(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School). 

When Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun took the floor of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 to condemn the weeks-old military coup and announce his loyalty to the elected government, he not only shocked all those tuning in who expected a pro forma defense of the Tatmadaw’s power grab and denunciation of U.N. interference. He also provided Myanmar’s democratic movement a potentially powerful new tool, both to help secure their legitimacy, and to shift the historic dynamics of U.N. failure in Myanmar. To make the most of this tool, the nascent National Unity Government (NUG) must quickly learn how to work with the U.N. system and leverage it for its intrinsic utility as well as to build out their footprint internationally. To date, the results have been mixed, but there are signs that the NUG is learning. Whether these efforts ultimately will be effective also depends on whether the U.N. system can learn from its own failures in Myanmar and make the necessary course corrections at this pivotal moment.

Past Imperfect

The U.N.’s history with Myanmar has been a multi-decade case study in the moral hazards that international organizations face when dealing with regimes that do not care about either the welfare of their own people or the opinions of outsiders. After being one of the first of the newly independent post-colonial countries to join the U.N., Myanmar enthusiastically participated in U.N. activities during the parliamentary democracy period. It even requested the U.N.’s help in dealing with spillover from the Chinese civil war, when both Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist troops breached Myanmar’s border.

After Ne Win’s 1962 coup, however, successive military regimes rigorously limited their engagement with international organizations out of an almost fanatical devotion to neutrality. Like other autarkic dictatorships, the Ne Win regime deeply distrusted the U.N. and particularly eschewed involvement with its field-based activities, even though his countryman U Thant served as U.N. Secretary General during much of the first decade of Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) rule. It was not just the U.N. that drew Ne Win’s suspicions: nearly all foreign organizations were kicked out of Myanmar during the 1960s and diplomats based in the country were heavily restricted. The BSPP’s fetishization of neutrality was such that Ne Win withdrew Myanmar from the Non-Aligned Movement in 1978 because he was concerned it had become too partisan toward the Soviet Union. Given the role of Southeast Asia as a major theater of Cold War contestation, and China’s mercurial role in these geostrategic games, one can hardly blame Myanmar for wanting to remain aloof from it all. But Ne Win’s autarky also ensured that Myanmar essentially was suspended in amber for more than a decade.

Faced with a ruinous economic situation, however, the post 1974-BSPP and its successors in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), while no less xenophobic, recognized that the U.N.’s rapidly expanding aid agencies could be useful as they attempted to address the country’s disastrous economic situation. The Tatmadaw generals seemed to innately grasp that these various humanitarian and development agencies cared more about their agency’s particular development and humanitarian mission set than about the quality of Myanmar’s governance and these agencies were competing for “clients” in the developing world. Having been locked out of Myanmar at the height of the BSPP’s autarky, these agencies were desperate to experiment on its broken economy and what they viewed as a tabula rasa society ripe for their modernization efforts. This gave the BSPP the ability to arbitrage aid agencies’ ambitions and silos, strictly limiting their staffing and physical access and insisting on a high degree of control over their activities in the country. Even after Ne Win resigned as BSPP chairman in 1988, the SLORC and it’s successor, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continued to use humanitarian access as a bargaining chip to ensure that agency operations were compliant. In the most striking – but far from the only example – of its extreme suspicion toward the U.N., the Burmese regime initially rejected U.N.-led humanitarian assistance in the wake of 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people, wiped out the critical Irrawaddy Delta rice production zone, and left millions homeless.

Political Battles at – and Over – the U.N.

In contrast to the aid agencies ostensibly apolitical approach, the U.N.’s Member State bodies have periodically attempted to involve themselves in Myanmar’s politics, especially after the Tatmadaw’s violent suppression of the 1988 uprising. The end of the Cold War and concurrent rise of liberal internationalism were rocket fuel to the U.N.’s political engagement in Myanmar. After the SLORC ignored the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the 1990 elections, the United States and other western democracies supported various resolutions in the U.N. Human Rights Commission and General Assembly, condemning the military’s brutal usurpation of democracy and appointing Special Rapporteurs to investigate its wrongdoings. The United States and other major donors also restricted U.N. agencies’ and international financial institutions’ cooperation with the military. U.N. agencies, in turn, complained bitterly about what they saw as the negative impact of these donor efforts to ensure aid was not instrumentalized by the military regime.

