On September 14, the 75th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will host a critical diplomatic battle between two rival governments for a much-coveted prize: the right to occupy Myanmar’s U.N. seat.
On the one side is Myanmar’s military junta, and on the other side the National Unity Government (NUG), representing a coalition of pro-democracy forces and operating as a parallel government.
The Myanmar military’s seizure of power February triggered a storm of nationwide protests, a general strike, and a tenacious Civil Disobedience Movement, which combined to block any consolidation of the coup. Meanwhile, the ousted parliamentarians joined together with ethnic groups to form the NUG, which claims to be the legitimate, elected government of the country.
During the first UNGA debate after the coup, Myanmar’s Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who had been appointed by the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government, shocked the world by defying orders from his new military masters in Naypyidaw. Instead, he bravely condemned the coup.
His right to remain as ambassador of the ousted NLD government was affirmed by the U.N. legal affairs office, pending the resolution of his status by the upcoming UNGA credentials decision.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, has made it clear that the coup in Myanmar is unacceptable. “Coups have no place in our modern world,” he declared in his address to the U.N. Human Rights Council in February. But even that doesn’t guarantee that the junta will lose this month’s UNGA vote.
The stakes are high: the UNGA’s decision will give either the junta or the NUG the imprimatur of international legitimacy.
What Are the Odds of the NUG Winning the Seat?
The military regime has already received one major U.N. setback: in June, the UNGA passed a resolution (by 116 votes to one) calling on Myanmar’s armed forces to respect the will of the people, based on the result of the November 2020 election. The resolution also called on all countries to end arms dealing with Myanmar – an appeal, but not a mandatory arms embargo.
The firm rejection of the Myanmar’s military seizure of power follows past U.N. precedents, where member states placed democratic rights and governance above claims of territorial control.
The NUG case closely resembles those of Haiti and Sierra Leone, where military coups overthrew democratic governments in the 1990s. The General Assembly rejected both military regimes, Haiti in 1992 and Sierra Leone in 1997. In the latter case, the UNGA backed the credentials of the ousted Kabbah government. These are clearly important precedents for the Myanmar question.
By comparison, the credentials of the military-run State Administration Council (SAC) are extremely weak, according to U.N. human rights experts assigned to Myanmar.
In a recent briefing, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) explained that when the recognition of a new government is considered, three tests are usually applied: the entity’s effective control of the territory; its democratic legitimacy; and its adherence to international law. According to the SAC-M, the military regime fails on all three accounts. The advisory council concluded that the SAC “does not meet the standard criteria for U.N. recognition.”
When the credentials of the NUG are examined in the same way, the SAC-M briefly points out that “Unlike the junta, the NUG carries significant democratic legitimacy as the government appointed by the recently elected parliamentarians and its members have demonstrated far stronger commitment to international law.”
Andrews also noted that “[t]he NUG is broadly recognized by the population as the only legitimately established governmental body, and it has in place a ministerial structure that is involved in the issuance of policy and communiques.” SAC-M’s assessment concludes that “the NUG meets the criteria for international recognition as the government of Myanmar.”
But is a strong case of NUG recognition enough?
If all U.N. votes were decided only on legal grounds and past precedents, then the NUG claim to represent the people of Myanmar would appear to be a cut and dried case.
However, the Myanmar controversy is also subject to major geopolitical power struggles, which involve China, India, and the United States all seeking to expand their influence or contain their rivals. In addition, Russia has an agenda to sell more arms to the junta.
The U.N. Credentials Committee, which will make the initial decision that is sent to the UNGA, will almost certainly include China, Russia, and the U.S. among its nine members. The junta hopes its allies, China and Russia, will be able to water down the committee’s recommendations to the General Assembly. Both are likely to argue that the NUG has no significant territorial control.
In the face of strong opposition to awarding the seat to the NUG, a majority of the nine-member commission may opt for a compromise by deferring a decision for the moment and settling for an “empty seat” formula.
There are also several precedents for this course of action. The Credentials Committee deferred making any decision in the case of Cambodia after July 1997, when Hun Sen used military power to oust his partners in the Cambodian coalition government established in 1993.
ASEAN’s Regional Role
A lobbying effort against NUG recognition led by China and Russia, the junta’s key trading partners, would almost certainly garner support from at least half of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The regional bloc has still refrained from any formal condemnation of the February coup.
Former Cambodian ambassador Pou Sothirak, now the director of Cambodia’s Cooperation and Peace Institute, told the Diplomat, “It is very unlikely that ASEAN will have a common position on the UNGA vote, as individual member states vote differently, according to that country’s national interest and their relationship with the junta.” Cambodia and Laos are strongly influenced by China, and Thailand’s military leaders have close personal links to the Myanmar regime.
For the past seven months, ASEAN has dithered, delayed, and delivered nothing beyond an unimplemented Five-Point Consensus resolution, during a period that has seen mounting bloodshed, military massacres, and Myanmar slip toward the brink of full-blown civil war. Still, the United States, European Union, and China all continue to stress ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus as the linchpin of any solution to the crisis.
But even while counting on ASEAN, Western governments have increasingly engaged online with the NUG’s ministers, which ASEAN has failed to do. On the contrary, the regional bloc failed to invite elected MPs from the NUG to the recent ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Alliance conference, while the junta was allowed to send an observer.
ASEAN’s role in shielding the junta is bound to benefit moves in the U.N. to derail the NUG’s goal of claiming Myanmar’s seat.
But many observers think the world is paying too much attention to the regional bloc. “ASEAN is hopelessly divided on Myanmar,” said Phil Roberson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He argued that if the U.S. and EU “pin their policy towards Myanmar on the views and concerns of ASEAN, they are engaged in a fool’s errand. The NUG has widespread support among the Burmese people so they need to be part of any solution.”
By contrast Catherine Renshaw, an Australian academic, has offered a view no doubt shared by many risk-averse diplomats: “if a representative of the NUG were to take the seat of Myanmar in September, it would also seriously undermine the prospect of bringing the crisis to an end.”
However, given the junta has ruled out any dialogue with the pro-democracy NUG, which it has labelled a “terrorist” organization, it is a mystery how recognizing the NUG could undermine a non-existent dialogue process.
On the other hand, if the NUG were officially recognized, crossborder aid agreements with U.N. agencies would be easier to arrange. They could entirely bypass the military regime and their stronghold in Naypyidaw, the capital city, and extend the pro-democracy movement’s capacity for large-scale COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and aid distribution.
Meeting the basic criteria of democratic representation is probably not enough for the NUG to secure Myanmar’s U.N. seat in a region rife with authoritarian regimes and China-U.S. confrontation.
While the junta might not find many supporters, it’s an open question as to how many countries are willing to openly back the NUG. A substantial number of abstentions can be anticipated, including some skeptical Western governments.
The most likely outcome is for the UNGA to kick the can down the road and defer making a choice. However, maintaining the status quo would mean that Myanmar’s Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun should be reaffirmed in his current position. That would not be a complete NUG victory, but would still deliver a decisive U.N. rejection of the junta.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the SAC-M’s briefing to Tom Andrews, a U.N. human rights rapporteur. Andrews is not a current or former member of SAC-M and had no involvement in the issuing of the briefing paper.
An earlier version of this article also incorrectly described the procedural requirements for approving the decision on Myanmar’s U.N. seat.