The United Nations will face a dilemma when its general assembly convenes next week, after both Myanmar’s military junta and the country’s shadow national unity government (NUG) launched rival bids to fill the country’s seat.
Myanmar’s military, which seized power in February, has sought to replace the current representative, Kyaw Moe Tun, an outspoken critic of the coup. Both the junta and the NUG, which was set up partly by ousted politicians, are believed to have submitted applications to the UN’s credentials committee.
Anti-coup campaigners have warned that a decision that favours the military could further embolden the junta, which has used brutal violence against unarmed civilians and is accused of killing more than 1,000 people since February. Leaving the seat empty, they say, could undermine the chances of a political solution. Others argue that appointing an NUG representative risks isolating the military at a time when regional diplomats are pushing for a ceasefire to deliver humanitarian aid.
The junta’s rule is widely opposed by the public, which launched a civil disobedience movement after the coup, with many refusing to work under military rule. Over recent months, groups of civilians have taken up arms, launching guerrilla-style attacks on military targets and defending their areas from raids by security forces.
The conflict and unrest after the coup have left an estimated 176,000 people displaced within Myanmar, according to the UN, while the economy is collapsing and the health system is in crisis.
A legal opinion signed by a 11 prominent legal scholars argues that the NUG’s representative should be accepted, stating the military has a deplorable record on human rights, has largely ignored condemnation by the UN and others, and that there are “no prospects of dialogue”.
“While the NUG does not have effective territorial control over the entire territory of Myanmar, neither does the junta,” it says. It is signed by legal experts including Richard Goldstone, the founding chief prosecutor of the United Nations international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Chris Sidoti, a member of the special advisory council for Myanmar, Yuyun Wahyuningrum, the representative of Indonesia to the Asean intergovernmental commission on human rights, and Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a former Thai representative to the Asean commission.
The official criteria for approving envoys is vague, but various factors have been considered in past cases – including “effective territorial control, democratic legitimacy and respect for international human rights standards”, according to the analysis, published by the Myanmar Accountability Project advocacy group.
The UN’s credentials committee, which will also consider Afghanistan’s representation after the Taliban’s return to power, could defer a decision. This could mean an empty seat, or it could allow Kyaw Moe Tun to continue on a provisional basis.
The junta announced it had fired him after his dramatic address to the general assembly in February, where he called for the “strongest possible action from the international community”. Last month, two Myanmar citizens were arrested in New York for plotting to kill or injure Kyaw Moe Tun in an attempt to force him to step down from the post.
Some observers argue that leaving Myanmar’s chair empty is the most pragmatic solution. “An ostracised military would make things difficult for Asean,” said Sharon Seah Li-Lian, a coordinator of the Asean Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Asean – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – has led efforts to alleviate the crisis, with its envoy to the country, Erywan Yusof, stating last week that the military had accepted his proposal for a ceasefire until the end of the year to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Days later, the NUG announced a “defensive war” against the junta, calling for civilian armed groups to target the military and to protect the public.
“All eyes [in Myanmar] are on that chair, but I don’t think there is going to be a decision,” said Seah. She said it was most likely the committee would defer the matter and that no update would be announced until December.