1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Myanmar

Q&A: Why the UN’s Myanmar coup response has to change

‘There's been a kind of comfort in the UN in making public statements without trying the more challenging parts.’

A protester waves a Myanmar flag in front of a UN building in Bangkok on 7 February, 2021. Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Image via Reuters Connect
A protester waves a Myanmar flag in front of a UN building in Bangkok on 7 February, 2021.

Related stories

The UN response in the months since Myanmar’s military seized power in a pre-dawn coup on 1 February has been “woefully inadequate” and “bereft of leadership, direction, and coherence at multiple levels”.

That criticism comes from a new report by the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank now led by a former head of the UN’s human rights office, and whose focus includes research and advocacy on global crisis response.

Based on recent interviews with nearly 20 UN and other aid agency officials in Myanmar, the report charges that the UN team in the country has largely failed to implement basic protection measures such as legal aid and psychological support that could have helped protesters during weeks of violent security crackdowns on anti-coup demonstrations. It claims the UN is hamstrung by a culture of risk aversion on the ground, and the lack of a clear strategy to resolve the coup at the highest level.

The UN disputes these assessments. A spokesperson told The New Humanitarian: “The centrality of protection and human rights has been integral to every aspect of our response.”  

READ MORE: The UN’s response to criticism on Myanmar

The New Humanitarian asked the UN in Myanmar to comment on criticisms that the system has been “bereft of leadership, direction, and coherence”, and that the response has been “woefully inadequate”. A spokesperson provided this written response:

“The Secretary-General has taken a very clear and vocal position on the situation in Myanmar. The UN Country Team has followed this approach at every level. The centrality of protection and human rights has been integral to every aspect of our response, from our field staff to our leadership. Despite the highly restrictive operational context, the UN Country Team remains on the ground and is delivering much needed assistance to vulnerable people in Myanmar. We are doing everything we can to leave no one behind.

“Since the military takeover on 1 February, the UN team in Myanmar has continuously condemned in the strongest terms the widespread use of lethal force, as well as other serious violations of human rights, reiterating that the use of excessive force by security forces – including the use of live ammunition – must stop.”

Myanmar’s economy and public health system have been virtually frozen during the coup’s fallout. Long-running conflicts in border regions have escalated, forcing more than 200,000 new displacements since February and raising fears of a food crisis.

Damian Lilly, the report’s author and director of protection at the London-based Myanmar Accountability Project, is also an independent consultant based until recently in Myanmar. Lilly previously held senior protection roles at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and the UN mission in South Sudan. 

He spoke to The New Humanitarian about engaging with Myanmar’s junta, how the UN approach has changed since 2017’s Rohingya refugee crisis, and why the international community should better support frontline rights groups.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: You said the UN system has been “bereft of leadership, direction, and coherence at multiple levels” in responding to this crisis. That's pretty damning. 

Damian Lilly: The thing to remember is the UN is two things – the member states and the different entities that support it. 

The primary lack of leadership and systemic failure is around the Security Council, the General Assembly, and other bodies. Myanmar isn't the only country where the Security Council has failed to take action, but there are many things it can do, particularly in supporting the ASEAN process [to resolve the crisis through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc]. There really hasn't been an established political process [in Myanmar] unlike in many other contexts, and one is urgently needed. 

“The UN needs a political strategy on how it will engage [the junta] to find a political solution to the crisis. That's lacking at the moment.”

Then there are different entities like the special envoy [appointed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres] and agencies providing humanitarian assistance within Myanmar. That comment applies to all these elements of the UN, which collectively have been a systemic failure.

When the coup happened, it was quite clear the UN was not going to recognise what is seen as an illegal seizure of power and has distanced itself from the military regime. However, the UN needs a political strategy on how it will engage [the junta] to find a political solution to the crisis. That's lacking at the moment.

The New Humanitarian: This distancing you mentioned was perhaps done to not legitimise the junta, and also because of a fear of public backlash. But you say this means the UN is not fulfilling its duties.

Lilly: Absolutely. The UN deals with very problematic governments around the world, and that doesn't necessarily undermine its neutrality. What I heard or saw when I was in Myanmar is that this was used as an excuse not to engage on some of the more challenging issues. 

The most senior Western [aid] official to meet the junta has been the [International Committee of the Red Cross] president. They are the custodians of humanitarian principles and they've engaged with that agenda. Why hasn't the UN done that? 

The ICRC carried a message that there needed to be humanitarian access, access to detention centres, and the protection of civilians. It was done in a very public way, but the [UN] dialogue can be private. As the report points out, there's been a kind of comfort in the UN in making public statements without trying the more challenging parts. 

The New Humanitarian: You also call the UN “risk averse”. What does that mean in practice, and what has this led to? 

