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Diplomatic snubs isolate Myanmar's military regime

Western Governments Downgrade Ties With Naypyidaw

A number of countries have downgraded their diplomatic representation in Myanmar, led by its military chief, Min Aung Hlaing. (Source photo by MYANMAR MILITARY INFORMATION TEAM/AFP/Jiji) 

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's military regime has rejected Britain's ambassador to the country after a four-month standoff over London's decision to downgrade his title to charge d'affaires ad interim. The regime, known as the State Administration Council, formally notified Britain in late April that it would not accept its designated envoy, Pete Vowles, as charge, but would consider alternative candidates.

The dispute highlights Naypyitaw's growing diplomatic isolation as countries move to downgrade their representation to Myanmar, either replacing ambassadors with charges or in most cases, leaving the position unfilled.

Amid spiraling violence and displacement in the country, most Western countries, as well as international organizations, have condemned the regime's continued attacks on civilians since the Feb. 1, 2021 takeover. Nearly 14,000 people have been imprisoned, thousands killed and more than 500,000 people displaced since the putsch.

Vowles moved to Myanmar last August after his appointment was announced by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office as "Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar," but did not present his credentials to the SAC despite repeated requests from the regime. He was locked out of the country from late February, when he left his Yangon residence for regional consultations and was refused permission to reenter. His title on social media was amended earlier this year to "Head of British Embassy in Myanmar."

Vowles is still negotiating to return to Myanmar to finalize affairs. The position of head of mission to Myanmar is now being advertised on the internal website of the U.K.'s FCDO.

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Complicating matters, the case follows a protracted diplomatic deadlock between Myanmar and the U.K. over the fate of Myanmar's ambassador to Britain. Kyaw Zwar Minn, who was dismissed for criticizing the military regime and urging the release of detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, was locked out of the Myanmar Embassy in London by his staff in April 2021. He has refused to leave the official residence in northwest London despite the SAC's repeated demands. The U.K. has so far declined requests to forcibly eject him, although the government recently urged him in a leaked, private letter to find alternative accommodation.

The case of the British envoy highlights moves by other governments to downgrade diplomatic ties with Myanmar in order to avoid signing agreements that would amount to official recognition of the regime that ousted the elected National League for Democracy government.

Among countries that maintain embassies in Myanmar, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy and South Korea have downgraded, or are in the process of downgrading, their diplomatic representation to charge d'affaires or "head of mission" level. In a further blow to the regime, European Union countries have informally agreed not to send ambassadors to their Myanmar missions, according to Brussels-based diplomats. The embassies of the U.S. and Japan, meanwhile, have kept their ambassadors in the country according to their terms of assignment.

Several other countries with nonresident ambassadors to Myanmar who finished their terms after the military takeover have not applied to accredit new envoys. They include Austria, Ireland and Spain, which previously accredited their Bangkok-based ambassadors to Naypyitaw. At least one country, Brunei, has withdrawn its ambassador, who arrived in Myanmar earlier this year, and handed responsibility to the embassy's deputy head of mission rather than applying to downgrade the ambassador's status.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the "Burma's Path To Genocide" exhibit in March. Western countries have condemned the military regime's continued attacks on civilians.   © Reuters

Within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, four countries are currently without ambassadors to Myanmar: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

While Thailand maintains cordial relations with the SAC, the replacement of its ambassador, who recently completed her term, "may take some time," said a Thai official. Thailand has recently accepted a new Myanmar ambassador, a former military attache in the Bangkok mission, after the post was left open for many months. However, he has yet to present his credentials to Thailand's king, a mandatory ceremony that could prove "awkward" for Thailand if it wants to downplay royal engagement with the regime, said a diplomat.

Of the four ASEAN countries, Brunei, which signaled concern about the military regime while it held the rotating ASEAN chairmanship last year, is likely to downgrade its representation, according to regional diplomats.

Malaysia's ambassador, meanwhile, was recalled to Kuala Lumpur in late April. Known for his close ties to Myanmar's military, "he was speaking a different language than his minister," noted one diplomat. Malaysia's government in recent weeks has publicly urged ASEAN to open informal channels with the National Unity Government, a parallel government set up by ousted NLD officials and lawmakers, and Malaysian Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, recently revealed that he held an online meeting with his NUG counterpart in February. The disclosure marked the first time an ASEAN member state has acknowledged direct, high-level contact with the NUG.

In terms of Western diplomatic engagement with the military regime, a question hangs over Australian and New Zealand representation. Both ambassadors left their posts when their terms ended. New Zealand has privately indicated it would not replace the ambassador but Australia is reportedly considering sending an envoy. The outgoing Australian ambassador recently became the first Western ambassador to personally meet the regime's chief, Min Aung Hlaing, when she paid farewell visits to him and at least two other SAC ministers in April.

Only Saudi Arabia and India have so far sent new envoys to present credentials to Min Aung Hlaing as SAC chief.

The reaction of these countries stands in stark contrast to Russia and China. Beijing invited SAC Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to China last month and has thrown its weight behind the regime.

While they seek to avoid lending credibility to Myanmar's current rulers, Yangon-based diplomats highlight the risks of being expelled from the country for measures such as engaging with resistance groups or the NUG.

Additional reporting by Thompson Chau in Taipei.