’s crackdown on civilian protesters. Ten months into the coup, the military’s violent crackdowns show no sign of abating. They have provoked anger and a resolve across communities in Myanmar to respond in like manner, creating a ‘deadly stalemate’, and exacerbating humanitarian emergencies. The SAC’s mismanagement of the economy signals further hardship for the people. Recent SAC agricultural policies raise further concerns on land confiscation and environmental degradation.

As the international community continues to weigh the promises by the NUG or SAC in their respective quests for recognition, the NUG has focused on external engagements, while the junta has resorted to bilateral diplomacy directed at specific needs or interests. Whose quest ultimately succeeds will depend as much on which the outside world decides to enable as well as the domestic dynamics in Myanmar. With both sides asserting their cause will win out in the end, at the moment, there is all to fight for.

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