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For Myanmar, Why Not Send an Asean/UN Civilian Monitoring Mission?

Protesters in Myanmar against the military coup and bloody crackdown. The authors of the essay, former UN envoys, propose a joint regional-UN mission to protect civilians and ensure an international presence that could “make a difference on the ground.” CREATIVE COMMONS

This weekend, Asean will be deliberating on possible courses of action regarding Myanmar. Across the country, brave people, many of them children, are being murdered daily; health services are ceasing to function in the middle of a pandemic; the economy is collapsing; and every well-informed analyst predicts only a future of deepening civil war, chaos and further outflows of refugees.

The United Nations Security Council has no prospect of agreeing on any form of effective action. Even the measures called for by its most concerned members — sanctions, accountability — would have little early prospect of stemming the daily killings and detentions. It is time to move beyond well-meaning cries that “something must be done” and plan toward an approach that measures up to the immensity of the crisis.

This requires a form of international presence in Myanmar that could make a difference on the ground. We are not advocating a military intervention: no nation or group of nations would be willing to undertake this, nor would it be authorized by the Security Council — and indeed, given the track record of military interventions, we would not favor this. But a civilian protection presence on the ground in Myanmar will be essential to gaining the space for its future to be peacefully negotiated.

How could something that seems so far from current reality be brought about? It should begin with a growing call from all international and regional bodies, and from Myanmar’s neighbors, for a complete cessation of violence. Along with this, all parties in Myanmar should be called on to request or accept an international civilian protection mission. While the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttwa and the National Unity Government are not the exclusive representatives of all Myanmar’s people, they have important legitimacy.

Those taking part in the street protests have been admirably slow to turn to violence and would heed a call to return to fully peaceful political activity if the Tatmadaw ceased its murder and repression. The Ethnic Armed Groups differ in the cease-fire arrangements that prevailed before the coup and their attitude since to the junta; one by one, they would have to be persuaded to agree to monitoring of a simultaneous cessation of armed action.

The last to be persuaded to desist from violence and to accept an international presence would, of course, be the Tatmadaw. The objective therefore should be to build up pressure on them, and to seek their reluctant acquiescence — perhaps under an eventual leadership that is less motivated by personal ambition, and seeks a way out of a situation it has been compelled to recognize it is unable to control.

The most important pressure would come from the region. China is no enthusiast for international intervention, but the proposed approach is one that respects sovereignty by seeking the consent of all Myanmar parties — and China has the greatest interest in the stability of its neighbor. Asean countries need to head off the collapse into chaos of one of its members, and to seek to stem the refugee outflow into Thailand and elsewhere. Bangladesh should support an approach that could enable the eventual return of Rohingya refugees.

The region, especially Asean, has to be to the fore in any such civilian mission. It should receive a Security Council mandate, and UN experience and funding would be essential. Why not conceive a joint Asean/UN mission? There is a little-remembered precedent of a kind, in the joint Organization of American States/UN International Civilian Mission, deployed to Haiti at the request of an elected president in exile with the acquiescence of a de facto military regime.

Nepal’s Maoists joined the civil society call for human-rights monitoring towards the end of a civil war before the then government was persuaded to accept it. Neither situation approaches the scale of the challenge of Myanmar, or of the deployment that would be required. But increasingly, the call at the UN is for innovative approaches to peace operations and cooperation with regional organizations. Asean and the UN would be building on the tripartite operational cooperation they achieved in their humanitarian engagement in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis.

Many will say that our proposal is wildly unrealistic, and our own UN experience teaches us not to be naïve about how difficult it would be for the political conditions to be met, within the international community and among the Myanmar parties. But what seems unrealistic today may come to be seen as the only way to address a crisis of what is already a failed state, which is only going to become ever more acute. It could become realistic if the widespread horror at today’s killing, and understanding of the implications of state collapse, are the beginning of serious consideration of international and regional action to address them.

This essay was originally published in the Bangkok Post. 

Ian Martin is a former under secretary-general and special representative of the UN secretary-general to Libya (2011-2012) and Nepal (2005-2006); special envoy to Timor-Leste (2006); and former secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Charles Petrie is a former UN assistant secretary-general, UN representative to Myanmar (2003-2007) and coordinator of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (2012-2016).

2 thoughts on “For Myanmar, Why Not Send an Asean/UN Civilian Monitoring Mission?”