For their part, Burmese regimes did not appear to differentiate between the component parts of the U.N. system. The Secretary General’s Special Envoys typically were given privileged access to both junta members and detained opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, so long as they kept their public statements anodyne and their “negotiations” efforts within prescribed limits. Human Rights Special Rapporteurs, on the other hand, were forced to negotiate access on the narrowest of terms and often subjected to rough treatment on the ground. Special Rapporteur Paulo Pinheiro found a barely concealed listening device in the room where he was holding interviews with political prisoners. A violent mob attacked his successor Tomás Ojea Quintana’s motorcade during a field visit to Rakhine State following 2012 anti-Muslim violence there. Likewise, after she spoke out on the situation of the Rohingya, Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee was subjected to a steady stream of virulent misogynist verbal abuse before seeing her access cut off altogether.

For the U.N. agencies and personnel deployed in-country after 1988, efforts to navigate between their ‘apolitical’ aid and development missions and the extremely political Member-State activities in New York and Geneva – all while dealing with a distrustful and mercurial junta-often proved untenable. The treatment of the U.N. during the Saffron Revolution of 2007 is a case in point. As anti-regime protests intensified in the summer and fall of 2007, the dual-hatted Resident Coordinator/ Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar was Charles Petrie, a U.N. veteran who had been an eyewitness to the international community’s moral failure in the Rwandan genocide, was under pressure to speak out about the situation on the ground. His home agency, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), was often a target of criticism from human rights groups and the pro-democracy movement as soft on the military regime due to their focus on economic development. Even after the military started shooting at unarmed protesters and arresting U.N., Petrie studiously avoided direct criticism of the junta. It was only after the situation further deteriorated that Petrie issued a U.N. Day statement that obliquely linked economic hardship in Burma with the protests, after which the junta forced him to leave the country.

The Consequences of Contested Engagement

In trying to manage the sensitivities of both Burmese juntas and subsequent quasi-civilian governments, the U.N. generally has ended up pleasing no one and failing in its most basic tasks. The Tatmadaw was never going to embrace the U.N., given its innate xenophobia and the decades of General Assembly and Human Rights Commission and Council resolutions criticizing its ruinous and abusive rule. Prior to 2010, democratic forces and ethnic civil society criticized U.N. humanitarian and development programs on the ground as doing little more than legitimizing military rule. After a brief post-2010 honeymoon period, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD came to view the U.N. as unhelpful because she felt their consultation with treated her as a ‘box-checking’ exercise as they rushed to expand the U.N. presence under the Thein Sein government. After the NLD took power in March 2016, Suu Kyi’s negative view of the U.N. hardened in the face of Member State bodies’ condemnations of atrocities against the Rohingya while she was the de facto head of government. Suu Kyi’s antipathy towards the U.N. was undoubtedly fueled by veteran diplomats such as Kyaw Tint Swe who spent their careers vigorously defending military regime abuses and pushing back on the U.N. in Geneva and New York. By the time the August 2017 atrocities against the Rohingya began, there was little trust and empathy between the U.N. and the NLD government.

Once again, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Yangon, Renata Lok-Dessallien, was caught in these cross currents. A development expert by training, Lok-Dessallien was sent to Yangon to oversee the major expansion of U.N. agency partnerships with Myanmar’s government. In the end, her efforts to soft-pedal concerns about the Rohingya and other human rights issues prior to the 2017 atrocities did little to overcome the deep reservoir of hostility and distrust that colored the government’s view of the U.N. Her development-focused approach did, however, trouble her staff, especially those charged with implementing the U.N.’s “Human Rights Up Front” initiative. As the scale and scope of the atrocities in Rakhine State spiraled and international condemnation grew, Lok-Dessallien was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with the situation. Although the U.N. Secretariat in New York was aware she was flailing, they took no steps to recall or replace her until it was too late. This was all well documented in both contemporaneous media reports on the 2017 Rakhine crisis and the U.N.’s Rosenthal Report on the U.N.’s failure to anticipate or prevent the genocide.

