Myanmar: Briefing on Latest Developments
Security Council members will be briefed on latest developments in Myanmar in consultations later this morning. The briefers will be Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, and Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific for UNDP Haoliang Xu. The meeting was requested by the UK, the penholder on Myanmar. While some members, such as France, were strongly in support of a briefing, there were a few who felt that it might have been better to have a briefing after Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener returns from a visit to Myanmar at the end of the month.
DiCarlo is expected to cover recent political and security developments, including the ongoing fighting between armed separatists and the national security forces. While there have been sporadic clashes between the two groups since November 2018, the 4 January attack by the Arakan Army on four border posts near the Bangladesh border that killed 13 police officers, appeared to signal an escalation of the violence. The Arakan Army is a separatist group, made up largely of members of the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group, which is demanding greater autonomy from the central government for Rakhine State and has clashed regularly with government forces over the years. Council members may be interested in the impact of the fighting on the civilian population and the prospects of it escalating. Myanmar’s president, Win Myint, has urged the military to crush the rebels. Of particular interest to members would be how the current unrest would affect the creation of conditions for the return of the over 700,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar, sparked by the violent reaction by Myanmar military forces to the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security posts. DiCarlo may put these recent developments in the context of ongoing clashes in other parts of the country, including Kachin state and northern Shan state, and the peace process.
Another issue that DiCarlo might refer to is the decision by a Myanmar court on 11 January to reject an appeal by Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who received seven year prison sentences in September 2018 for breaking the Official Secrets Act. The appeal was rejected on the grounds that the defense had not provided enough evidence to prove their innocence. Several Council members, including France and the UK, have taken an active interest in this case and may highlight the recent decision in their statements.
Grandi and Hu are expected to cover the implementation of the memorandum of understanding signed between the Myanmar government, UNDP and UNHCR to support the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns of refugees. Grandi was expected to visit Myanmar last week, but his visit was postponed by the Myanmar authorities following the fighting between the government forces and the insurgent group. The government had indicated that he could visit areas other than Rakhine State, which was off limits due to security concerns. Grandi is expected to indicate that some incremental progress has been made, including several field assessments and 35 projects that had been approved in December last year. However, due to the security situation, travel in Rakhine State has been restricted, making it difficult for them to develop these projects. Yu may also cover the development of these projects.
Grandi will also provide an update on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Following an agreement signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2018, there was an attempt to repatriate over 2,000 refugees but the refugees were unwilling to return without assurances of safety. The current unrest is likely to mean further delays in the creation of appropriate conditions for the return of the refugees. Members may be interested in possible confidence building measures, as well as whether a regional organisation such as the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) could play a role. Another issue that Grandi may highlight is the continued need for sustainable funding for the camps in Bangladesh, which are housing close to a million Rohingya refugees.
An issue of concern to many members is the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. On 12 January, humanitarian groups, with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Programme,have not been given travel authorisation to go to northern Rakhine. The UN in recent days has called for unimpeded access to Rakhine State in order to help those displaced by the recent surge of violence. OCHA has estimated that 5,000 people have been displaced due to the ongoing clashes since early December.
While the Council has kept its focus on Myanmar since the August 2017 violence and the ensuing refugee crisis, it has not been easy to get agreement on a strong product. In December 2018, Council members were negotiating a draft resolution on Myanmar which would have set out a regular reporting cycle on the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee and progress into investigations of allegations of human rights violations. However, China and Russia did not engage on the resolution, and the UK decided in late December not to table the draft for a vote. It is possible that the upsurge in violence in Rakhine State might encourage those who would like a stronger Council outcome to pursue the idea of a resolution again.
It is still unclear how the change in the composition of the Council this year might affect support for more active Council engagement on this issue. China and Russia are expected to continue to be reluctant to have strong Council involvement and may highlight that the recent violence is a result of an internal conflict. This briefing will be the first opportunity for the new members to state their views on the situation in Myanmar and the Council’s role. Indonesia, which joined the Council on 1 January, is in the unique position of being a member of ASEAN, which includes Myanmar. It will bring a deep understanding of the Myanmar situation to the Council, but its association with ASEAN could also be a constraining factor. However, it is also a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as is Kuwait, which has called for the protection of the rights of the Rohingya.