  1. How refreshing: Thinking outside the box. The Myanmars of the world are not unusual in a geopolitical paradigm in which the UN Charter grants “sovereignty” to nations even if that nation’s rulers are sociopaths or psychopaths. And in a UN geopolitical world where the UN Security Council P-5 members mock international law and order and hold themselves above the law so much so that the P-5 are the leading weapons dealers of the world.

    The idea to get ASEAN involved to reduce violence in Myanmar is a step in the right direction. But here’s another idea: Since the UNSC P-5 seem unable to responsibly do its job, why not turn the task over to the UN General Assembly?

    There are 193 nations in the UNGA without meaningful voting rights in the UN, including India — larger than all countries except China. Imagine that the UNGA with leadership from ASEAN and India and with UNGA support take responsibility to insure justice to Myanmar’s citizenry by actually doing something in Myanmar rather than sitting around waiting for the UN Security Council to act, which as this article points out, won’t happen.

    Reply
  2. I have been working for eight years for an NGO promoting human rights in Myanmar (Burma). Mr. Martin and Mr. Petrie are largely correct in their analysis. However, while I agree with the writers’ proposal of an international civilian protection mission, it is doubtful that the leaders of the military junta would agree to such involvement. These leaders (the “Tatmadaw”) are already backtracking from the recent agreements with ASEAN leaders, which the people of Myanmar consider largely worthless, according to all reports. Even if the Tatmadaw did agree to such monitoring, would rules of engagement permit civilians to intervene if the military continues killing unarmed protesters or displacing ethnic minorities? It seems that we need to remember the impotent peacekeepers standing by during the mass atrocities in Srebrenica. Only a “No Fly Zone” can help support de-escalation, along with a fully implemented arms embargo. But most important: de-escalation strategies should not undermine the struggle for democracy.

    However well-intentioned, “innovative approaches to peace operations” cannot work without strong sanctions targeting the military’s financial base of support. Recently in a Passblue interview, the former Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar wrongly dismissed sanctions as a tool of pressure on the Myanmar military, referring to them as “punitive international intervention.” However, he offered little hope for effective alternatives other than ASEAN, Chinese and Russian diplomacy. But along with India, China and Russia have been the major sellers of weaponry to the Tatmadaw. They are widely seen as far too cozy with the generals and unlikely to use even threats of sanctions to restore democracy in Myanmar.

    Targeted economic sanctions are important because they address the profit motive of the Myanmar military, which has always played a crucial role in its ability to overwhelm the civilian leadership. Military conglomerates are enormous. The US has been leading the push to sanction both military generals and their companies—indeed if they had restored such pressure after the Rohingya genocide, we might have avoided the coup.

    It should be noted that the current Special Envoy to Burma Christine Schraner-Burgener is in favor of sanctions, a position which she has expressed publicly as well as to me in meetings. In her view they represent perhaps the only chance to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war engaging the entire country.

    Nambiar dismisses western credibility, and unnecessarily closes doors to action. One such action, which “The West” has not yet taken, is for oil and gas companies to place all payments in escrow until free and fair elections are held. Total and Chevron have so far refused to do this, and a recent New York Times article details Chevron’s lobbying of US Government officials. This is a major loophole that should be addressed.

    The oil companies are making a number of specious arguments to support business as usual. But in fact, even oil company workers in Myanmar are asking for an immediate stop of payments to the military. So are the rightfully elected members of Parliament in the National Unity Government, as well as the nonviolent protest movement. Until the enormous money flow is stopped, our oil companies will be complicit in the destruction of democracy in Myanmar.

    Much more international support is needed for democratic leaders in Myanmar, beginning with the National Unity Government, which both represents the rightfully elected leaders and includes an unprecedented number of ethnic leaders as well. ASEAN engagement with the illegitimate military government may simply make things easier for the Tatmadaw. In many respects this policy interferes in the internal power dynamic, contravening ASEAN’s own principles of non-interference.

    In Myanmar, ASEAN is not seen as reliable champions of human rights or democracy. Links between Tatmadaw and Thai military (not to mention other ASEAN members) are troubling. But there is no return to the old power sharing with the NLD. There is no return to the 2008 Constitution. The international community must have a more constructive vision. Above all, it must listen to and be guided by the aspirations of the Myanmar people themselves, not by Chinese geopolitical interests or Western corporate profits. Adem Carroll, Justice for All

    Reply

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