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UN’s challenge: Who will sit in Myanmar hot seat?

Military Rulers And The Ousted Government Lay Claim To Seat But The World Body Faces No Good Options

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Myanmar's ambassador to the UN Kyaw Moe Tun making a three-finger salute as he addresses the General Assembly on February 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / United Nations via YouTube

The future of the Myanmar crisis could be decided in New York Tuesday when the UN General Assembly meets, during which one of the most controversial issues will fall on the UN’s Credentials Committee. 

The nine-country body will be tasked with deciding on who should be seen as the country’s legitimate government: the military junta that took power after the February 1 coup or the government-in-exile of ousted politicians, the National Unity Government (NUG).

Since the coup, which overthrew the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar has been plunged into crisis. 

Estimates vary, but analysts reckon that thousands of civilians have been killed by the military during street protests against the junta. Historic tensions with the country’s various ethnic groups risk descending into full warfare. 

The country’s economy has been decimated. COVID-19 infections are surging. Myanmar is being talked of as a failed state. 

All the while, the international community has refused to say which party it considers the legal government of the country, a decision that could significantly alter the course of the Myanmar crisis. 

Because of this confusion, Myanmar has not been given a seat on various international bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization.

Since the coup, Myanmar’s seat at the UN has been occupied by Kyaw Moe Tun, an NLD-appointee who has opposed military rule. The junta has unsuccessfully sought to replace him in New York. 

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A communications tower in Sagaing belonging to the military-owned Mytel telecommunications company, which was damaged by protesters against the military coup. Photo: AFP / Handout

The State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta’s government is formally known, says it should have international recognition as is the one with effective control over the country, including airports and military bases, as well as the capital, Naypyidaw. 

The NUG, however, argues that it should be recognized as it represents the will of the Myanmar people, since the NLD was the clear winner of last year’s election despite the junta’s spurious claims of fraud. 

The NUG was formed in April and includes other pro-democracy activists. 

While the UN has typically dithered over such contentious issues in the past, it has precedent for recognizing ousted governments, such as for Haiti in 1992 and Sierra Leone in 1997. 

A vote for the NUG at the UN would constitute the strongest concerted diplomatic signal to date that the international community can send to the junta, said Moe Thuzar, a fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

By the UN General Assembly extending recognition to the NUG, it would give the US much greater latitude to “engage openly and to promote the NUG’s message over and against the SAC,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia scholar at the Australian National University. 

So far, the US and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on junta-connected businesses and cut certain development packages to Myanmar. 

“The discussions of the UN Credentials Committee are important and different options are on the table. Its outcome will not alter the EU’s political approach towards Myanmar,” an EU spokesperson said. 

Analysts speculate that after official recognition, the US and other international powers could divert greater funds to the NUG, which would allow it to make inroads within Myanmar. Foreign countries could also divert money to the NUG from Myanmar’s official funds that are stored abroad. 

Protesters with placards showing the image of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi take to the streets of Yangon in April. Photo: AFP

NUG officials would also be able to travel more freely across the world, and meet more frequently and formally with leaders from other countries. 

Recognition for the NUG may also lead to the murders and assassinations committed by military forces seen as war crimes, increasing the jeopardy faced by the junta officials. 

It would also force China to tone down any language or diplomatic engagement that legitimates the military junta, said Marston, referring to suggestions that Beijing has tactically accepted the junta’s power in recent weeks.  

Most significantly, said Marston, by recognizing the NUG as the official government of Myanmar it would put pressure on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally include NUG representatives in its regional meetings, rather than the junta’s appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin. 

The ASEAN bloc, which has been tasked with finding a resolution to the crisis, has not made an explicit statement on which side it considers the legitimate government of Myanmar. But it has conducted meetings with junta officials and not with those of the NUG, which many have interpreted as a the Southeast Asian bloc’s tacit acceptance of the junta. 

“In short, it would be a game-changer and a huge embarrassment for the junta,” Marston added. Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is “incredibly unlikely” that the junta will be recognised by the UN next week as Myanmar’s legitimate government.

“I think that if the junta were recognized as the legitimate government, most leading democracies in Europe and North America would continue with the same approach they had,” he added.

“But ASEAN would probably give up the very weak efforts it has taken so far to address the Myanmar crisis, and possibly some Asian states, like Japan, would re-engage with Myanmar.”

Analysts speculate, however, that the UN recognizing the NUG could spark even more violence in Myanmar.

“With the symbolic support of the UN behind them, those on the ground in Myanmar would fight harder for a costly and improbable victory,” Catherine Renshaw, a professor in the School of Law at Western Sydney University, wrote in a recent essay.  

“The military, ostracized still further, would have fewer reasons to move forward with the only concession it has made to date,” she added. 

However, the prevailing sense among analysts is that the UN will not make a decision at all next week, possibly kicking the issue into the grass and attempting to maintain the status-quo.

“Even sympathetic Western governments have not recognized the NUG as the government of Myanmar, so the chances of the UN General Assembly doing so are vanishingly remote,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a lobbying group. 

A lot will depend on how hard Russia and China push on the credentials committee, Farmaner added, referring to the close ties the military junta has formed with Moscow, one of its main arms suppliers. 

The junta’s relationship with Beijing is less clear. The Chinese government had formed close ties with the NLD government before it was ousted in February and officials in Beijing are deeply concerned about violence in Myanmar spilling over the border into China. 

The UN Credentials Committee is composed of nine countries tasked by the UN General Assembly to decide on such matters. 

If the Credentials Committee cannot make a decision – or refuses to do so because of the contentiousness of the issue – it could send the question to be decided by the entire UN General Assembly. Analysts are unsure of what would happen then. 

“The realistic, best-case scenario seems to be the continuance of the term of the current permanent representative, rather than recognizing the representative proposed by the military,” said Farmaner, meaning that Kyaw Moe Tun retains his post. 

“At the very least non-recognition of the military representative would be symbolically very important,” he added. 

However, since Kyaw Moe Tun has opposed the coup and is widely seen as a supporter of the NUG, this outcome would be viewed by many as the UN’s tacit acceptance of the government-in-exile. 

The other alternative is that no decision is made by the UN and Myanmar’s seat on the international body is left empty. 

“Leaving Myanmar’s seat vacant … is the best representation of what is happening on the ground. It also provides the best chance of stemming the tide of civil war,” Renshaw, of Western Sydney University, has argued. 

An EU spokesperson said, “The discussions of the UN Credentials Committee are important and different options are on the table. Its outcome will not alter the EU’s political approach towards Myanmar.”