Myanmar: Private Meeting
Tomorrow (28 January), the Security Council will convene for a private meeting on Myanmar. The expected briefers are the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer and Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn, who will brief in his capacity as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Special Envoy for Myanmar. This will be both envoys’ first briefing to the Council. Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham is expected to brief on the humanitarian situation. The UK has circulated a draft press statement on Myanmar, but it is unclear whether consensus can be reached on the text before tomorrow’s meeting.
Tomorrow’s private meeting comes just days before the first anniversary of the 1 February 2021 coup. Several council members–Albania, France, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, the UK, and the US—apparently wanted to mark the occasion with a public meeting to highlight the continuing crisis in Myanmar. However, it seems that other actors, including the ASEAN envoy, strongly preferred a closed briefing, and some Council members were not inclined to support a format with which the ASEAN envoy was not comfortable.
The Security Council last met on Myanmar on 7 November 2021, also in a private meeting format, as fighting between local defence and military forces escalated, particularly in Chin State and neighbouring regions. The Council was briefed by Peter Due, the Director of the Asia and Pacific Division of the UN Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations (DPPA-DPO), and Dato Erywan bin Pehin Yusof, Second Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brunei Darussalam, the then-ASEAN Special Envoy for Myanmar. Both briefers apparently encouraged the Council to convey a unified message in a public statement following the meeting. Council members subsequently issued a press statement on 10 November 2021, expressing deep concern over the “further violence across Myanmar” and calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
In December 2021, Council members issued two press statements in response to recent developments. An 8 December 2021 statement addressed the sentencing of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and others that had been arrested on 2 February 2021. A second press statement issued on 29 December condemned the killing of 35 people on 24 December 2021 in Myanmar’s Kayah State, where pro-democracy rebels have been fighting the Myanmar military (also known as the Tatmadaw). Among those killed were four children and two humanitarian workers from Save the Children.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Heyzer is expected to highlight the importance of strengthening the UN-ASEAN cooperation in resolving the crisis in Myanmar. Since assuming her position as UN Special Envoy in mid-December 2021, Heyzer has met with the ASEAN foreign ministers as well as the Cambodian and Thai prime ministers. In this regard, she may reiterate some of the points which were raised during her 15 January virtual meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, including a proposal for an UN-ASEAN “humanitarian-plus umbrella” to coordinate and deliver assistance. A readout of the meeting indicated that Heyzer noted that such joint action would include civilian protection, food security, socio-economic resilience, humanitarian aid and COVID assistance. In this context, she may also suggest that ASEAN and the UN advance the idea of a humanitarian pause with all sides to allow safe and unhindered access in areas which are experiencing violence. Council members may be interested in hearing more about ASEAN member states’ responses to these proposals.
Council members may also wish to hear more about Heyzer’s approach to working with ASEAN to advance its Five-Point Consensus plan. The Five-Point Consensus, adopted at an ASEAN summit on 25 April 2021, called for a cessation of violence, dialogue between the parties, the appointment of a special envoy of the ASEAN chair to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, a visit by the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, and the provision of humanitarian aid by ASEAN. Apart from the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and initial COVID-19 related assistance, there has been limited movement on the plan.
Heyzer may also note that the conflict has escalated in the past year. The last quarter of 2021 saw a rise in attacks on military personnel and facilities by the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which is comprised of local civilian militias, followed by strong reprisals from the Tatmadaw, which have included the use of air strikes. Heyzer may brief members on her discussion with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha regarding the refugees who crossed the border into Thailand because of these attacks. Members might also be interested in hearing Heyzer’s suggestions on ways to address the situation of the Rohingya refugees that fled to Bangladesh in 2017. The change in the political situation since the February 2021 coup has hindered any progress on this issue over the last year.
Council members were last briefed on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar in August 2021. At that meeting, Rajasingham highlighted the challenges OCHA faced in addressing the COVID-19 situation and described the increasingly tense security and humanitarian situation following the 1 February coup. Members are likely to seek an update on humanitarian access as well as on the ability of the UN and non-governmental agencies to operate in the current environment. Members may also be interested in hearing whether OCHA has been able to provide humanitarian assistance to the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. According to OCHA’s 17 January humanitarian update on Myanmar, as at 27 December, there were an estimated 320,900 IDPs across Myanmar due to clashes and insecurity since 1 February 2021.
Sokhonn is expected to brief on his recent visit to Myanmar with Hun Sen, which took place on 7 and 8 January, shortly after Cambodia assumed the rotating ASEAN chairmanship for 2022. (The visit took place before Sokhonn was officially appointed as the ASEAN Special Envoy for Myanmar, and as such, he was there in his capacity as the Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs.) This was the first visit to Myanmar by an ASEAN chair since the coup. Other ASEAN leaders were critical of the visit, given that there has been no significant progress in implementing the Five-Point Consensus. Hun Sen also apparently indicated that a military official from Myanmar may attend the ASEAN foreign ministers retreat that had been scheduled for 18-19 January in Siem Reap, Cambodia. On 12 January, the retreat was postponed. While “difficulties to travel” were cited as the reason for the postponement, it seems that underlying tensions over this invitation and Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar may have played a part. At tomorrow’s meeting, members may seek an update on when the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat is likely to be held as well as clarification over ASEAN’s position regarding Myanmar’s attendance at its meetings.
Council members are expected to reiterate their call for a de-escalation of violence in Myanmar, inclusive political dialogue, and the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, as well as access for both envoys. While Council members generally agree that ASEAN should take the lead on this issue, there appears to be a growing gulf between those who believe that the Council should continue to be actively involved and those who maintain that Council engagement might exacerbate, rather than improve, the situation. As this is the first briefing from the two envoys, some members may be interested in hearing their views on how the Council could support the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus.
Negotiations on Council products on Myanmar last year revealed clear differences in members’ views on language regarding humanitarian access, international humanitarian law, protection of human rights and accountability. The need for consensus even on press statements has made it difficult to go beyond the few elements that are acceptable to all members. It seems likely that the draft text that was circulated today by the UK will again not be easily acceptable to several Council members, which could make it difficult for members to issue a strong message ahead of the first anniversary of the coup next Tuesday (1 February).