Despite this checkered history, protestors in Myanmar initially called on the U.N. to act against the Feb. 1 coup and live up to its founding ideals. Invoking the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) and seizing on condemnatory statements by U.N. officials, many young protesters looked to the U.N. to send in peacekeepers or take other steps to restore the elected government. But so far, the U.N. has spectacularly failed to rise to the occasion. Blame for this failure has largely centered on the Security Council, where the United Kingdom and other so-called like-minded countries have taken a cautious incremental approach, ostensibly due to fear of a joint Chinese and Russian veto of any resolution they might table. As time passes since the coup and humanitarian needs rise, there also are growing concerns among the anti-coup forces that various U.N. agencies may be falling back into old habits of willingness to work with the junta in order to retain access to their projects in country.

A New Hope at the U.N.? Options for Constructive Engagement

Yet even as the U.N. has proven unable to stop the junta’s illegal coup or ameliorate the situation on the ground, it does have some specific utility for the democratic movement. For the first time, those facing off against a military junta have a Burmese ambassador in New York who has declared his loyalty to the democratic movement and is empowered to work with the entire U.N. system, including and especially on human rights issues. Practically speaking, control over the U.N. seat in New York can be a beachhead for the NUG’s broader efforts towards international recognition even as the struggle on the ground continues and the democratic leadership builds out its own institutions. Because many other governments will recognize whatever authorities are recognized by the U.N., controlling the General Assembly seat is critical.

Moreover, Permanent Representatives (PRs) in New York hold a privileged position within the U.N. system, surpassed only by ministers and heads of state and government from a protocol standpoint. As long as Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun remains credentialed to the U.N. as Myanmar’s PR, he is the senior-most Burmese diplomat accredited to the U.N. system. As a result, he can represent Myanmar at U.N. meetings not only in New York but also in Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Bangkok, Nairobi, or any other venue where the U.N. convenes Member States. The U.N.’s continued reliance on virtual meetings due to the pandemic is helpful in this regard, as Kyaw Moe Tun and his designates can remain in New York to defend his seat while representing Myanmar at U.N. events around the world.

On the programmatic side, the Civil Disobedience Movement’s (CDM’s) efforts to shut down economic activity in Myanmar and the NUG’s demand that humanitarian assistance not flow through military controlled channels have highlighted the need to establish parameters for cooperation with U.N. agencies, funds, and programs accustomed to dealing with Member State governments. To this end, the NUG can use their foothold in New York to pull through cooperation with U.N. agencies, including negotiating Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) on access, financing, and other modalities. By aligning these efforts with outreach to bilateral donors and multi-lateral development banks, the NUG can begin to demonstrate governance capabilities to their own people and the international community alike.

Working together with CDM diplomats in Geneva and elsewhere, the New York mission can coordinate diplomatic engagement across the entire U.N. system on everything from credentialling for meetings to negotiating MOUs with U.N. agencies. The NUG will need to provide strategic and policy guidance, including on where within the U.N. system to prioritize limited human resources for maximum impact. This was recently and unfortunately demonstrated when the junta successfully sent its murderous police chief to a U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) senior officials’ meeting. That event seems to have served as a wake-up call for the NUG on the need to track and manage such U.N. Member State-driven activities more effectively. On May 26, for instance, the World Health Assembly (WHA) refused to seat the junta’s delegate after the NUG submitted a competing credential request. While not a total victory, having the Myanmar chair empty is preferable to having the junta represent the country. The WHA’s decision also kicked the issue back to the General Assembly, highlighting the stakes for keeping the New York mission in the NUG’s hands.

Given the complexity of the task and the small number of diplomats the NUG currently has, both the New York mission and the NUG leadership will need to be creative and disciplined about staffing and other resource allocation decisions. For instance, civil society groups that work on human rights and humanitarian action have substantial resources and influence that make them potential force multipliers in these areas of alignment. While many small Member State missions in New York and Geneva have deep experience working with their own and international allied civil society partners, many experienced Burmese diplomats are more accustomed to seeing civil society as adversarial and both sides will have to overcome both a trust deficit and a learning curve to work together effectively.

The CDM diplomats are fortunate, however, that Burmese civil society has decades of experience partnering with regional and global advocacy groups and diplomats from other governments, especially in the priority areas of human rights and humanitarian assistance. The New York mission should look beyond the Secretary General’s Special Envoy and engage the various Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council that have an interest in Myanmar, including Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, and Special Representatives of the Secretary General on issues such as the Responsibility to Protect, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, and Children in Armed Conflict. These U.N. experts can be both resources for information and potential allies in the system.

