What's In Blue

Posted Thu 18 May 2023

Myanmar: Arria-formula Meeting on the Humanitarian Situation

Tomorrow (19 May), the UK will convene an Arria-formula meeting on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. A representative of OCHA and two female civil society representatives are expected to brief.

The meeting, which will begin at 10 am and take place in the ECOSOC Chamber, will not be shown on UNTV. It appears that the UK decided not to broadcast the meeting. Council members, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, ASEAN dialogue partners, and countries bordering Myanmar have been invited to participate.

The UK has prepared a concept note for the meeting, which says that it aims to highlight the complex and worsening humanitarian situation in Myanmar. The concept note also says that the meeting will provide an opportunity to consider what the international community can do to address the humanitarian challenges in Myanmar and mitigate the associated risks to international peace and security, including by exploring how to further support ASEAN’s efforts to implement the Five-Point Consensus. (The Five-Point Consensus, which was adopted by ASEAN in April 2021, called for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special envoy of the ASEAN chair to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, humanitarian assistance, and a visit to Myanmar by the ASEAN special envoy to meet all parties concerned.)

Three guiding questions for the meeting are outlined in the concept note:

  1. Bearing in mind the ongoing conflict, how can the international community encourage urgent progress to address humanitarian challenges in Myanmar, including ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches all those in need?
  2. How can the international community best support efforts, including by ASEAN, to address humanitarian needs in Myanmar?
  3. How can the international community ensure that the voices of the Rohingya are heard and that their challenges are responded to while also ensuring that any returns are voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable?

The humanitarian situation in Myanmar remains dire. According to OCHA, approximately 17.6 million people—nearly one-third of Myanmar’s population—were in humanitarian need at the beginning of 2023. OCHA’s latest regular humanitarian update on Myanmar, which was published on 6 May, notes that ongoing hostilities across the country continue to endanger civilians and increase humanitarian needs, particularly in Kachin state and north-western and south-eastern Myanmar. The update further says that humanitarian access is complicated by “heightened military hostilities, administrative constraints, and interference in humanitarian activities”, which are “seriously impeding relief operations meant to assist people in need”.

The ongoing fighting in Myanmar—which has worsened in recent months and is particularly heavy in Kayah state, Kayin state, the Magway region, Sagaing region, and southern Shan state—has also led to mass displacement and contributed to increased refugee flows. In a 1 May emergency update, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that an estimated 1.83 million people were internally displaced in Myanmar as at 1 May, approximately 1.5 million of whom have been newly displaced since the 1 February 2021 coup. A further 1.12 million refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar were reported as being present in neighbouring countries on 31 December 2022.

The humanitarian challenges facing Myanmar have been exacerbated by Cyclone Mocha, which made landfall in Rakhine state on 14 May, causing heavy rain, flooding, and wind gusts up to 250 kilometres per hour. According to a flash update released by OCHA on 16 May, early estimates indicate that approximately 5.4 million people across Rakhine state and north-western Myanmar were in the path of the cyclone, 3.2 million of whom are considered most vulnerable and likely to require humanitarian assistance, including healthcare, relief items, shelter, and clean water. Humanitarian actors have also reported encountering difficulties in obtaining access to affected areas. In a 17 May statement, OCHA Regional Public Officer Pierre Peron said that “bureaucratic access constraints are affecting all partners, including the UN and NGOs”.

In their statements tomorrow, Council members are likely to express concern regarding the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, emphasise the importance of unhindered humanitarian assistance, and urge the military authorities to facilitate humanitarian access to populations in need. Some members may highlight that the 2023 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan, which requires $764.3 million in funding, is currently only 9.8 percent funded. Members may also call for the full implementation of resolution 2669 of 21 December 2022, which reiterated the need for full, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access and scaled-up humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, among other matters.

Several Council members are expected to focus on the situation of the Rohingya. According to media reports, a delegation of Myanmar military officials visited the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh in mid-March to interview Rohingya candidates for a pilot repatriation program to Myanmar. In a 31 March statement, Human Rights Watch warned that conditions in Myanmar are not conducive to the safe return of refugees and highlighted several concerns regarding the proposed repatriation program. During the meeting tomorrow, some Council members may stress that any return of refugees to Myanmar must be voluntary, safe, and dignified and carried out in accordance with international law.

Although tomorrow’s meeting will focus primarily on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, Council members are nonetheless expected to refer to other topics, including ASEAN’s role in resolving the crisis in the country. During the latest ASEAN summit, which ran from 9 to 11 May, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reportedly acknowledged that “there has been no significant progress in the implementation of [ASEAN’s] Five-Point Consensus”. (Indonesia assumed ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship for 2023 in January and has established the Office of the ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar, which is headed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and staffed by a team of experts, including senior Indonesian diplomat Nguarah Swajaya. Previous ASEAN Chairs have appointed their foreign ministers as ASEAN’s Special Envoy to Myanmar.) Some Council members are likely to express their support for ASEAN and stress the importance of implementing the Five-Point Consensus. Some members may call for greater engagement and cooperation between ASEAN and the UN regarding the Five-Point Consensus, including more regular Council meetings on Myanmar.

The worsening violence in Myanmar is another likely topic of discussion. In a 6 March statement delivered to the Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk noted that armed conflict in the country has continued to grow in scope and intensity. He added that military airstrikes against civilian locations and incidents in which homes and neighbourhoods were set on fire had also increased by 141 percent and 380 percent, respectively, in the second year following the coup. In this context, Council members may refer to the 11 April airstrike on Pazigyi village in Sagaing region, which killed at least 165 people and wounded dozens more. A draft press statement condemning the attack was blocked by China and Russia. (For more information, see our 12 April What’s in Blue story.)

The difficult negotiations on the draft press statement are indicative of the ongoing challenging dynamics on the file. China, which has resisted stronger action from the Council for many years, appears to be drawing closer to the military authorities. On 3 May, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta. According to media reports, Qin Gang told Min Aung Hlaing that China “stands with Myanmar on the international stage” and indicated that China would continue to support Myanmar’s development. Although China has often taken the lead in blocking Council action on Myanmar, Russia has become more active on the file and seems to be developing increasingly strong business and diplomatic links with the military authorities.

In recent years, some elected members have pushed for more attention to be paid to the situation in the country. The UK, the penholder on the file, which has for the last few years advocated for allowing ASEAN to take the lead on this issue, now appears inclined for the Council to take on a more proactive role.

ASEAN continues to be a key actor, with some ASEAN members apparently playing an instrumental role in persuading China to abstain on resolution 2669. Internal divisions within ASEAN have previously made it difficult for the organisation to take meaningful action on Myanmar. The recent election in Thailand, which saw the progressive Move Forward Party win the highest number of seats, may affect these divisions. (The previous Thai government was involved in organising several rounds of “track 1.5” dialogue between Myanmar military officials and Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, India, Japan, Laos, and Viet Nam earlier this year and in late 2022.) While neither a direct neighbour nor a member of ASEAN, Japan has had historically close ties to Myanmar and strong diplomatic and economic links with ASEAN. It has also been involved in efforts to promote dialogue among the different parties. These dynamics are likely to make further Council action on Myanmar difficult.

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