A group of hundreds of civil society groups has written an open letter to United Nations chief Antonio Guterres telling him to stop UN agencies, funds and others connected with the organisation from engaging with the generals who seized control of the country from its elected government in a coup last year.
The letter condemned “in the strongest terms” the continued presentation of letters of appointment and the signing of agreements such as MoUs with the coup leaders by various UN agencies. It noted that the practice had continued despite a request in December last year for the UN and its agencies not to engage with the military in any way that could give them some kind of legitimacy.
“We call on you and all UN entities to immediately cease all forms of cooperation and engagement that lends legitimacy to the illegal murderous junta,” read the letter, signed by 638 civil society organisations.
“We urge you to intervene for a principled, coordinated UN response to the crisis in Myanmar.”
It noted that agencies including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) had signed new agreements with the regime and presented credentials to military appointees in August and September 2022.
It added that “the public ceremonies, which were arranged with photographs, were used as propaganda by the military junta in its ongoing attempts to assert their legitimacy”.
Led by army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and seized power in February 2021. The power grab led to nationwide protests and the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) largely by those removed from office in the coup.
The NUG formed the People’s Defence Force (PDF) to fight for the restoration of democracy with the military’s crackdown on opposition to its rule encouraging civilians to take up arms.
The NUG has mounted an increasingly vocal campaign for engagement and recognition including at the UN, where Kyaw Moe Tun, the ambassador appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government remains in his post.
“The international community must provide support to the National Unity Government which is the true representative body of the people of Myanmar,” Dr Tun Aung Shwe, its representative in Australia, told Al Jazeera earlier this month. “The NUG represents the Myanmar people. The military junta is not eligible to represent the Myanmar people at the United Nations.”
Malaysia is also encouraging ASEAN, which is leading diplomatic initiatives to end the crisis, to engage with the NUG.
In May, the military’s foreign minister condemned the call as “irresponsible and reckless“, but Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah has continued to push for wider engagement.
Earlier this week, sitting alongside NUG representatives in New York, he called for a more “inclusive” approach to dealing with a crisis that some have likened to a civil war, and said ASEAN should speak to “all stakeholders” in its efforts to end the conflict.
The civil society letter said the recent actions by UN bodies “clearly side(d)” with the military.
“This breaches the principles of democracy, human rights and humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, independence and “do no harm” outlined in the UN’s Joint Operating Standards and framework of engagement, for which UN entities must comply with and hold themselves accountable,” the letter said.
It noted that in December last year, the decision to allow Kyaw Moe Tun to stay in his post had been endorsed by the UN General Assembly.
“UN entities, and agencies, funds and programmes in Myanmar should be guided by this decision and should be engaging publicly with the NUG and not the military junta,” it said.
More than 2,300 people have been killed since the military took control of Myanmar, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a civil society group keeping track of the death toll.
A briefing released earlier this month by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, which includes former UN special rapporteurs, found the military had no effective control over the country.
The NUG and other organisations fighting against the coup have effective control over 52 percent of the territory of Myanmar, it said, while the military could claim to have stable control over just 17 percent.
“The world needs to wake up to the reality that a new Myanmar is already taking shape,” SAC-M’s Yanghee Lee said in the report. “The National Unity Government is not a shadow government or a government in exile. It is the representative of the people’s revolution and resistance to the military junta, the combined forces of which control the majority of the country.”