What's In Blue

Posted Thu 15 Sep 2022

Myanmar: Closed Consultations

Tomorrow morning (16 September), Council members will hold closed consultations to receive a briefing from Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer on her recent visit to Myanmar. It seems that some members would also have liked to have had a briefing from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Special Envoy for Myanmar, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, but it appears that he was not available.

Heyzer’s visit to Myanmar, which took place on 17 August, was the first visit of a UN Special Envoy on Myanmar to the country since the military takeover in February 2021. Heyzer met with General Min Aung Hlaing—the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF) and the chairman of the State Administration Council (SAC), the de facto authority in Myanmar—in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. According to a note to correspondents issued following the meeting, Heyzer conveyed to Hlaing “pragmatic steps to de-escalate the violence, address the multidimensional crisis and advance unfettered humanitarian assistance”.

The Special Envoy’s visit took place shortly after the SAC carried out a death sentence against four opposition activists. The 25 July executions were immediately condemned by Secretary-General António Guterres, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews and the then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Security Council members issued a press statement on 27 July that condemned the executions. In it, members recalled the Secretary-General’s statement and reiterated his call for the release of all political prisoners, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. They also referred to a number of points from the ASEAN chair’s 25 July statement, which expressed ASEAN’s “denunciation and strong disappointment at the executions” and referred to the death sentences as “reprehensible”. During the meeting with Hlaing, Heyzer called for a moratorium on future executions and reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for the release of political prisoners. Some members may be interested in receiving information about Hlaing’s response to these requests.

The Special Envoy’s visit has been criticised by some, including by the National Unity Government (NUG)—an alliance of ousted National League of Democracy politicians—for its timing. These actors have also regretted the fact that Heyzer was not given access to other stakeholders such as Suu Kyi. Tomorrow, Heyzer may provide an explanation of the visit’s circumstances and might emphasise that her good offices role entails engagement with all stakeholders. The day prior to Heyzer’s visit, Suu Kyi was sentenced to six more years in prison, bringing her prison term to 17 years. On 2 September, Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further three years and hard labour for the charges of election fraud. Since her return, Heyzer has stated that she will not visit Myanmar again unless she is able to meet with Suu Kyi.

Although the members of ASEAN remain divided between those that want ASEAN to take stronger action on Myanmar and those who do not wish to push the SAC, recent statements may point to a possible shift in ASEAN’s approach. Cambodia, as this year’s ASEAN chair, has actively tried to work with the SAC. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has visited Myanmar in January and Prak has conducted two visits as the Special Envoy (in March and from late June to early July) and is reportedly planning a third visit next month. However, there has been increasing impatience with the slow implementation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, adopted at its summit on 25 April 2021. (The Five-Point Consensus called for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties, the ASEAN Special Envoy facilitating mediation of the dialogue process, humanitarian assistance, and a visit to Myanmar by the ASEAN Special Envoy to meet all parties concerned.)

The execution of the activists may have provided further impetus for recalibrating ASEAN’s positions. Hun Sen and Prak both appealed to the SAC to not proceed with the executions, to no avail. At the start of the 55th ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in early August, Hun Sen suggested that if more prisoners are executed, ASEAN would need to reconsider the Five-Point Consensus. The communiqué issued following the meeting expressed deep disappointment about the lack of progress and commitment in implementing the Five-Point Consensus. The communiqué also recommended that the ASEAN summit in November assess the progress towards the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus by the SAC to determine ASEAN’s next steps.

Tomorrow, Council members may be interested in hearing Heyzer’s analysis of possible changes in ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar and what this might mean for the Council. There has been general agreement among Council members that ASEAN should lead on this issue. However, as it has become increasingly clear that ASEAN has little leverage with the military leadership, some members have grown increasingly frustrated with this approach.

Some members may refer to the escalating violence in Rakhine State and southern Chin State following the breakdown in early June of the ceasefire between the MAF and the Arakan Army that had been in place since November 2020. According to OCHA, as at 5 September, approximately 84,000 people had been displaced from past and present fighting in these areas. In this context, Heyzer conveyed to Hlaing the need for unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid through all channels without discrimination. Members may be interested in the response she received from Hlaing as well as her assessment of the humanitarian situation.

The Special Envoy also conducted a four-day visit to Bangladesh in August. The visit marked five years since the mass forced displacement of Rohingyas from Myanmar. In this context, she may brief members on her meeting with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her visit to the Rohingya refugee camps. She may stress the need for greater attention to this issue and equitable burden sharing, especially by countries in the region. She may also stress Myanmar’s responsibility for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees and forcibly displaced persons. Members may be interested in the possibility of a comprehensive solution to this problem in the current political situation

Council dynamics on Myanmar remain challenging. It has been difficult for members that would have liked to see regular attention paid to this issue to sustain the level of interest seen after the February military takeover. Tomorrow’s meeting is only the third meeting this year, compared to nine meetings that were held in 2021 (including two Arria-formula meetings). Although Council members were able to agree on a press statement following the executions, they did not manage to agree on an outcome following the last meeting in May. Divisions remain over issues such as how to attribute responsibility for the violence and how to convey this in a Council product. Over the last 18 months, several Council members have also begun to engage directly with the military authorities. Russia, in particular, appears to be developing increasingly strong business and diplomatic links with the SAC. While China has often taken the lead in opposing strong action on Myanmar in the Council, it seems that in recent negotiations on Council products, Russia has been as resistant, if not more so. At the time of writing, there was no indication that the UK, the penholder on Myanmar, was going to suggest an outcome following the meeting. However, it seems that some members are exploring the option of a draft resolution that could establish more regular reporting on Myanmar.

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