What's In Blue

Posted Mon 1 Feb 2021

Myanmar: Closed VTC on Recent Developments

Tomorrow (2 February) Security Council members will be briefed on Myanmar by Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener in a closed videoconference (VTC). A VTC briefing on developments in Myanmar had already been scheduled for 4 February. Members agreed to bring the briefing forward following the Myanmar military’s detention of civilian leaders and the declaration of a year-long state of emergency. The UK has circulated a draft press statement that may be issued following the meeting if members are able to agree on it.

On 1 February, the military (known as the Tatmadaw) detained National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other political leaders. The Tatmadaw’s actions reverse a ten-year period of democratic transition following 50 years of military rule. These events took place the same day the new parliament was to convene for the first time following the 8 November elections, where the NLD obtained 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 parliament was expected to endorse these results.

Since the election results, the Tatmadaw had called for an investigation into voting lists, alleging fraud and discrepancies. The election commission rejected the allegations of election fraud in a 29 January statement. Tensions had risen in recent weeks as the Tatmadaw continued to contest the election results. On 26 January, a military spokesperson said that it would continue to pursue its allegations of fraud “using all means at its disposal in compliance with the constitution and existing laws”. The military cites the civilian government’s refusal to address its complaints about voter fraud as the key reason for its actions, which it has justified under Article 417 of the constitution that allows the military to take over in a state of emergency.

Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the detention of the civilian leaders and expressed his grave concern regarding the declaration of the transfer of legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military, calling this “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that she was alarmed by reports that 45 people have been detained and urged their immediate release. Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, called for the release of all those detained and for decisive action, including the imposition of strong targeted sanctions and an arms embargo.

Brunei Darussalam, the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), encouraged “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar”.  ASEAN countries appear to have slightly different positions regarding the military’s actions. Members such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore issued statements stressing the importance of restraint and dialogue, while Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand appear to have taken the position that this an internal matter. ASEAN generally holds a policy of non-interference in members’ internal affairs, although the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State has prompted statements from ASEAN in the past.

The US issued a statement opposing any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, also suggesting that it would take action against those seeking to do so if they did not reverse course. Separately, US President Joe Biden released a statement indicating that the US, which had lifted sanctions on Myanmar over the past decade, would need to review its sanctions laws in relation to Myanmar due to the military’s actions. In a statement, the UK Foreign Office condemned the state of emergency and detentions and called on the military to respect the rule of law and human rights. France has also condemned the military’s actions, calling them an unacceptable threat to Myanmar’s democratic process.

In a press briefing, China said that it had noted what had happened in Myanmar and that it was “in the process of further understanding the situation”, adding that it hoped that all sides would be able to “handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability”. India, another Council member and neighbour of Myanmar, noted the developments with “deep concern” and said that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.

During the consultations, members are likely to reiterate these public positions. Most members are expected to call on all parties to respect the outcome of the November 2020 elections and resolve any electoral disputes through a legal mechanism. Members are also likely to call for the release of the civilian leaders and a return to the democratic process. Some members may refer to the importance of maintaining the free flow of information.

Members will be looking for more information about those detained and the next steps that can be anticipated from the military. They will also be interested in the impact of these developments on the security situation, including in northwest Rakhine State. They may want to hear the Special Envoy’s views on implications for the fragile informal ceasefire between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw that had been forged following the elections, based on the assumption that there would be supplementary elections early this year following the suspension of voting in a number of townships in Rakhine State on security grounds.

While the main focus for most Council members is expected to be the recent political developments, some members may address the implications of these developments on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Members may have concerns that given the military’s involvement in the violence that led to the exodus of over 750,000 Rohingya in 2017, the possibility of safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return may be even more elusive now. Members may ask how the Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Myanmar, which provides for UN support for the creation of appropriate conditions for the return of the refugees from Bangladesh, is expected to be affected by these developments. In addition, there may be interest in hearing how these developments may affect the UN’s access in Rakhine State.

If Council members agree to a press statement tomorrow, it will be the first Council outcome on Myanmar since its May 2018 press statement, which was issued following a Council visiting mission earlier that year. It remains to be seen if Council members will be able to be united in the face of this new development.