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UN security council fails to agree statement condemning Myanmar coup

A demonstrator protests outside the United Nations building in Bangkok, Thailand, 2 February 2021. (Credit: Keystone / EPA /Diego Azubel)

China has blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup in Myanmar as calls grow for united action from the international community.

Speaking at an emergency meeting on Tuesday, the UN special envoy on Myanmar appealed for “unity” from council members to condemn the recent steps by the military, who took power in the country on Monday after arresting leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other lawmakers.

Police on Wednesday filed several charges against the elected civilian leader and she has been remanded in custody until 15 February, police documents show.

Myanmar envoy Christine Schraner Burgener urged member states to support a UK-drafted statement that she said would “collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar” and call for the military to respect the rule of law and human rights, and immediately release those unlawfully detained. The text would also demand the one-year state of emergency that the military have declared be repealed.

However, such statements have to be agreed by consensus, and the council failed to secure the support of China - a key ally of Myanmar and one of the five permanent members that have the power of veto.

“We are of the view that any action by the Council should contribute to political and social stability of Myanmar and its peace and reconciliation, avoiding escalating the tension or further complicating the situation,” said China’s diplomat at the closed-door virtual meeting.

Russia also failed to support the statement and asked for more time for consideration, saying the situation in the country was “complex and volatile”. Diplomats said discussions would therefore continue.

Human rights groups have criticised the international community’s failure to take swift action to condemn the coup and call for the immediate release of detainees.

“We can’t ignore the repeated failure of the international community to take concerted action to curb military power and hold it accountable for its constant human rights abuses, including its genocidal campaign against the Rohingya,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Centre, in a statement. “For years, world leaders praised a ‘democratic’ transition and constitution that gave the military the very power they used to stage [Monday’s] coup.”

What’s the latest in Myanmar? The military has said the coup was constitutional and promised to hold new elections, claiming that those in November in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won more than 82 per cent of seats were fraudulent. An 11-member junta has been installed, led by armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing.

On Wednesday morning, police in Myanmar filed several charges against Suu Kyi for breaches of import and export laws and for possession of unlawful communication devices. Her whereabouts remain unknown, but it has been reported that she is being held at her residence in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Deposed President Win Myint has also reportedly been charged with violating Covid restrictions.

In her statement to the Security Council, Schraner Burgener said it was clear that “the recent outcome of the election was a landslide victory”, despite the baseless claims by the military and some political parties. She called for the state of emergency to be repealed and the detained leaders to be released, and the resumption of post-election litigation processes which had been scheduled for this month.

The UN and other rights groups have also raised fears that the coup will worsen the plight of over 600,000 Rohingya muslims who still live in Myanmar. The country is currently being investigated for genocide at the International Court of Justice over its treatment of the Rohingya.

“At this point in time, we must ensure the protection of people of Myanmar and their fundamental rights. We must do everything to prevent violence from breaking out,” Burgener said.

Calls for united action. Many rights groups have called on governments to demand the military relinquish power and impose targeted economic sanctions, as well as embargoes on arms and equipment. There are also concerns for the protection of human rights in the country following the emergence of anti-coup protests in recent days. Myanmar’s armed forces have a long history of using excessive force to crack down on civil disobedience.

Speaking before Tuesday’s council meeting, the UN’s director for Human Rights Watch Louis Charbonneau said the council’s “abysmal failure to address Myanmar’s past appalling human rights abuses assured the military they could do as they please without serious consequences.”

Charbonneau called on the council to demand the immediate release of all detained political leaders and activists and the restoration of civilian democratic rule. He said sanctions should be imposed “on those military leaders responsible.”

Also speaking ahead of the meeting, Amnesty International’s deputy director of advocacy Sherine Tadros added to calls to “impose targeted financial sanctions” against coup leader Aung Hlaing and other military leaders responsible for crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.

“The Security Council must also impose a comprehensive global arms embargo on Myanmar, and crucially, refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court,” she added.

Threat of sanctions. US President Joe Biden this week threatened to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar and called for a concerted international response to push the military towards relinquishing power. The economic sanctions placed on Myanmar were gradually eased during the Obama administration after the country’s generals initiated democratic reforms and released many political prisoners.

In 2019, President Trump imposed targeted sanctions on four military commanders, including the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, over allegations of ethnic cleansing and abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities.

“The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained,” Biden said in a statement.

“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” he said.

Also speaking on Monday after the coup, the UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet voiced concern that there would be a “violent crackdown on dissenting voices” in Myanmar.

“I remind the military leadership that Myanmar is bound by international human rights law, including to respect the right to peaceful assembly, and to refrain from using unnecessary or excessive force,” she said in a statement.

Bachelet also called on the international community to “stand in solidarity with the people” of Myanmar and take steps “to prevent the crumbling of the fragile democratic and human rights gains made by Myanmar during its transition from military rule.”