Anti-coup protesters in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution wore flowers in their hair on Saturday to mark the 76th birthday of the nation’s most iconic – and once again ousted and detained – leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her birthday gift in terms of global response to her continued struggle for democratization of Myanmar came from the UN General Assembly, where 199 nations on Friday adopted an unprecedented resolution condemning Myanmar’s military junta and calling on it to “respect people’s will as freely expressed by results of the general elections” of last November.
This historic UNGA resolution asks the military junta to end the state of emergency, respect human rights and release all political detainees, including Suu Kyi.
On the day the newly elected representatives were to convene their inaugural session of the national legislature, she was detained and is now under house arrest, facing some flimsy charges like illegally importing walkie-talkies, breaching laws meant to control the spread of Covid-19, and inciting public unrest. She has hardly been seen in public other than her brief court appearances.
Meanwhile, nationwide protests against the February 1 coup d’état led by the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing – who would have retired this July – have since been joined by various rebel groups of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. All of them have since faced brutal and indiscriminate use of force by Myanmar’s military.
Regular news of the killing of peaceful protesters and bystanders as well as use of heavy artillery and air strikes against rebel forces in the north continues. Reportedly hundreds have been killed by the armed forces while more than 5,000 have been detained and thousands displaced.
If anything, the military’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya since 2016 emboldened its jackboot policy as it saw the civilian leadership led by Suu Kyi maintain seasoned silence, thus at least partially acquiescing to the Tatmadaw’s brutality. This also led military leaders to rethink Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with piecemeal democratization under its 2008 constitution, and now it is reluctant to lose its prominence in politics.
The unprecedented mandate to Aung San Suu Kyi in last November’s general election clearly provided the trigger, as it threatened to empower her to undertake constitutional changes to the discomfiture of the Tatmadaw’s hold on power, and it felt compelled to strike. One could even include the coming retirement of General Min Aung Hlaing next month as having ignited events for the return of military rule.
During these last five months since that fateful night, what has especially perplexed Myanmar observers is the military’s leverage and the muted response from the global community, especially those powerful nations that keep gloating about being the oldest, strongest and largest democracies.
As many as 36 nations abstained from voting on the UNGA resolution, either saying it was Myanmar’s internal matter or complaining that it had no teeth, or asking why the UN had been silent on the equally gruesome ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Belarus stood alone to vote against it, calling it too “country-specific” and “politicized.” But what was most noticeable was the fact that all of Myanmar’s neighbors – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Laos, Nepal and Thailand – not only abstained from voting but have since expressed their discomfiture with the resolution, making it look like meek lip service.
Two veto-wielding nations that are also the largest weapons suppliers to the Myanmar junta – Russia and China – abstained from voting and have since explained their reasons for so doing.
Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told the General Assembly that the resolution’s “authors were not able to show a balanced approach…. The text attempts to push forward one-dimensional national priorities of certain member states. The draft resolution stands out due to its politicized nature and some of its passages are openly biased or they are divorced from reality.”
Likewise, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Chen Shuang, was reported as saying: “Myanmar’s current issue represents a twist and turn in its political transition process. Essentially, it is a domestic issues…. History has shown that external blind pressurization or imposition of sanction on Myanmar is not only ineffective but, quite on the contrary, may aggravate the issue.”
The world including the US has meanwhile put its hopes on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations taking the lead in resolving this growing crisis in one if its member states.
Several foreign envoys in Myanmar – including the UN representative and China’s ambassador – have warned of rising levels of violence portending a civil war in the making. If the million-strong exodus of Rohingya is any lesson to go by, this is bound to have critical regional implications.
This had led ASEAN to call for a special summit in Jakarta in April where leaders unanimously adopted a Five-Point Consensus that called for an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue amongst all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.
Not only did the ASEAN Five Point Consensus fall short of putting a precondition of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent weeks – including the June 7 meeting of the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – have shown how the bloc has increasingly laid all hopes on China taking the lead.
China, of course, has unrolled its quintessential play-it-slow strategy while pushing forward its own regional leadership, which had been threatened at the mid-March Quad Leaders Summit.
Mid-January saw the same Wang Yi visit Myanmar and hold a meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing, who was just two weeks away from staging his coup d’état. Since then Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai has kept in close touch with Min Aung Hlaing and China has kept to its refrain of “restoration of peace and stability” without stressing an early release of elected civilian leaders.
The other large neighbor of Myanmar, India, has taken the cue and laid its hopes in being pragmatic. India has had major stakes in ensuring peace and stability in Myanmar, which has critical implications for its own northeastern region. So India had shown strong support for ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, though it seems unwilling to deliver anything concrete.
India, which had for long been emotionally attached to Myanmar’s democratic leaders, chose to match the mood among regional countries and abstained from voting on the UNGA resolution. At the same time, India’s permanent representative to the UN, T S Tirumurti, showed remorse at how some members chose to adopt this hastily tabled draft “without adequate consultation with neighbors and regional countries.”
The lack of support from all of Myanmar’s neighbors, he said, “should, hopefully, serve as an eye-opener” to proponents of the resolution.
In the end, therefore, the UNGA resolution shows not just symbolic, meek lip service – which has significance when it comes to the 119 nations supporting it – but it has also revealed the UN’s fractured mandate and multiple fissures among great powers’ global leadership.
It perhaps also alludes to the fast-eroding charisma of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and also how ASEAN itself has been grappling with reviving its “centrality” in regional affairs while gradually drifting from Washington to Beijing.
That could make this UNGA resolution not just unhelpful but counterproductive given China’s growing leverage as well as its disapproval of it. This also explains the UNGA exploring its role and relevance in the wake of increasing focus on great-power summitry.
But what is important to note is that even such prolonged negotiations at UNGA that produced this rather watered-down version version of this resolution – which stops short of calling for a global arms embargo and uses the much softer expression of urging member states to “prevent the flow of arms” into the Myanmar military’s hands – can fall flat in the face of major powers’ priorities not aligning to save precious lives in Myanmar.
Professor Swaran Singh is chairman of the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.