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Can Vietnam Rally the Big UN Powers to Stop More Bloodshed in Myanmar?

Dang Dinh Quy
Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy of Vietnam posing in his country’s mission office near the United Nations in New York City, March 2021. Vietnam leads the Security Council this month as rotating president. The crisis in Myanmar will be further scrutinized in the Council, as it has been since the Feb. 1 coup. JOHN PENNEY

When Vietnam started its term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council in January 2020, it also had to take on the role of the monthly rotating president. Back then, it sold itself as a bridge builder among the Council’s major powers.

Vietnam’s second presidency, which started on April 1, is squeezed between the United States’ in March and China’s in May. These powers are not only foes at the moment, but they also have starkly different approaches to the crisis in Myanmar, with violence spiking in the Southeast Asian country after the military seized power on Feb.1. Can Vietnam help Washington and Beijing find common ground this month on how to deal with the continuing military crackdowns in Myanmar?

“We try to make everyone happy, so that we are also happy — the only way for the small and medium [size] country like Vietnam to live in this very changing and challenging world,” Dang Dinh Quy, the permanent representative of Vietnam to the UN, told PassBlue on March 24.

While April is an opportunity for Vietnam, a regional partner of Myanmar, to ease the increasing tensions there between the military and the protesters, it’s unclear how the Security Council could make a difference. Members have already issued three statements on the situation, with little results. International human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have called for sanctions and arms embargoes to be imposed by the Council, but Vietnam is unlikely to support such steps, as its priority is engagement rather than confrontation with the Myanmar military regime.

So what else could the Council do to get the military to reverse course? “I haven’t had anything clear in my mind,” Ambassador Dang told PassBlue. “But we need engagement with every party involved in Myanmar, so we don’t make anyone there feel they’re isolated. It doesn’t help.”

He clarified Vietnam’s stance on possibly imposing UN sanctions, which China strongly opposes, as “we do not support unilateral sanctions, but as a member of the Security Council, and as members of UN family, we follow all the decisions made by the United Nations Security Council, as long as it’s effective and as long as it’s not exerting any negative impact on the lives of the people and on the humanitarian situation of the country concerned.”

Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran, a global fellow in the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told PassBlue: “I think Vietnam is going to play an important role in trying to figure out how if we need certain outcomes, if we need to get a resolution, if we need to hold a special meeting, if we need to issue any statements, any conversations on this, how do we actually do it.”

“The second thing,” he added, “I would watch for is the changing balance of power between the permanent members and the nonpermanent members. I think one of the things that you’re seeing is Vietnam has tried to play this bridging role, not just with the P5, but also some of the other members.” (The “P5” refers to the permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.)

Ambassador Dang said on April 5, during a World Federation of United Nations Associations’ meeting with civil society, that an Arria-style debate on Myanmar would be held by the Security Council on April 9, enabling the wider UN membership to speak on the topic. Myanmar could also come up in some of Vietnam’s signature events, such as the debate on the cooperation between the UN and regional and subregional organizations, including Asean, on April 19. “I think that it is up to the member states to speak on the issue,” Dang said. “And also we depend on the situation on the ground from now until the 19th.” (Vietnam is a member of Asean.)

Other signature events for the month are mine actions and sustaining peace on April 8 as well as a debate on April 27 on the protection of “indispensable civilian objects” in armed conflict, which will be chaired by Vietnam’s foreign affairs minister, Phạm Bình Minh. Another important debate, on sexual violence in armed conflict, will be held on April 14. Most Council meetings will be held virtually this month, the ambassador said.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about Vietnam’s goals in April, with insights from Dr. Parameswaran from the Wilson Center as well as from Kyle Springer, a senior analyst at the Perth USAsia Center in Australia, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on SoundCloud, Google Podcasts, Patreon, iHeart Radio or Amazon Prime Music. (Excerpts of the podcast interview are below.) The ambassador also briefed the media on April 1.

Vietnam Ambassador to the UN: Dang Dinh Quy, 59

Ambassador to UN Since: July 2018

Language: Vietnamese, English, French, Russian

Education: B.A., Diplomatic University of Vietnam (1988); M.A., Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada (1998); Ph.D., Vietnam Academy of Sciences (2013)

His story, briefly: Ambassador Dang’s two-year term in the Council so far has been marked significantly by the Covid-19 pandemic. A little more than two months after Vietnam arrived in the Council as an elected member, the UN partly closed the headquarters building in New York City, as most of the organization’s work, including Council meetings, migrated to online platforms.

