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Myanmar’s Junta, Opposition Headed for Faceoff Over UN Seat

Protesters march holding slogans during a protest at Pazundaung township in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday July 14, 2021. (AP Photo)
Protesters march holding slogans during a protest at Pazundaung township in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday July 14, 2021. (AP Photo)

Myanmar’s military regime and the democratically elected government it toppled in February are likely headed for a showdown later this month at the United Nations General Assembly over which group may represent the country, with the fate of billions in foreign reserves potentially hanging in the balance.

The junta and the so-called National Unity Government — representing ousted lawmakers, ethnic minority groups and a grassroots civil disobedience movement in Myanmar — are backing different men to fill Myanmar’s top seat at the U.N. They are expected to submit competing credentials when the U.N. General Assembly convenes its next regular session in New York starting Sept. 14.

“So, I think there will be a clash for who will be the representative of the U.N.,” said Ye Myo Hein, the head of Myanmar’s Tagaung Institute think tank and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Two’s a crowd

The NUG is backing Kyaw Moe Tun, who was serving as Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador before the Feb. 1 coup and officially still fills the post; he denounced the coup in an emotional speech at the U.N. on Feb. 26 and threw his support behind the ousted government. The junta soon disowned Kyaw Moe Tun and later told the U.N. it was replacing him with Aung Thurein, a 26-year veteran of the military.

The final decision, though, rests with the 193 countries of the General Assembly.

The process begins with the U.N.’s nine-member Credentials Committee, which convenes at the start of every regular General Assembly session to vet the application of each country’s proposed ambassador and passes its recommendations on to the full assembly. The General Assembly choses the committee members anew each year, though in practice China, Russia and the U.S. always serve.

While the U.S. and other Western countries have condemned the Myanmar coup, China and Russia have shown tacit support for the military.

Experts say the committee has four options. Besides recommending the proffered credentials of one candidate or the other, it could defer an explicit decision to back either application — which would leave Kyaw Moe Tun in the post by default but deny the NUG the U.N.’s stamp of approval — or recommend leaving Myanmar’s seat empty.

The General Assembly usually accepts the committee’s recommendations without a vote, but any member state can force one by raising a challenge.

With the NUG and junta digging in, “there is a chance that it will blow up into a major issue and that will end up in a vote by the General Assembly,” said Catherine Renshaw, a professor at Western Sydney University’s School of Law whose research focuses on democracy in Southeast Asia, and in particular Myanmar.

Take a seat

Analysts say a clear decision by the committee and assembly to accept the credentials turned in by either the junta or the NUG would go far in conferring international legitimacy on either side as Myanmar’s true government, at a time when both are competing for physical control of the country.

Rights groups claim the junta has killed more than 1,000 civilians and arrested thousands more in a bid to crush protests and a stubborn civil disobedience movement attempting to disrupt the day-to-day work of governing. Armed rebel groups backing the opposition are fighting the military for territory along the borders, while neighborhood militias have sprung up across the country to resist military control. The NUG is trying the pull the disparate elements together and claims to be running a shadow government while in hiding to evade arrests.

If either the junta or the NUG wins the U.N. ambassador’s seat outright, it stands a good chance of filling Myanmar’s seats on other U.N. bodies as well, said Christopher Sidoti, an international human rights lawyer in Australia who served on a U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar from 2017-19.

Faced with competing credentials from the junta and NUG earlier this year, the U.N.’s World Health Organization, International Labor Organization and Human Rights Council each chose to seat no one from Myanmar.

“In all three of those cases those three bodies decided to defer to the General Assembly’s credentialing process and decided not to exercise their own powers in making decisions themselves as to who represented Myanmar in those forums. So there is a clear, very strong influence … and the expectation would be that whoever represents Myanmar in the General Assembly would represent Myanmar in other U.N. bodies,” Sidoti said.

The U.N.’s decision is also likely to influence which competing government other states deal with one-on-one, the analysts added.

In the bank

Renshaw said a clear decision by the assembly on who represents Myanmar at the U.N. could also clear the winning side’s way to the billions of dollars in sovereign cash reserves Myanmar holds overseas.

Within days of the Feb. 1 coup, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order freezing the $1 billion the Central Bank of Myanmar holds in foreign reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to keep it out of the junta’s hands.

“But they … can’t do that forever, and if there was recognition of the NUG then the argument is that they could release those funds to the appropriate representative of the NUG. That also would be a very big deal,” said Renshaw.

In a January report the International Monetary Fund said Myanmar’s gross international reserves as of last September were $6.7 billion but did not mention where those reserves were. Citing a U.S. banking expert, Radio Free Asia reported in March that the rest of the reserves were in Singapore.

Sidoti said U.N. acceptance of the NUG’s credentials for Kyaw Moe Tun could also pressure the military to negotiate with the group, which the junta has branded a terrorist organization and refuses to talk to.

“That’s what I see as the best means of reducing the level of violence — supporting the NUG, giving it the international recognition that it deserves, and telling the junta that there is no way forward without dealing with the representatives of the people in a peaceful way,” he said.

The NUG’s minister of international cooperation, Sasa, who goes by one name told VOA it had already turned in a formal request asking the U.N. to reaffirm Kyaw Moe Tun’s credentials as Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. and was vigorously lobbying member states to back his claim to the seat.

Win, lose or tie

A spokesperson for the junta could not be reached for comment.

Ye Myo Hein, however, at the Wilson Center, said an adviser to the regime, Yin Yin Nwe, last month warned via Facebook that if the government the military has set up is not recognized at the U.N., its offices in the country would be shuttered. He said he had also heard from military sources that the junta was privately repeating the threat to foreign officials.

အသိပေးခြင်း အတွက်သာ။ . ဒီနေ့ ရှမ်း စော်ဘွားမျိုး တစ်ယောက်နဲ့ တိုင်းရင်းသားခေါင်းဆောင်တစ်ဦး မေးလို့...

Posted by Yin Yin Nwe on Saturday, August 21, 2021

Even so, the analysts agreed that a win for the junta’s candidate at this point seemed the least likely outcome. When Belarus, a close Russia ally, challenged a motion at the assembly in June to condemn the coup in Myanmar and forced a vote, the motion passed easily.

Renshaw said a decision to leave Myanmar’s seat empty would be a rare move, but not without precedent, and send a mixed message that the military’s power grab had not succeeded but still might. She said the odds were that the U.N. would try to defuse the credentials dispute and defer the matter, leaving Kyaw Moe Tun in place.

Sidoti added the Afghanistan factor. He said the Taliban’s forced takeover of the country just last month was sure to overshadow Myanmar at the General Assembly and that how member states resolve any competing Afghan credentials may spill over to their choices elsewhere.

“It may be that there are much bigger issues at play than a straightforward rational decision on who should represent Myanmar,” Sidoti said.