Verbal angst at the UN but no action on Burma in China’s backyard

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By John J. Metzler

More than a month after the military overthrew Burma’s elected government, the situation in the South East Asian country aka Myanmar remains “fragile and fluid,” according to the UN’s  Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener.

Addressing a General Assembly session on the percolating political and humanitarian situation in Myanmar, she described massive pro-democracy demonstrations against the military coup as “a people’s fight without arms.”

As recently as last November the country’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had handily won elections with 82 percent of the vote.  Yet Myanmar’s powerful military, always in the shadows of power direct or otherwise, decided to seize full power and arrest elected officials  including Aung San Suu Kyi while suspending parliament.

Protesters rally outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1. / Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

In a sense, Burma was returning to its tragic roots where the military has been in control since 1962 until allowing a civilian power-sharing deal in 2015.

Nonetheless, even with a reasonably free government led by the long-time opposition the NLD, the military known as the Tatmadaw has held parallel constitutional powers.

Surprisingly during the General Assembly debate, Myanmar’s UN Amb. Kyaw Moe Tun, presented a powerful speech denouncing the military power grab, confirming that his country’s legitimate authority is represented by the elected parliamentarians, and calling on UN member states “to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military.”

While the ambassador’s brave stance rallied fifteen countries to condemn the coup, no ASEAN member state directly criticized the military action.

The Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) the powerful socio/economic group, continues to pursue a regional solution to the complex Burma problem.  Yet given that key ASEAN members such as Thailand have military governments of their own, don’t expect too much pressure to restore Burmese democracy but rather nuanced diplomacy to defuse an increasingly  dangerous security situation.

Realistically what can a politically divided UN Security Council do to change the situation?

China and Russia have traditionally backed what they will glibly say is “non interference” in Burma’s internal affairs.  Not too many years ago both Beijing and Moscow wielded a rare double Council veto to stop a human rights resolution regarding Burma.

Any UN Arms embargo or targeted sanctions are largely a joke even if they were to pass given that the Myanmar military is armed to the teeth by China with light and medium weapons; more than enough for domestic suppression and fighting a spate of nasty ethnic conflicts such as with the Muslim Rohingya or the Christian Karens. It’s not like the Tatmadaw plans to buy squadrons of  fighter aircraft or a few submarines.  This is basically about domestic control/suppression, not protection of borders.

Myanmar’s military has shamelessly shot and killed many unarmed protesters in recent weeks.

But as envoy Christine Schraner Burgener told the Security Council, “genuine democracy requires civilian control over the military… the international community should not lend legitimacy or recognition to this regime that has been forcefully imposed.”

She added that besides the domestic political crackdown following the coup, the regime continues to oppress its non-Buddhist, Muslim minority in Rakhine state. “Humanitarian needs remain acute, with more than one million people in need,” these being the oppressed Rohingya.

Sadly long before the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had done painfully little to help the plight of the Muslim Rohingya since the Myanmar regime’s ethnic cleansing in 2017.

There’s also an interesting contrast between Burma’s long supposed democracy and Hong Kong’s increasingly throttled democracy.  In the case of Burma the country was slowly evolving from more than a half century of a Beijing-backed military authoritarianism towards a reasonably free parliamentary rule.  In Hong Kong, the former British Crown Colony is slipping backwards and seeing a clear erosion of its internationally guaranteed democratic rights and freedoms.  Beijing is tightening the political noose on its “special autonomous region.”

The People’s Republic of China has long maintained close ties to the Burmese military. Yet even Beijing who may have given the green light to the Tatmadaw may now be nervous given the massive popular pushback to the coup.

“The continuing turbulence in Myanmar is neither in the interests of Myanmar and its people, nor in the common interests of other regional countries,” Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister said tellingly.

Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield,  the new American envoy to the UN helped frame a Security Council presidential statement; “the United States and every other member of the United Nations Security Council spoke with one voice to condemn the ongoing violence against peaceful protestors in Burma… The United States will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Burma.”    So true but now what?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]