posted on Thu 14 May 2020 1:00 PM
Myanmar: Closed VTC

This afternoon (14 May), Security Council members will hold a closed VTC meeting on Myanmar. Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener is expected to brief on recent developments in the country, including the escalation of the conflict in northwest Rakhine State and the impact of COVID-19 in Myanmar. A press statement has been suggested by the UK, the penholder, but it seems unlikely that there will be an outcome following the meeting due to strong resistance from at least one member.

Since January 2019, there has been an upsurge in fighting between the Tatmadaw (the government forces of Myanmar) and the Arakan Army, a rebel group seeking greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine people. This has led to the killing and displacement of civilians in north-west Rakhine State and Chin State. At the end of April, OCHA reported that there have been 77,700 people displaced since January. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the attack on a UN vehicle on 20 April that led to the death of a WHO staff member who had been transporting COVID-19 test samples in Rakhine State. Yanghee Lee, who was the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar until the end of April, has called for an investigation into allegations of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Burgener is also expected to cover the ceasefire announced on 10 May by the Tatmadaw for parts of the country until 31 August. While the ceasefire appears to be in line with Guterres’ call for a ceasefire in recognition of the common threat posed by COVID-19, the Tatmadaw have excluded Rakhine and Chin states from this ceasefire because they classify the groups involved in conflict there as terrorist organisations. Council members may be interested in Burgener’s assessment of whether the ceasefire will hold and the implications of Rakhine and Chin states not being included.

Members will be interested in hearing about the impact of COVID-19 in Myanmar, which confirmed its first case on 23 March and reported 151 cases on 1 May. The spread of COVID-19, especially among displaced communities that may be particularly vulnerable, is likely to be a concern. Humanitarian access in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin, and Karen states is difficult, and in January, the Myanmar government restricted internet access in several areas in Rakhine and Chin states, making it even more difficult to obtain information from these areas. Burgener may stress the need for increased humanitarian access for the UN to rapidly respond to the virus in vulnerable communities. It seems that there had been interest in having a briefer from OCHA to cover the humanitarian situation in the country, but apparently China was not open to this.

The impact on COVID-19 in relation to areas that were being prepared for the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar may also be discussed. Members may want an update on how COVID-19 has affected any efforts that were being made to ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Rohingya refugees. Vietnam, as chair of ASEAN, may provide information on ASEAN’s potential role in the repatriation of these refugees. There may also be interest in information on the impact of the Bangladesh government’s measures in response to COVID-19 on the Rohingya refugee camps, which house close to one million refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, the Bangladesh government’s lockdown measures have reduced the presence of humanitarian workers in refugee camps by 80 percent in order to reduce the risks of an outbreak of the virus in these overcrowded camps. Members may also want to know what other measures have been taken to curtail the spread of the virus and the impact of the restrictions on humanitarian aid workers. Another issue that members may want information about is the situation of those Rohingya refugees that have been stranded at sea due to the reluctance of the Bangladesh government and neighbouring ASEAN countries to take them in because of the coronavirus.

Myanmar is expected to hold elections in November. Members may be interested in Burgener’s assessment of how the virus may affect the elections and the potential for more widespread unrest in the run-up to the elections.

On 23 January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered provisional measures against Myanmar in the case concerning Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar). The ICJ ruled that Myanmar was to “take all measures within in its power” to prevent the killing of Rohingya or causing bodily or mental harm to members of the group, including by the military or “any irregular armed units”. The ICJ also ruled that Myanmar must “prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of any evidence related to” allegations of genocide. In addition, it said that Myanmar must submit a report on the implementation of its ruling within four months, with additional reports due every six months “until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court”.  The first report is due on 23 May.  The EU members of the Security Council appear to be keen to have an update from the Special Envoy on Myanmar’s compliance with the ICJ’s provisional measures order.

The Council’s attention to the situation in Myanmar has waned since an uptick of activity following the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on security posts and the flight of 750,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. Sporadic briefings have taken in place in response to particular events. The Special Envoy briefed twice last year, with the last briefing taking place in July 2019. It has been particularly difficult for some time to find agreement on any kind of outcome. Some members had wanted a press release following the meeting held after the ICJ ruling in January but were unable to reach consensus. These members had hoped that current developments, including the call for a ceasefire and the impact of COVID-19, would allow for agreement on a press statement, but this has not been the case. China has for some time made clear that it would not accept an outcome on Myanmar; this position appears to be unchanged. ASEAN members Indonesia and Vietnam have also taken a more cautious approach to this issue. Most of the European members are keen to see more focus on accountability issues and are closely watching developments related to the ICJ.