Expected Council Action
The Council may receive a briefing in February on the situation in Myanmar from Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener. Briefers from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and UNDP are also possible.
Key Recent Developments
On 21 January, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud bin Momen, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui and Myanmar International Cooperation Deputy Minister Hau Do Suan held a virtual tripartite meeting on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. The last such meeting was held in January 2020. Media reports indicate that during the meeting Myanmar agreed to begin repatriation in the second quarter of this year. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral agreement on repatriation in November 2017, but tangible progress on returns has been elusive. Repatriation attempts in November 2018 and August 2019 were abandoned after the refugees refused to return to their homeland, citing security concerns.
On 28 December 2020, about 1,800 Rohingya refugees were transferred from Cox’s Bazar refugee camp to Bhasan Char island, located 34 miles from mainland Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. Ahead of the impending movements, the UN issued a statement on 2 December stating that it had not been involved in the relocation exercise and reiterating its position that Rohingya refugees needed to make a “free and informed decision” about relocating to Bhasan Char and that the movements to the island should be voluntary.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a resounding victory in a general election on 8 November 2020, taking more than 80 percent of the democratically contested seats and increased its parliamentary majority. (A quarter of the seats are reserved for the military.) The new government is expected to be formed in March. The Myanmar military (known as the Tatmadaw) has called for an investigation of voting lists, alleging fraud.
Voting in 56 townships, largely in Rakhine State, was cancelled on security grounds, leaving 1.2 million out of 1.6 million registered voters in the state unable to cast ballots. In order to hold supplementary elections, originally anticipated for the end of January, the Arakan Army, an armed group composed largely of Rakhine Buddhists, and the Tatmadaw agreed to an informal ceasefire brokered by the Japanese special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa.
On 18 November 2020, the Third Committee of the General Assembly—which deals with social, humanitarian and human rights issues—approved a draft resolution on the “Situation of Human Rights of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar” by a vote of 131 in favour to 9 against, with 31 abstentions. The resolution expressed grave concern at recent reports of serious human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State and in Kachin and northern Shan States, and called for “full and unhindered access” for the delivery of humanitarian access and the “voluntary and sustainable return” of all internally displaced persons and refugees. It also called on the government to ensure accountability by undertaking “full, transparent and independent investigations” of reports of human rights violations.
On 11 September 2020, the Council discussed Myanmar during a closed videoconference (VTC). Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, and UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific Kanni Wignaraja briefed on a range of issues, including the need to de-escalate the conflict; humanitarian access; the peace process; accountability; the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations; the tripartite memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government, UNDP and UNHCR; and the November 2020 elections.
Children and Armed Conflict-Related Developments
The Secretary-General’s 2020 annual report on children and armed conflict delisted the Tatmadaw for the violation of recruitment and use of children, conditioned on the “immediate ending and preventing of the ad hoc use of children in non-combat roles”. It warned that failure to comply would result in relisting in the 2021 report. In a 14 October 2020 press release, the co-chairs of the UN Country Taskforce on Monitoring and Reporting on Grave Violations against Children in Myanmar expressed grave concern over the circumstances of the killing of two children in fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State. They called for an investigation and reiterated that the use of children for non-combat purposes should not be seen as a lesser violation than recruitment. The Secretary-General’s sixth report on children and armed conflict in Myanmar, which covers the period 1 September 2018 to 30 June 2020, was published on 18 December 2020. The Secretary-General acknowledged the progress made in developing a legal framework and implementing the action plan to stop recruitment and use of children. He expressed concern over the killing and maiming of children and urged the government to sign a joint action plan with the UN on killing and maiming and sexual violence against children. He also expressed concern over the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict is expected to consider this report in February.
Key Issues and Options
For much of 2020 the government’s attention was focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing for the November elections. Council members refrained from putting pressure on Myanmar ahead of the elections. The February meeting could allow the Council to convey its views on recent developments and to revisit issues such as the challenges to repatriation of Rohingya refugees, the security situation in northwest Rakhine State and the impact of COVID-19 in Myanmar. One option would be for Council members to issue a press statement reacting to the elections, encouraging the government to hold supplementary elections in Rakhine State, and formalising the ceasefire. A stronger outcome, such as a resolution or presidential statement, would likely prove difficult given the divisions in the Council on Myanmar. In addition, Council members could reiterate the need for the return of refugees to be safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable, and show support for greater coordination between the Myanmar government and the UN on this issue.
The Council may want more information about the relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char. The UN has maintained the need for comprehensive technical assessments that would review the safety and feasibility of Bhasan Char as a place to live. Council members could encourage the Bangladesh government to invite the UN to conduct technical assessments of the suitability of the island to house the refugees and to verify that those being relocated are doing so voluntarily.
It is unclear if the meeting on Myanmar will be held in an open or closed format. Several Council members are likely to oppose having an open VTC. In the past, opposition to the format of a meeting could be settled through a procedural vote. (A procedural vote takes place in a formal meeting, requires nine affirmative votes, and cannot be vetoed by a permanent member.) VTC meetings are not currently considered official meetings of the Council, however, so reaching agreement through a procedural vote will be difficult unless the Council is able to meet in person. A possible compromise could be to hold an open VTC briefing so that Council members can hear from the Special Envoy and the Myanmar and Bangladesh government representatives but not express their views publicly. They could then make national statements in a closed VTC that could include other briefers, including the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, and representatives from UNHCR and UNDP.
At the meeting on Myanmar in September 2020, Council members were united over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for conflict de-escalation. However, the familiar cleavages over accountability, international humanitarian law, and humanitarian access were also evident. The UK, as penholder, floated the idea of a press statement as a possible outcome, but this was not acceptable to at least one permanent member. As a result, the European members at the time (Estonia, France, Germany, and the UK), the Dominican Republic, Tunisia and the US decided to issue a joint statement following the meeting, If it is not possible for the Council to agree on an outcome after the February meeting, “like-minded” Council members may again choose to issue their own press statement which could highlight the recent developments while reiterating their views on the need for returns to be safe and voluntary.
Several members in the Council have strong historical and regional ties to Myanmar. China is likely to emphasise its role in encouraging the repatriation of Rohingya and dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar. India may be reluctant to discuss Myanmar in light of recent positive developments such as the November elections, the informal ceasefire, and the tripartite meeting. As a member of ASEAN, Vietnam has taken a cautious approach in line with ASEAN’s general principle of non-interference in the affairs of its member states and has not been a strong advocate of greater Council involvement. These members, together with Russia, may also be concerned that active Council engagement may jeopardise current regional and tripartite activities.
UN DOCUMENTS ON MYANMAR
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|6 November 2017S/PRST/2017/22||This was a presidential statement on the situation in the Rakhine.|
|17 December 2020S/2020/1243||This was the Secretary-General’s sixth report on children and armed conflict in Myanmar.|
|9 June 2020S/2020/525||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.|
|Security Council Letter|
|24 January 2020S/2020/67||This was a letter from the Secretary-General conveying the notice of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) order indicating provisional measures in the case concerning Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar).|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|28 February 2019S/PV.8477||This was a briefing on the situation in Myanmar by Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener, who visited the country at the end of January.|
|General Assembly Document|
|30 October 2020A/C.3/75/L.34||This was the resolution on the situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.|
|Human Rights Council Document|
|12 September 2018A/HRC/39/64||This was the report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar.|