The International Community Is Failing Myanmar

In the run-up to this year’s high-level meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, there were almost too many issues to address: a global pandemic, climate change, renewed and continuing conflicts and great power competition, to name a few. But when it came to the crisis in Myanmar, attention focused on a single question: Who should represent the country in New York?

The answer would determine how much the international community can do to help Myanmar, a country now teetering on the edge of civil war, in the months ahead. The turmoil began on Feb. 1, when Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup against the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, the new military junta has struggled to control Myanmar’s territory even as it violently represses a strengthening anti-coup resistance movement. 

Opponents of the junta have consistently appealed to the international community for help, and initially, they were heard. Just days after the coup, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning it, while a slew of countries imposed sanctions on the Tatmadaw’s leaders and its assets. By summer, the main regional bloc, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, had approved a five-point plan of action to address the situation, and the U.N. General Assembly had called on members to impose an arms embargo. 

But then, political will seemed to dry up. Despite initially urging calm in Myanmar, China seemed less willing to back forceful steps at the Security Council, and ASEAN’s efforts moved forward at a glacial pace, as is the norm for the consensus-based organization. Advocates gradually shifted their attention to the General Assembly and to national governments, urging them to recognize the government-in-exile, known as the National Unity Government, or NUG. 

The junta and the NUG both submitted applications to fill Myanmar’s seat at the General Assembly, prompting a showdown at the U.N.’s Credentials Committee. Eventually, the committee decided—through a behind-the-scenes, handshake deal between the U.S. and China, two of its members—not to decide, putting off the determination until it meets again later in the fall. 

This decision is somewhat par for the course, according to Rebecca Barber, a research fellow at the Asia Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect. Although there have only been a “very small number” of comparable cases in the past, “the General Assembly has tended to defer its decision, leaving the deposed government’s representative in place,” she said. And indeed, the sitting envoy, the anti-coup Kyaw Moe Tun, will keep his office by default until the Credentials Committee makes a decision.

Some cast the U.S.-China compromise as a significant accomplishment, since it buys the NUG time to continue making its case and denies the seat to the junta in the meantime. What’s more, the anti-coup movement’s allies had negotiated and found middle ground with China, indicating that Beijing is still amenable to holding the junta accountable.

But Richard Gowan, the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group and a frequent WPR contributor, offered a different take. “This whole credentials malarkey, to some extent, has been a way for the diplomats at the U.N. to pretend that they’re engaging with Myanmar,” he said in an interview. “In reality, it’s been a distraction from the U.N.’s impotence on the ground.”

What good is this diplomatic victory if it doesn’t improve conditions on the ground, and quickly?

That deferring the credentials decision could be both a diplomatic victory and a mask for humanitarian failure says quite a lot about the limits of the U.N.’s ability to help besieged populations like Myanmar’s. As the diplomats deliberated, Myanmar’s people grew hungrier, poorer, more vulnerable and more desperate for freedoms that, though fundamental, have long been denied to them. What good is this diplomatic victory if it doesn’t improve conditions on the ground, and quickly? 

Life under the junta has become nightmarish. The economy has collapsed to the point where banks are unable to carry out basic daily operations, businesses unable to pay employees and families unable to put food on the table. A COVID-19 outbreak registering more than 6,000 new cases per day is essentially going unmanaged, with hospitals short on oxygen, vaccines, medication and staff. And through it all, the junta has cracked down violently on the country’s dogged resistance movement, killing more than 1,100 people and arresting more than 8,300—and blocking food, water and humanitarian aid from reaching those suffering amid the conflict.

Across Myanmar, civilians now live in fear as soldiers reportedly target individuals indiscriminately—stopping, searching and abusing pedestrians in big cities and razing entire villages suspected of housing rebels in rural areas. Reports of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of soldiers are abundant, and untold hundreds have been forcibly disappeared. “Everyone is struggling,” Min Min, an anti-coup activist, told the Los Angeles Times. “The junta can take your life away at any time.” 

Since the spring, Myanmar’s resistance has increasingly turned to violent tactics. Tens of thousands of protesters have reportedly taken up arms and joined civilian defense forces, which in turn have teamed up with pre-existing armed insurgent groups in the country’s ethnic-minority regions. Together, they have launched hundreds of attacks on security forces and military assets, targeting telecommunications infrastructure and detonating explosives in city centers. The fighting kicked up another notch in early September, after the NUG formally called for a “people’s defensive war” against the junta, urging all of Myanmar to fight back for control of the state.

Representatives of the anti-coup resistance say they were driven into a corner by the military crackdown—and the international community’s inaction. “Now people have realized that we must walk till the end regardless of international assistance or not,” NUG Deputy Minister Maw Htun Aung told Reuters.

Amid the escalating violence, the truth is that there is not much more that the international community could realistically be doing to help. “The U.N. doesn’t have a great mechanism for this kind of situation,” Charli Carpenter, a WPR columnist and international law expert at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said in an interview. “If you have a civil war where they fight to a stalemate, that’s often where peacekeeping could work. And if you have one side that’s very powerful wiping out the other side in massacres, that’s where a humanitarian intervention can work. Where the U.N. does really poorly is in supporting nonviolent resistance movements before they become violent or engaging in preventive diplomacy when violence is about to break out.”

Many at the U.N. have not given up on supporting peace and democracy in Myanmar. Just last week, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet submitted a report urging the organization to “redouble its efforts … before it is too late.” But as Gowan told me, it is often difficult for the U.N. to move when powerful actors in the region and on the Security Council—in this case, ASEAN, China, Russia, India, Vietnam and others—are not interested in getting more involved. Until they change their tune, Myanmar’s resistance is unlikely to get the level of support it hopes for, and the international community may once again be missing its chance to avert a humanitarian disaster.

Prachi Vidwans is an associate editor at World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter at @PrachiVidwans.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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