Myanmar Pressure Campaign Stalls at the United Nations

The international campaign to pressure Myanmar’s military putschists to relinquish power has run aground at the United Nations, amid growing resistance by the country’s Chinese and Southeast Asian neighbors against imposing an arms embargo and sanctions on the military junta. The United States and many of its European allies continue to maintain economic sanctions on Myanmar’s military junta, but efforts to muster wider international backing for tough action have lost steam at Turtle Bay.

The development has frustrated Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces, who have struggled to convince regional and global powers to ratchet up political and economic pressure on the military. Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who publicly denounced the military in a defiant speech before the U.N. General Assembly in late February, says the international community is failing to do enough to support him and the forces of democracy in Myanmar, even amid signs that the military regime is ruthlessly seeking to crush any opposition to its rule.

“There is no sign of easing the brutal crackdown and the violence committed by the military against its own people,” Kyaw Moe Tun wrote last month to members of the 15-nation council, one of the weekly letters he sent calling for tougher action. Myanmar’s military rulers tried to fire the ambassador, but he remains recognized as the legitimate representative of the country by the U.N. “The people of Myanmar are desperate and helpless now, and are somewhat disappoint[ed] to see the resistance of the international community to take collective and decisive actions against this illegal coup,” he wrote.

In an interview, Kyaw Moe Tun said that he is grateful to the United States and the European powers, who moved swiftly to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s junta, and he appreciates the statements of support from the U.N. Security Council. “But these statements alone are not enough to end the military coup in Myanmar and return democracy to Myanmar,” he said.

The international reluctance reflects the consensual nature of decision-making among the 10 members of the key Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which believes that dialogue with Myanmar’s generals offers a better chance of containing the crisis than a more confrontational approach advocated by the United States and other Western governments, which favor sanctions and an arms embargo. China’s displeasure with Myanmar’s military has been evidenced by its backing of U.N. Security Council statements criticizing the violent crackdown on protesters. But Beijing has historically opposed the imposition of punitive measures, including financial sanctions, to coerce nations into doing what the council wants. And its status as one of Myanmar’s largest trading partners and arms suppliers makes it unlikely to back any U.N. measures that would jeopardize that.

The crisis in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, began on Feb. 1, when the country’s military overthrew the government and detained the country’s civilian leaders, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the country’s November 2020 elections. In the days that followed, the United States, the European Union, and other key powers denounced the mutiny and imposed financial sanctions on coup leaders and several companies controlled by the military. On Feb. 10, U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans to impose financial sanctions on the coup leaders and freeze more than $1 billion in Myanmar’s assets in the United States, demanding that the “military must relinquish the power it seized.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged governments “to make sure that this coup fails,” while the U.N. special envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, urged key regional powers to shun Myanmar and to impose additional penalties on the country.

On Feb. 26, Kyaw Moe Tun delivered a riveting speech to the General Assembly, denouncing the coup and urging the membership “to use any means necessary” to reverse it. He concluded his remarks by flashing the three-finger salute adopted by peaceful Myanmar protesters facing off with armed security forces.

But the U.N. Security Council has adopted a more measured stance, issuing a statement voicing “deep concern” about the coup and promoting democracy, while “strongly” condemning a violent crackdown on protesters. Britain, which serves as the council’s lead on Myanmar, has so far declined to introduce a tougher resolution threatening sanctions or imposing an arms embargo, fearing that China—which is among Myanmar’s largest arms suppliers—would veto it and unravel an emerging consensus in the council.

The Biden administration still hasn’t given up hope of convincing U.N. member states to take a tougher position. “We don’t think this is the end of the road,” said one senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of confidential negotiations. “The Security Council has spoken with a strong, clear, and unified voice on the crisis in Burma, but we’ve made clear that continued statements won’t be enough to stop the military from destabilizing the region. We continue to press for concrete action from the international community to change the military’s calculus.”

Britain, meanwhile, is planning for a Security Council meeting later this month to discuss Myanmar, but there are no immediate plans to impose penalties on the country. Meanwhile, the threat to Myanmar’s security has not abated.

Schraner Burgener said that while international attention may have shifted from Myanmar to the Middle East, the threat to Myanmar’s people and the stability of the nation have only worsened.

“People on the ground are not doing mass demonstrations anymore, because it is too dangerous,” she said. Some civilians are taking up arms against the junta and seeking military training, she said, as the country slides deeper into civil war and the conditions of a failed state. “The armed conflict continues,” she added.

In an effort to ramp up pressure, Lichtenstein in late February drafted a nonbinding resolution in the 193-member General Assembly that expressly condemns the coup in Myanmar and urges states to stop selling weapons to the regime. But the negotiations have lingered, as the recent crisis in the Middle East put Myanmar on the back burner.

Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors recently proposed watering down the U.N. General Assembly draft and stripping out provisions condemning the coup and promoting a voluntary arms embargo on Myanmar. Several countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Turkey, plan to begin negotiations with ASEAN over the text. The council has largely deferred to the 10-member Southeast Asian regional group, which includes Myanmar, to lead diplomatic efforts. But ASEAN, which is divided over how hard to press the military government, traditionally makes its decision by consensus.

In an attempt to bridge their differences, ASEAN’s leaders in April outlined a five-point peace plan for Myanmar, which called for an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special envoy to mediate a dialogue between the military and other Myanmar parties. But the plan—which aims to initiate political negotiations with the military junta—does not call for the imposition of punitive measures. A senior diplomat from Brunei, Erywan Yusof, and the secretary-general of ASEAN, Lim Jock Hoi, traveled to Myanmar for talks with the junta this week.

But ASEAN is facing pressure to toughen its stance.

“Diplomatic efforts to increase the pressure on Myanmar’s junta will only run out of steam if delegations give up. Negotiators from ASEAN, Europe, and North America should all double down and push a strong resolution through the General Assembly that calls for a halt to arms transfers in Myanmar,” Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. “The junta’s security forces have been gunning down, jailing, and torturing protesters. They’re locking up journalists. No one should sell them a single bullet. There’s no room for appeasement. The people of Myanmar are looking to the U.N. for support against a brutal dictatorship. U.N. member states have an obligation to deliver.”