The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has unanimously called for a reversal of the military coup in Myanmar, condemning the junta’s violence against peaceful protesters and calling for the military and its auxiliaries to exercise “utmost restraint.”
In a presidential statement issued on Wednesday, the council called for the immediate release of government leaders including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who have been detained since the country’s military seized power on February 1.
The British-drafted statement stated that the Council “strongly condemns” the violence against peaceful protesters and “calls for the military to exercise utmost restraint.” It also expresses support for the country’s democratic transition and “stresses the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and uphold the rule of law.” The statement also encouraged the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar to visit the country “as soon as possible.”
More than 60 protesters have been killed and some 2,000 people have been detained by security forces since the military’s seizure of power, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local advocacy group.
In condemning the coup, however, the UNSC largely stuck to the realm of words. The initial draft statement, circulated by the delegation of the United Kingdom, would have condemned the military takeover as a coup and threatened “possible measures under the U.N. Charter [i.e. sanctions] should the situation deteriorate further.” According to reports, four of the 15 Council members – China, Russia, India, and Vietnam – objected to the stronger language in the U.K.’s earlier drafts.
The statement, which followed a press statement that the UNSC issued on February 4 backing a return to democracy and calling for the immediate release of all those arbitrarily detained by the military, was met by frustration from protesters and rights groups. The Twitter account of the Milk Tea Alliance Myanmar said that it was “disappointed” in the outcome, while Matthew Smith, executive director of the rights group Fortify Rights, tweeted, “In calling for “restraint” merely, the broken U.N. Security Council has once again failed the people of Myanmar.”
While the UNSC’s caution was largely predictable, given the self-interest of Myanmar’s neighbors and their skepticism that outside intervention would improve the situation, it was notable that all five permanent members of the council supported the presidential statement, only its fourth ever on Myanmar.
“The mere fact that there is a statement at all is a minor miracle,” Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. liaison, told CNN. He added that the statement was “mildly unsatisfactory for everyone” – too weak for the U.K., France, and U.S. and too strong for China and Russia – “but it sends the generals in Myanmar a message that the U.N. is still watching them, and Beijing won’t give them total cover for human rights abuses.”
Meanwhile, individual nations continue to ramp up their own pressure on Myanmar’s junta. On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed a further round of sanctions, blacklisting Aung Pyae Sone and Khin Thiri Thet Mon, the adult children of Myanmar’s commander in chief Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, as well as six companies connected to them.
“The indiscriminate violence by Burma’s security forces against peaceful protesters is unacceptable,” Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement announcing the new measures.
The companies blacklisted by Treasury include A&M Mahar, which is controlled by Aung Pyae Sone, and reportedly offers foreign pharmaceutical firms access to Myanmar’s market by obtaining approvals from the country’s Food and Drug Administration. Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on the Myanmar junta. They also include “an upscale gym and a movie/TV production house.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that more punitive actions could follow, warning, “We will not hesitate to take further action against those who instigate violence and suppress the will of the people.”
John Sifton of the rights organization Human Rights Watch applauded the U.S. government’s move but said much more needed to be done. “These are not the kind of punitive actions that we believe will lead to behavioral change,” he told Reuters. “We are recommending they focus on ongoing revenue streams which are far larger and if cut off would be far more painful to the military as are an institution.”
The most likely target of such an effort would be the country’s two top military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Company (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), which the U.S. Commerce Department added to a trade ban list last week.
The two holding companies connect the Myanmar military to nearly every sector of the country’s economy, from mining and telecoms to beer, cigarettes, and real estate, and provide it with a deep wellspring of funds. But given the enmeshment of these conglomerates with Myanmar’s economy as a whole, action against them could well have collateral economic effects on the country’s population at large, something that most Western governments say they wish to avoid.
While international pressure will be a necessary part of any negotiated settlement to the crisis in Myanmar, foreign governments find themselves facing a dilemma in which the sanctions with the most chance of shifting the Tatmadaw’s political calculus are those that carry the most risk of inflicting broader damage to the country’s economy, and the livelihoods of its people. Even then, there is no guarantee that they will succeed.
Ultimately, much will depend on broader diplomatic efforts, including on the part of the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to initiate negotiations between the military and the pro-democracy camp – a process in which outside economic pressure could potentially play a decisive role.
As it stands, the UNSC statement reflects the fact that there remains a hopeful opening for diplomatic action on Myanmar. While China and Western nations may disagree on the ultimate goal of any negotiations, and many of the specifics on how to get there, neither stands to gain from the violence and chaos that is now engulfing the country. To what extent they will be able to lay aside strategic rivalry in order to arrest the spiraling chaos in Myanmar remains uncertain, but there is reason to be cautiously hopeful.