Diplomatic struggle for Myanmar's seat at UN

General Assembly to decide whether seat will go to junta or shadow govt - or remain empty

Months of diplomatic rivalry between the Myanmar junta and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) will come to a head over the next few weeks, with the United Nations General Assembly due to decide which of the two - or none at all - will represent the country at the world body.

A nine-member credentials committee to be formed after the 76th session of the General Assembly opens today will assess the competing representation bids. Its decisions tend to be adopted without amendment by the larger body.

While individual countries are not obliged to follow the General Assembly's decision in their bilateral dealings with Myanmar, legal experts expect UN organs to take their cue from it.

This could affect the UN's future engagement with Myanmar, which has been trapped in increasingly violent turmoil since the military's Feb 1 coup.

"Once the credentials committee has made a decision, and the General Assembly has approved one or the other authority to represent Myanmar at the General Assembly, the expectation would be the other parts of the UN system would follow," Ms Rebecca Barber, a research fellow at the University of Queensland's Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, told The Straits Times.

She is one of the 11 international experts who urged the General Assembly to recognise the NUG in a legal opinion released yesterday.

"Politically, it would be a lot easier for states to say they recognise the NUG or they recognise the junta once the General Assembly has made that decision," she said.

Three UN organs - the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and the Human Rights Council - have deferred their decision on which party should represent Myanmar at the General Assembly.

While major powers around the world have tiptoed around the issue of legitimising any party in Myanmar, countries like China and Russia, as well as Asean, have conferred de facto recognition on the junta through their high-level interactions with its officials.

In June, the General Assembly voted 119-1 to support a resolution condemning the coup and demand the release of civilian politicians like National League for Democracy leader (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the putsch. It is not legally binding.

There have been past instances, like after the 1997 coup in Sierra Leone and the 2009 coup in Honduras, when the UN committee accepted the representative of the constitutional governments.

The committee could also defer the decision and leave Myanmar's incumbent UN representative in his seat, or leave the seat vacant. The latter amounts to de facto suspension of Myanmar's membership from the world body.

Myanmar is represented at the UN by the NUG-aligned Mr Kyaw Moe Tun, whom the junta sacked and charged with high treason. He was targeted in an alleged assassination plot uncovered in August.

The envoy told ST last Wednesday that his UN seat was crucial to "convey the voices of the people of Myanmar to the international community".

The NUG last Tuesday declared a "people's defensive war" on the junta, causing a surge of attacks on troops, junta collaborators and military-linked telecoms towers. This in turn triggered scorched-earth style crackdowns by troops.

The NUG said in a press release yesterday: "With the failure of various political and diplomatic efforts to stop the military's brutality in the past eight months, local communities are forced to form defence forces and to defend themselves from continuous military atrocities."

Professor Yanghee Lee, former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, called the NUG's declaration "unfortunate", but stressed: "We empathise with the people of Myanmar."

The regime has killed at least 1,088 people and continues to detain more than 6,000, according to human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing alleges that Myanmar's election last November was fraudulent. He has promised to lift the current state of emergency by August 2023, and hold fresh polls.

Over the weekend, junta-controlled media said the "so-called 'People's Defence Forces' terrorists, extremist NLD members and professional saboteurs" killed at least 799 people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Diplomatic struggle for Myanmar's seat at UN'. Subscribe