Lilly: Again, it goes back to the lack of a political strategy. The special envoy has been unable to visit, and the secretary-general hasn't visited or established what the UN's role is. In that sense, it's quite difficult for agencies implementing on the ground to have the space to do their work. They face real security risks, and being outspoken could lead to less humanitarian access in other parts of Myanmar.

That said, I think that has been used as an excuse not to act. For example, in Yangon, thousands of people were displaced in Hlaing Tharyar in March [during a military crackdown in the township]. Yet there weren’t UN assessments of the needs. I think there was a bit of this bunker mentality that, “Given all these risks, we can't do anything now”. 

The people I spoke to also highlighted “do no harm” when it comes to engaging with local human rights organisations – that your engagement with them might lead them to be detained or go into hiding. 

They could have set up more of a remote monitoring system. Psychosocial support for people traumatised by the violence is also something the UN does in many countries. Some of these happened but on a very limited scale. A lot of this is because of this risk aversion and also because the UN didn't have operations ongoing in Yangon. But they do have partners. 

Local civil society and human rights organisations were evacuating people from the violence and providing direct material assistance, but the UN hadn't established a mechanism to support them directly. 

The New Humanitarian: You said the UN should work with ASEAN. Do you see the Tripartite Mechanism – which was set up in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and included officials from Myanmar, ASEAN, and the UN – as a model? 

Lilly: I wasn't around then but it’s obviously an example of a partnership between the UN, ASEAN, and Myanmar authorities through which assistance was provided. So there's definitely precedent. 

The UN could offer ASEAN support for its five-point plan that was agreed in April. 

I think it would really take a visit by the secretary-general to the region to establish a more formal partnership with ASEAN and concerned states. In Syria and Libya, the UN has been directly involved in the peace process. Only days ago, the secretary-general was on a call with Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia about a ceasefire in Tigray. 

If you look at those examples about what the UN is doing in other parts of the world and in Myanmar, there's just a massive gap. I think this is to the detriment of the people in Myanmar and what they deserve from the organisation.

The New Humanitarian: Your report talks about the “siloed” nature of the UN. How has this affected the response to the post-coup crisis?

Lilly: The UN works in silos. It has political, human rights, humanitarian, and development streams, and this crisis has all of those elements. Therefore it's really unhelpful to use these labels. 

If you ask anyone in Myanmar, “Do you have a political problem or a humanitarian problem?”, they’d say, “I don’t know. I have a problem and I want you to do something about it.” 

“The UN works in silos. It has political, human rights, humanitarian, and development streams, and this crisis has all of those elements.”

When the crisis came, the assumption was, “This isn't a humanitarian issue. This is a political problem, a human rights problem, and therefore other people are going to respond to this.”

But the definition of a humanitarian crisis is quite elastic. More than 800 people have died and more than 230,000 people have been displaced. The humanitarian consequences are undeniable, but a revised humanitarian appeal has been a long time in coming.

The New Humanitarian: I’d like you to compare and contrast the criticism the UN received after the military purge of Rohingya civilians from Rakhine State in 2017 with the situation today.

Lilly: I wasn't in Myanmar then, but my understanding from everyone I spoke to and also reading the reports, is that there was a lot of disunity within the UN country team. There was deliberate downplaying of the gravity of the situation and a developmental approach to what was a human rights crisis. In this report, I was keen to look back to Rakhine and see: Is this the same failure?  

I don't think there's disunity now. The UN country team and others have been very outspoken, so there clearly has been progress, but it doesn’t take too much judgement to figure out that what [the junta] is doing is problematic. But also, limited action was taken, post-Rakhine, to strengthen the UN human rights capacity in Myanmar. Somebody came and wrote a human rights strategy and there were various trainings, but there wasn't anything more to prepare the organisation for something like this. 

In Afghanistan, the UN sits down on a regular basis with the Taliban and talks to them about what they're doing; the harming of civilians. This could be drawn upon and adapted in Myanmar. 

The New Humanitarian: Could the UN really have done anything when the international community itself doesn't have the political will, as you note in the report? And what should the UN in Myanmar do, going forward? 

Lilly: I think the two things go hand in hand. The first thing is there needs to be clear political action from the Security Council that would then enable the UN on the ground. That said, it shouldn't be used as an excuse to not act.

I’ve tried to make modest recommendations in the report. Define a political strategy that isn't just about the special envoy visiting Myanmar, but how the UN can support ASEAN. 

Secondly, they should be supporting local rights organisations and civil society that are doing legitimate, impartial, neutral work. There should be far greater engagement with them on multiple levels – not just financial. 

Then, significantly scale up protection services like psychosocial support and legal aid. 

These aren’t going to suddenly end the coup and the violence, but they are important and get out of this mindset of, “This is all too sensitive. We cannot do anything.”


Read more about...

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.