As world leaders have gathered for the UN General Assembly in New York this week, there has been uncertainty over who should be representing Myanmar.
Since a coup on February 1, Myanmar’s military has argued it is the legitimate government of the country and should have the power to appoint ambassadors to the UN and elsewhere.
However, a government in exile has also been formed — called the national unity government (or NUG for short) — which is comprised mainly of elected representatives of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed government and ethnic minority groups.
It, too, says it’s the legitimate government of Myanmar and should be able to appoint the country’s ambassadors. Civil society groups in Myanmar have sent a letter to the General Assembly urging it to retain current UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who opposed the coup and is a vocal critic of the junta.
So, why does it matter who represents Myanmar on the global stage and who currently has the upper hand?
What is the national unity government?
The NUG was formed in April in response to the coup and the junta’s brutal suppression of peaceful protesters, which has now led to over 1,100 deaths, some 6,600 arrests and hundreds more being forced into hiding or exile.
The NUG’s two main leaders are Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint, but they have both been under arrest since the coup so their roles are largely symbolic.
The rest of the leadership comprises acting Prime Minister Mahn Winn Khaing Thann, an ethnic Karen and Christian politician, and President Duwa Lashi La, an ethnic Kachin politician.
Many NUG ministers were part of the former government led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, but there has clearly been an effort to offer a more inclusive vision of the country’s leadership.
In addition to the NLD, the ministry draws on elected members of parliament from a wide range of political parties and a broad mix of ethnic minorities. Significantly, a Rohingya activist was appointed an advisor in the Ministry of Human Rights.
Most countries have been reticent to recognise the military as the legitimate government of Myanmar, but it has been difficult for the NUG to receive formal recognition, too.
The quest for international recognition
And in a canny strategic manoeuvre, the NUG announced it would for the first time accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court with respect to all international crimes committed in Myanmar since 2002.
Both the ICC and the International Court of Justice have cases underway related to alleged abuses against the Rohingya.
These moves may well be genuine reassessments of the former government’s much-criticised failure to support the Rohingya. Suu Kyi previously defended the military for driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes into Bangladesh, denying it was a genocide.
But the NUG’s moves may also be engineered to gain international support. In particular, there was pressure from the US Congress to address the Rohingya issue prior to the US providing diplomatic and material support to the government in exile.
Diplomatic fight shifts to the UN
The key prize in this battle for recognition is Myanmar’s seat at the UN. The seat is important, as it reflects the will of the international community regarding the legitimate Myanmar government.
The NUG has been assisted by the general assembly’s rules, which dictate the incumbent ambassador keeps the seat if there is a credentialing dispute.
The UN was expected to make a formal decision on recognition in the lead-up to the current general assembly session. However, in a back-room compromise between the US and China (and informally endorsed by the European Union, the ASEAN bloc and Russia), it was agreed the military’s representatives would not be allowed to attend the meeting.
That means the current ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, was able to participate in the opening of the general assembly session, although the agreement required him to refrain from using any tough rhetoric against the military. Nevertheless, this was a big win for the NUG.
The nine-member credentialing panel, which includes the US, China and Russia, will now decide in November who formally takes Myanmar’s UN seat.
Is civil war inevitable?
While the NUG is angling for international recognition, it has simultaneously announced a “people’s defensive war” against the junta, abandoning the nonviolent tactics adopted by Suu Kyi during her years of house arrest.
This overt call for violence has caused unease in some quarters, although criticism from the US and UK embassies in Myanmar is relatively muted.
While it is understandable the people of Myanmar are desperate for a solution, it is far from certain that encouraging relatively untrained and poorly equipped civilians to attack the military will produce the desired result.
There is some evidence of collaboration between the highly trained ethnic armed groups and more recent recruits from the cities, but given the Myanmar military’s long history of absorbing significant casualties without caving in, it does not bode well for a settlement.
Nevertheless, people may feel war is their only option. Indeed, in the short term, the chances of a peaceful resolution to the long-running conflict between Myanmar’s military and its people may have disappeared the moment Suu Kyi and Win Myint were arrested in the early hours of February 1.