As such, Ambassador Dang has one wish before the end of Vietnam’s term in December: “I wish Covid were over faster, so that I can make a few trips in my capacity as the chair of the 2206 Committee on South Sudan. I wish I coulc join the Council members to make a field trip to somewhere because it would be a lost opportunity if within two years we have no field trip.”

Dang was born in 1961 in Dang Xa, a village 100 kilometers south of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, amid the Vietnam War. “My village, close to a small city, was under two bombings by [US Presidents] Johnson and Nixon. I experienced a lot of bombing until I was 15. At the time, my dream was very simple: we could sleep without the sound of bombs and annoyance during the night and have enough food to eat.”

But if the desire for a more prosperous, peaceful Vietnam became clear to him at a young age, Ambassador Dang says he ended up in diplomacy by happenstance.

“I was born and grew up in a peasant family,” he said. “I came to diplomacy by chance, because the campus of the foreign affairs college of Vietnam is better organized and more beautiful than others, so when I was told by my friends to join the college of foreign affairs, that’s when I started my career.”

He joined the foreign ministry in 1989, working in the West Asia-Africa Department and the Department of Economic Affairs. In 1994-1995, he was sent to Japan to study development policy. He moved to Washington in 2003 to work as a counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, and in 2007, he returned home to become deputy director of the Institute for International Relations in the foreign ministry.

Before his current appointment at the UN, he served as vice-minister for foreign affairs since 2016, in charge of strategic studies, review and reporting, as well as strategic policy planning advice and training. In 2011, he worked for a private university in Hanoi, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, while also serving intervals as director of its East Sea Studies Institute.

Ambassador Dang lives with his wife and two children in New York City. His conversation with PassBlue on March 24, excerpted below, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Do you feel that with the current tensions among the five big powers in the Security Council that it’s gotten harder to work there, to make achievements, especially considering that the Covid-19 global cease-fire resolution last year took months to be approved? It depends on the issue. On some issues, they have constructive approaches and they cooperate with each other easily. And some other issues, they compete with each other, and they cannot find common ground. On an issue where they cannot find common ground, we still try make a bridge among them, to find a common denominator. The only thing is whether it’s small or big.

India has filled Indonesia’s seat on the Council as an elected member from the Asia-Pacific regional group this year, leaving Vietnam as the only Asean member in the Council. How has that change affected your work so far? I think that some things change, some things don’t change. India and Indonesia follow the principles of their own foreign policy. And some things change because their national interests are different. India has 1.3 billion people, and Indonesia has 217 million. The size of population, the geostrategic position and many other things, such as their development and how they consider themselves in international affairs, what kind of identity they follow [is what matters]. But I think that there is more continuation than change.

Country Profile

Head of State: Nguyen Phu Trong

Foreign Affairs Minister: Phạm Bình Minh

Type of Government: Socialist Constitutional Republic

Year Joined the UN: 1977 (The US vetoed Vietnam’s application twice before that year; and it was admitted after the unification of Vietnam, once the Vietnam War ended in 1975.)

Years on the Security Council: 2008-2009, 2020-2021

Closest Allies on the Council: China

Population: 96.5 million

Memberships in Regional Groups: Asean, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), Group of 77 (G77)

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

2 thoughts on “Can Vietnam Rally the Big UN Powers to Stop More Bloodshed in Myanmar?”

  1. Intetesting. It might also be useful to ask Council members (including Vietnam) about the extent of their engagement with the rightfully elected leaders of Myanmar, exemplified by the Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun but also by the CRPH that represents the elected parliament and is tasked with organizing a unity government of resistance. It’s crucial to signal support for them, and not validate the military junta, as some nations (including Vietnam as well as India and Russia) did by attending the now notoriously fatal Armed Forces Day events in Myanmar on March 27.

    Failure to enact sufficient sanctions after the Rohingya genocide, plus continued arms sales by Russia, India and China, have only emboldened the Myanmar military. Even former US Ambassador Scott Marciel, who used to oppose sanctions, now states that it is not worth negotiating with the military leaders. Therefore one must ask what Vietnam’s “engagement” with the military actually can mean, given its commitment to zero sum tactics.

    Better to engage with the democratic resistance, with its vision for a new constitution that would at least rein in the Tatmadaw. The Security Council is not the only forum for action. Action is needed. It appears that much of the current UN system is not serious about preventing conflict, and the “sovereignty caucus” has smothered the concept of R2P in its crib. This would be terrible news, not only for the people of Myanmar, but for the world.

    Reply
  2. Is China really Vietnam’s “Closest Ally” on the Security Council? Vietnam has good relations with the US too!

    Reply

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