Myanmar: The UNSC Backlash?

2006

[NAME AND ADDRESS WITHHELD. ED.]

Year after year, since 1991, non-binding resolutions expressing grave concern over human rights violations, political repression and the lack of civil liberties, while urging the Myanmar junta to hold a tripartite dialogue (with the junta, the National League for Democracy or NLD and ethnic minorities), have been passed at the United Nations General Assembly only to be vigorously refuted and completely ignored by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as well as its predecessor the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Such annual exercises in diplomacy seem to have become a symbolic ritual whereby the defenders and detractors of the regime can reach at least a common denominator after the haggling and agonizing. The United Nations has increasingly appeared impotent as its other initiative by the Secretaries-General - of brokering dialogue between the junta and the opposition through two designated special envoys - has over the last decade borne little fruit, with the relatively more successful last envoy resigning in frustration in January this year.

In September 2005, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Laureate South African Bishop Desmond Tutu commissioned a report entitled 'Threat to the Peace - A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma'. This set off an avalanche of similar calls to bring Myanmar's case to the UNSC spearheaded by the US government and its allies as well as parliamentarians, the international mass media, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), anti-regime lobbies, rebel groups and prominent personalities. Despite the regime's best efforts to belittle and denounce the report, the issue refused to go away and the US managed to convince the UNSC to allow a briefing on Myanmar by a senior UN official in December 2005. This was followed by a visit to Myanmar in May 2006 by the UN Under Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari as special envoy for Secretary-General Kofi Annan that yielded no tangible results.

The US Ambassador John Bolton, in a letter (dated 1 September) to the Greek President of the UNSC, requested that the situation in Myanmar 'be placed on the Council's agenda', citing concern over the 'deteriorating situation in Myanmar' that is likely 'to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security', and result in the outflow of 'refugees, drugs, HIV/AIDS and other diseases' which in turn 'threatens to have a destabilizing impact on the region'. At the UNSC meeting on 15 September, lasting only 15 minutes, despite China's vigorous defence of Myanmar questioning of the 'preposterous' logic and making an unequivocal objection to the US proposal, and Qatar's objection to the 'inappropriate' nature of the request, the Council adopted the US proposal to include the Myanmar issue on its agenda by a majority vote obtained through a show of hands (For: Argentina, Denmark, France, Ghana, Greece, Japan, Peru, Slovakia, Britain, Northern Ireland and USA; Against: China, Congo, Qatar, Russia; Abstained: Tanzania). Being a procedural vote it was not subject to a veto by any of the 'Permanent Five'. The Council also agreed to schedule a briefing by Gambari not earlier than 19 September. Subsequently, there was a closed-door meeting of the UNSC on 29 September where Under Secretary-General Gambari, who briefed its members, was reported to have said that there had been 'measured progress' in some areas such as a cessation of forced labour. However, he also stated that his 'engagement' with Myanmar 'should not be for the sake of engagement', but that 'some results in terms of concrete progress in addressing the issues' was expected.

After that meeting, Ambassador Bolton indicated that the US would work to seek a UNSC resolution later in the year, demanding the release of political prisoners and a democratic movement toward an inclusive national reconciliation. The British representative ruled out a 'punitive resolution at this stage' and instead advocated extending 'a hand to the government' to find 'a way out of the problems of poverty, drugs and HIV' in support of the 'people of Myanmar'.

Predictably, the junta reacted immediately with a variety of measures that included refutation at the UN General Assembly, clarification and denunciation in speeches given by senior junta members, a media blitz against the US and internal and external 'traitors', 'destructive elements', 'power mad politicians', and formal condemnations by ceasefire groups. The opening plenary session of the National Convention (NC) on 10 October devoted an entire special session in the afternoon to criticizing the UNSC action, thereby roundly condemning the US and its followers.

On the other hand, the opposition movement at home and abroad joined the chorus of approval for the UNSC move voiced by advocacy groups, human rights NGOs and sympathetic legislators. The NLD and the so-called 88-generation students leaders (most of whom were released from long prison sentences last year) went public calling for political dialogue, release of prisoners and national all-inclusive reconciliation, while welcoming the discussion of Myanmar issues in the UNSC. They also found creative ways to exploit social and religious occasions to gather and interact among themselves as well as with the grassroots. Independent political figures, octogenarian nationalists and some prominent literati doyennes also spoke out in favour of the opposition agenda.

This, in the eyes of the security establishment, appears to be gaining momentum and apparently shows sign of being a coalescing social movement that could snowball into a formidable force; especially with the rising popularity and stature of the student leaders who seem to be regarded by the public as more inspiring than the moribund NLD, with the UNSC issue providing an external dimension contributing to the erosion of the regime's legitimacy. The reaction was to detain the three most prominent student leaders on the eve of the NLD's founding celebrations and another two in the following week. Initially insisting that they were not arrested but were temporarily brought in for discussion with higher authorities, it was later publicly revealed that they were being detained for having links with expatriate Myanmar terrorists - a claim which was denied by both the organizations concerned and the victims' friends and relatives.

Meanwhile, the reaction from the remaining 88-generation students - in the form of signature campaign for their release and a call for symbolic gestures like wearing white apparel - fails to cut ice with the authorities. Instead, such strategies are likely to heighten the suspicions of the security agencies and may be seen as further acts of defiance. The NLD could also be implicated by association and may become the target for a new round of persecution.

However, it is extremely unlikely that a strong resolution can be arrived at in the UNSC because of Chinese and Russian veto powers. Nevertheless, the junta has suffered a big loss of face and is probably concerned about the conjunction of adverse events within and without the country in this crucial finalizing stage of the much-vaunted NC. In fact, links between the UNSC action and the threat posed to the NC process and the road map have already been touted by junta spokespersons and in government news media. A further clamp down on dissent and harsh exemplary action against the 88-generation students cannot be ruled out.

WATCHPOINT: In the aftermath of the UNSC saga there could be further repression against political activities and dissent while the NC will be bulldozed to a conclusion in 2007. Will Gambari's visit in November yield any positive results?

 

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