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Has the UN been letting the people of Myanmar down?

'The people in Myanmar feel betrayed by the UN. They haven't come to the rescue.'

Pictured are protesters shouting slogans during a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand, 1 February, 2023. Protesters are wearing red headbands, at the center is a man pointing upwards. Behind him there is a banner with the words: "SAVE MYANMAR" Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in the Thai capital, Bangkok, on 1 February 2023.

Two and a half years, at least 6,337 civilian deaths already by September 2022, and little action from the UN to try to change the parameters of what has become a protracted conflict: This is the narrative of a new report by an independent group of experts that accuses the UN of appeasing Myanmar’s military junta and failing to take the right moves to stem the violence. 

The 79-page report, by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), slams the UN for issuing strongly worded statements – from the Human Rights Council to the Security Council to the General Assembly – but failing to turn condemnations into serious actions against the junta. 

Likewise, the authors of the “How the UN is failing Myanmar” report, which was published last week, say that referring to the junta as “de facto” rulers imbues it with more authority than it deserves, as a force that took control over the country through a violent coup.

The junta, it says, restricts the UN Myanmar country team (UNCT) and others from delivering aid to areas held by the resistance, and the UN’s adherence to these restrictions is leaving many without life-saving assistance.

Myanmar descended into chaos in February 2021 when the military usurped the democratically elected government, imprisoning politicians and launching a deadly crackdown on any citizens suspected of opposing its rule.

In response, a civil disobedience movement emerged, and reports of fighting between resistance forces and the junta have since become commonplace, while the bombing and burning of villages, the brutal killing of civilians, and the torture of children have all become synonymous with the military regime.

“I think it’s important to note that the UN has failed Myanmar for many years, but its post-coup performance has been the nadir of its institutional impotence and hypocrisy,” David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst on Myanmar, told The New Humanitarian. 

The report criticises the UN system as a whole, the UNCT, and Secretary-General António Guterres, for a lack of action and support. The UNCT treats the junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), as the “de facto government” and is prioritising having a presence in Myanmar over having an impact, it states.

“The people in Myanmar feel betrayed by the UN. They haven't come to the rescue,” Yanghee Lee, former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar and founding member of the SAC-M, told The New Humanitarian. 

“It is pursuing the same failed approach of appeasing the military, despite the growing risks and ever fewer results,” Lee said.

Asked by The New Humanitarian about such accusations, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, said Guterres “reaffirms his solidarity with the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations”, and that he has “urged neighbouring countries in particular to leverage their influence”.

The UN, Dujarric added, is committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure that urgent lifesaving assistance is provided to the people of Myanmar through all available channels. 

Sanctions and condemnation have little to no effect

At the time of the coup, the UN and several member states, including Britain and the United States, condemned the junta’s actions. Some implemented sanctions; the EU, for example, has asset and travel bans on 99 individuals associated with the military, and on 19 entities.

Shortly afterwards, the UN adopted a resolution on Myanmar that called for the restoration of democracy, condemned the violence, and pushed for an arms embargo. Additional resolutions denouncing the atrocities have since been adopted by the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council. 

But such actions have made little difference, and today the conflict continues unabated, with deaths and displacement a daily occurrence. As a result, 17.6 million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance this year; one million more than before the coup.

“I think the UN does its best, but I want to hear… stronger statements and the UN should find an alternative way to support the humanitarian system in Burma.”

Late on Monday night, 29 people, including several children, were killed by artillery fire in a displacement camp in an area of northern Myanmar controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), an armed opposition group that has been fighting for self-rule for decades. KIO sources blamed the junta for the deaths, all of whom, it says, were civilians. A junta spokesperson denied its forces were responsible.

Banya, the founder of the Karenni Human Rights Group, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, said he wished the UN could do more but accepts that it has limitations.

“I think the UN does its best, but I want to hear… stronger statements and the UN should find an alternative way to support the humanitarian system in Burma,” he told The New Humanitarian, adding that it should put greater pressure on Thailand and other neighbouring countries to support cross-border assistance.

“In Karenni State, people who have been displaced due to the military attacks have not received any support from international humanitarian organisations, particularly from the UN agencies,” Musel, an aid worker with the local humanitarian group Kyay Latt Myay, told the SAC-M authors. “They can only support where the junta allows them to reach.” 

An estimated 70,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries since the coup, but Malaysia and Thailand have been criticised for attempting to return them. At the same time, the situation inside camps in Bangladesh that have held more than 920,000 Rohingya Muslims since the military’s persecution of them in 2021, remains dire

The UN secretary-general could be instrumental in negotiating with other countries for cross-border humanitarian access, but thus far such leadership has been non-existent, Lee said. “He does a lot of words condemning, but he hasn't taken any actions at all. That's very strange,” she added. “He's been to Ukraine how many times now? He hasn't, not once, been to Myanmar.” Guterres has visited Ukraine three times since it was invaded by Russia, and is yet to visit Myanmar since becoming secretary-general. 

Around 60,000 people have formed over 250 resistance groups to take on the junta, many of them associated with the armed wing of the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG). 

The SAC-M report says the UN hasn’t engaged adequately with the NUG, and it criticised the secretary-general’s delegation of Myanmar to a special envoy. That role, however, is currently vacant, following Noeleen Heyzer’s resignation in June. She was only able to secure one meeting with the SAC, and instead focused on trying to create more cohesion among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

Finding a path forward 

While it’s easy to blame the secretary-general, Mathieson said the fault ultimately lies with the member states and the entire international system, including ASEAN, which is also divided on how to handle Myanmar.

The regional bloc created a peace plan with the SAC in 2021 known as the “Five-Point Consensus”, but efforts to implement it have stalled.

Earlier this year, Tom Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the world was looking to ASEAN for leadership on how to handle the conflict and suggested it should therefore be taking more action. Dujarric said the UN’s cooperation with ASEAN remains a priority.

“We should be providing as much support as we can to these people resisting these brutal tactics. Listening to them and trying to collaborate with them to come up with answers is the best approach.” 

According to John Quinley, director of Fortify Rights, Andrews has taken a harder line than most against the Myanmar junta. “His mandate is independent, so he's working a little bit outside the UN context,” he said.

In its report, the SAC-M recommends the UN work with the NUG and other resistance authorities to provide better humanitarian access, while urging the secretary-general to lead the development of a “comprehensive and coherent system-wide UN strategy”.

“[It needs to] adopt concrete measures to stop the junta’s violence and bring it to justice,” it states.

In practice, Lee said that should encompass a global arms embargo that involves a ban on selling products that go into the munitions and ammunition supply-chain in Myanmar, and an examination of bank accounts linked to military members. “We need to cut that totally,” she said. 

For Quinley, the UN should also start speaking publicly about the atrocities and naming the perpetrators.

At the same time, he called for ASEAN members to stop collaborating with the junta. “We should be providing as much support as we can to these people resisting these brutal tactics,” he said. “Listening to them and trying to collaborate with them to come up with answers is the best approach.” 

Mathieson went further. He believes the international community should limit UN engagement inside junta-controlled areas, assist in the localisation of aid and development, and help to coordinate “the SAC’s constellation of opponents”.

“This would require the UN acting in a fundamentally different fashion,” he said. “In other words, it’s highly unlikely. The entire UN system simply doesn’t have the strategic or moral bandwidth to work on Myanmar in a more constructive manner.”

Local aid actors in Myanmar, in particular, have long questioned the appropriateness of maintaining neutrality in the face of junta abuses and raised the moral dilemma of helping the armed resistance.

Edited by Ali M. Latifi.

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