Finally, the NUG must have a clear plan for holding on to Myanmar’s U.N. General Assembly seat when the next General Assembly session begins in September. The NUG and the junta are likely to submit competing credentials for the session, and the U.N. Credentials Committee and ultimately the General Assembly itself will likely be drawn into a credentials fight. While the technical and protocol aspects of U.N. credentialling are relatively straightforward, those credentials fights that have taken place over the 75-year history of the U.N. have largely followed a pattern where initially ‘possession is 9/10ths of the law’ but the representation usually ends up aligning with political reality on the ground – regardless of the legitimacy of that reality.  The refusal to seat representatives of South Africa’s apartheid government is one of the few cases where the U.N. acted from a moral imperative.

The situation of Myanmar is likely to challenge the U.N., both institutionally and among its individual member states. By working now to establish Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun as an active and credible representative of the Burmese people across the U.N. system, the NUG can create facts on the ground that may prove dispositive when his credentials are challenged in September. The more his counterparts in New York see him as the legitimate representative, the more likely they are to support him, if for no other reason than they themselves would not wish to be arbitrarily replaced as the result of an illegal coup. For its part, the U.N. system should recognize that they have an historic opportunity to align with the Burmese people’s democratic aspirations and contribute positively to this hinge moment in Myanmar’s history. By drawing lessons from the missed opportunities and failures of the past, the system can try to turn a new page.

For the programmatic pillars of the system, this means being more cognizant and tolerant of political risk than they are typically comfortable being. The UNDP – both because of its past issues in Myanmar and because it has specific responsibilities with regard to governance – should stake out a leadership role in supporting the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people and work with both the NUG and civil society on urgent governance challenges that have resulted from the coup. UNDP also has an existing MOU to work on Rakhine State, signed with the NLD government, that can provide the basis for addressing that troubled region. Likewise, agencies such as U.N. Fund for Children (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP) can work directly with the NUG to address urgent humanitarian needs. In the past, these agencies have been more adept at handling political ambiguity and demonstrating flexibility, and these skill sets will be necessary to navigate the current situation.

On the Member State side, creativity will also be required, including looking beyond the politicized Security Council and Human Rights Council. One potential solution is to empower entities such as the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (IIMM), that were created by Member States but operate as independent technical bodies. The IIMM’s mandate should be interpreted (or expanded) as needed to allow it to provide technical assistance directly to the NUG, including by confidentially sharing evidence about the atrocities against the Rohingya. Helping the NUG and its ministers to understand and come to terms with the scope and scale of atrocities the Tatmadaw committed during the NLD’s watch could help to advance the cause of recognition and reconciliation that ultimately is core to Myanmar’s nation-building project. This is a delicate task, but one that the IIMM – as a technical body that is built on collecting and following the evidence rather than advocating for any particular outcome – is uniquely qualified to undertake. Given that the overwhelming majority of Member States have supported resolutions in the General Assembly condemning the atrocities against the Rohingya, the NUG’s inability to date to adequately address the Rohingya issue remains a major stumbling block as countries consider whether to recognize it. A successful two-way partnership between the IIMM and the NUG could help to address this issue in a more constructive way.

In light of the many challenges facing Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement at the moment, leveraging the country’s U.N. General Assembly seat may not be top of mind for the NUG. Nonetheless, the seat – and the source of legitimacy that comes with it – represents a major tangible asset that has real value to other countries that otherwise may be inclined to pay the NUG little attention. Whether the NUG can deploy this asset strategically and successfully could make the difference as it struggles to establish itself on the international stage. After decades of awkward and all-around frustrating engagement, the U.N. also needs to step forward with a more flexible and conscious approach that shows it has learned from past mistakes. Even if both sides can break old habits, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be successful for the Burmese people. But if the NUG and U.N. squander this opportunity by repeating old patterns, it is virtually guaranteed that everyone stands to lose.

Image: Myanmar migrants in Thailand take part in a protest against the military coup in their home country, in front of the United Nations ESCAP building in Bangkok on March 7, 2021. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) (Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)