On Monday, February 1st, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup against the democratically elected government, declaring a one-year state of emergency, and detaining several government leaders. While individual leaders expressed concern and condemned the coup, the United Nations (UN) Security Council failed to condemn the coup after meeting for emergency discussions on Tuesday, with permanent members China and Russia failing to agree on a joint statement to condemn the coup and asking for more time. China and Russia’s failure to condemn the coup demonstrates the complexities of conflicting interests, conflicting values, and the weaknesses of global institutions such as the UN Security Council.
After weeks of political tensions and growing unease about rumors of a military coup, Myanmar woke up to a widespread internet and communication blackout, soldiers patrolling the streets, and television access limited only to the military-owned channel. As CNN reports, through this channel, the military announced that power had been handed over to army chief Min Aung Hlaing and confirmed the detention of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other high-ranking leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party as a response to alleged voting irregularities in November’s election. As CNN reports, Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, claimed an overwhelming victory in the election, taking 83% of the vote compared to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and winning all but 33 of 476 seats in parliament. Further reported is that despite Myanmar’s election commission rejecting the allegations of election fraud, the military maintained fraud took place during the polls and warned a coup would follow if the allegations were not properly investigated.
The coup occurred just hours before the first session of the new parliament was to open. This blow to the fairly new democratic process in Myanmar has its citizens and the international community concerned over the future of full democratic transition in Myanmar. After several decades of military rule, the November election was only the second democratic vote since its emergence from military rule in 2011. Condemnation by European Union (EU) government, the United States, and other prominent leaders came quickly although their statements avoided details of a possible response. EU leaders demanded the immediate release of people arrested in raids, reestablishment of the democratic process, and that EU governments discuss their next steps. The EU could play a pivotal role in how things play out in Myanmar. As U.S. News reports, the EU is Myanmar’s third-biggest trading partner who has given the country special trade preferences. The EU has also previously imposed sanctions against Myanmar generals for the killings of Rohingya Muslims in 2017 and maintains an arms embargo on Myanmar. The EU should revoke any special trade preferences, extend sanctions, and maintain as well as encourage other countries to comply with the arms embargo.
International leaders’ swift condemnation is key to limiting the extent of Myanmar’s military rule. For this reason, the UN Security Council has received criticism for its failure to condemn the coup and its lack of action. As the body that has the primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security as well as the ability to impose sanctions and authorize the use of force to maintain/restore it, many look to this body to act as a leader. Christine Burgener, the Myanmar ambassador quoted by Global News, said the council must “collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.” Despite holding an emergency meeting, the Security Council failed to agree on a joint statement condemning the coup. The statement failed to secure the support of veto-holding permanent members Russia and China, who also happens to be a key Myanmar ally. Discussions and negotiations for a statement will continue, as an agreement must be reached by a consensus of the 15-member Security Council. Al Jazeera reports that the negotiated possible statement would condemn the coup; call for the military to respect the rule of law and human rights; the immediate release of those unlawfully detained; a repeal of the state of emergency and an adherence to democratic norms, but does not mention the use of sanctions. Both China and Russia have asked for more time while they send the statement to their capitals for review. Concern has been raised that the Security Council’s statement and further action will not receive the required support of China. According to Al Jazeera, China has not condemned the coup, with state media characterizing the coup events as a “cabinet reshuffle.” Time states that China’s interest in Myanmar stems from its infrastructure investment projects in the country, which will give them land access to strategic ports. China, with Russia’s backing, previously prevented Myanmar from significant Security Council action in 2017, when the military brutally cracked down on the Rohingya Muslims. U.N.’s director for the group Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, as quoted by Global News, feels 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.”
The failure of the UN Security Council to swiftly condemn Myanmar’s military coup highlights some of its flaws, such as permanent council members with veto powers having conflicting strategic and political interests/motives. Reforms are needed for both the Security Council and the UN Charter which grants the council its powers. Changes should include increasing the number of permanent members, diversifying the regions from which permanent members are from, and enacting provisions that allow for majority agreement instead of complete consensus. While uncertainty remains, the Security Council needs to impose a global arms embargo, sanctions, and to hold Myanmar accountable for past human rights violations. World leaders, such as the EU and the U.S. should also immediately issue embargos and sanctions against the military in power, particularly if the Security Council fails to act. The people of Myanmar have long endured military rule and sought political and economic reforms, with ethnic and religious minorities such as the Rohingya, particularly vulnerable to human rights violations.
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