‘The worry is Russia’: UN delays Myanmar representation decision

Geopolitical tensions have escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine, and Moscow has moved even closer to Myanmar’s coup leaders.

Protesters gather outside the UN in Bangkok in support of Kyaw Moe Tun. They are giving the three finger salute and look determined
Myanmar people living in Thailand showed their support for Kyaw Moe Tun in September [File: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA]

Bangkok, Thailand and Yangon, Myanmar – The United Nations has delayed a decision on who should represent Myanmar amid concern that Russia, which has become increasingly close to Myanmar’s coup leaders, could sabotage efforts to reach an international consensus on the crisis-torn country.

The UN’s Credentials Committee, composed of nine UN-member states, including China, Russia and the United States, started meeting on November 29. Under consideration is who should represent Myanmar: sitting UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, appointed by the elected government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or a nominee of the generals who staged the coup that overthrew her government in February 2021.

The committee will submit its recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which usually rubber stamps the advice given.

The question over Myanmar’s UN representation reflects the added difficulties facing the anti-coup movement at a time when geopolitical tensions have escalated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Described as “two authoritarian powers… operating together” by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the split between Russia and China on one side, and other parts of international community has widened, analysts say, and strongman Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have shown less appetite to compromise.

Despite that, the US, China and Russia would probably prefer not to have a public spat over Myanmar’s representation, said veteran diplomat and former Dutch ambassador to Myanmar Laetitia van den Assum.

“These powers have enough major issues on their plates as it is. At the same time, however, China and Russia would no doubt like to see Kyaw Moe Tun go.”

Diplomat Moe Kyaw Tun making the three fingered salute of Myanmar's anti-coup movement at a UN meeting five days after the military seized power. He is sitting at the Myanmar desk in the UN General Assembly
Kyaw Moe Tun, who famously made the three-fingered salute of the anti-coup movement inside the UNGA, remains the country’s representative [United Nations via YouTube and AFP]

Kyaw Moe Tun, who remained in his post after the coup, voted this year to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to suspend Russia’s membership at the UN Human Rights Council. He is backed by Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), established by the country’s elected and now-removed legislators.

Both Beijing and Moscow have publicly backed senior general Min Aung Hlaing’s pariah regime, even as countries in Southeast Asia toughened up their previously-lukewarm pushback against the military. More than 2,500 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown since it seized power in February 2021, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a civil society group monitoring the situation.

The UN Credentials Committee had originally agreed to keep Kyaw Moe Tun for another year, according to a Western diplomat involved in the process. “The worry all along is Russia,” the diplomat said.

Now that the decision has been delayed, critics worry that it opens the door for Russia to pick a fight on behalf of the internationally-isolated Myanmar military. Failure to reach a consensus at the committee would lead to a vote in the UNGA.

“Moscow could be problematic, should they choose to be. While they accepted the NUG to control the representation in the UN in 2021, Russia is in a very different place diplomatically today following their invasion of Ukraine and their military setbacks,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in the US who focuses on Southeast Asian politics.

“I don’t want to overstate Naypyidaw’s importance to Moscow. It is a second-tier client-state, but today Russia has few friends, and Min Aung Hlaing has been sycophantic towards President Putin, in his desperate attempt to garner international legitimacy.”

Cosying up to Putin

Moscow has been actively supporting the military, inviting Min Aung Hlaing to Russia, shielding the regime from UN Security Council sanctions, and providing arms and petroleum.

“Beyond the re-appointment of Kyaw Moe Tun in the UN, Russia is being difficult to work with [in terms of reaching a consensus in the international community to pressure the regime] and is publicly backing the junta. China seems to be consolidating its support for the regime as well,” said Scot Marciel, former US ambassador to Myanmar.

“It’s different from 2021. They provide tangible support for the junta, whereas those who support the resistance and the anti-coup movement are more rhetorical in their support.”

Min Aung Hlaing and Vladimir Putin shake hands at a summit in Vladivostok, Russia. They look pleased to see each other and are smiling. The flags of Myanmar and Russia are in the background.
Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing secured a longed-for meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, in September [Valery Sharifulin/TASS via AFP]

Min Aung Hlaing met Putin for the first time since the coup in September on the sidelines of the Moscow-organised Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, a city in the far east of Russia.

A delegation from the Myanmar military’s Ministry of Science and Technology last month studied a nuclear power plant in Russia and inked some deals, according to Myanmar media Than Lwin Times. These agreements included a plan to build a nuclear “technology hub” with a small reactor in Yangon, said military defector Captain Kaung Thu Win.

“The [Myanmar] military said they won’t use [the project] to make weapons. However, out of sight, it may produce weapons after the nuclear plant is built,” the defector noted, according to Than Lwin Times, warning that this would pose a significant threat to people in Myanmar.

Russia’s high-profile interactions with the generals have not gone unnoticed in China.

“Myanmar’s military government is currently shut out of most regional summits and sanctioned by several Western countries. Myanmar, being more and more isolated, has increasingly sought diplomatic support and armaments from Russia,” noted Chinese academic Lin Xixing in an analysis published earlier this year. Lin was affiliated with Jinan University in the southern city of Guangzhou and used to work in the Chinese government.

The Chinese scholar said that “Myanmar’s diplomatic stance has completely shifted to Russia, and it has become more confident in the political game,” referring to the military’s plan to hold an electoral exercise in 2023.

The pariah regime “seems to enjoy some measure of pragmatic acceptance by China and to a lesser extent India, and outright strong support by Russia”, noted a December 1 briefing paper by Joanne Lin and Moe Thuzar of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Min Aung Hlaing has been quick to return the favour to both patrons.

His regime voiced support for Russia’s invasion while the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), accused then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of destabilising the region with her visit to Taiwan in August.

A group of international legislators concluded last month, following a four-month inquiry, that “steadfast and uncritical” support from Russia, China and India was enabling the military to sustain itself despite the continued pushback by the anti-coup movement, including armed fighters.

The NUG continues to throw its weight behind Kyaw Moe Tun.

“The NUG wholly stands behind Kyaw Moe Tun who has risen to the occasion and in this dark time has proven himself not only to be an ardent and tireless supporter of human rights and democracy, but also a very skilled and capable diplomat,” Dr Sasa, NUG’s Minister for International Cooperation, told Al Jazeera.

“The military hope to control the international narrative, to suppress the truth, and to stalemate any nascent international response by ‘legitimising’ themselves through the credentials committee,” said the minister, who spoke from an undisclosed location.

Anti-coup fighters and protesters at a rally in Myanmar's Sagaing region. They are shouting as they walk. Some have weapons and one is carrying a megaphone.
The Myanmar military continues to face opposition to its rule, including from civilian armed groups linked to the NUG [File: AFP]

Dr Sasa warns that accepting the military’s nominee would probably open the door to providing aid and doing business with the generals “and of course, a PR blitz with photos of generals on the world stage”.

Despite support for the NUG, the path ahead for its formal recognition remains uncertain, the ISEAS paper said.

Beijing and Moscow’s veto power at the UN Security Council and differing preferences within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations may continue to provide the regime “with the expectation that it could still pursue recognition and legitimacy via its plans for an election in 2023,” it observed.

Source: Al Jazeera