posted on Thu 10 Sep 2020 9:34 PM
Myanmar: Closed VTC Briefing

Tomorrow (11 September), Council members will hold a closed videoconference (VTC) meeting on the situation in Myanmar. Briefings are expected from Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener; High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi; and Kanni Wignaraja, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

This meeting comes amidst continuing clashes between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military forces) and the Arakan Army, a rebel group seeking greater autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine people, and rising COVID-19 cases that have exacerbated existing humanitarian difficulties in Rakhine State. When Burgener last briefed the Council on 14 May, she noted the importance of, and challenges to, an inclusive response to COVID-19 in Myanmar. In the last month, locally transmitted COVID-19 have surged in Rakhine State, with the first case reported on 16 August and almost four hundred cases by 3 September. Members are likely to want more information on the impact of the surge in COVID-19 cases in Rakhine State, particularly in internally displaced persons camps.

In this context, Burgener, as well as the other briefers, may stress the need for all parties to heed Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire to combat COVID-19. On 25 August, the Tatmadaw extended its ceasefire, initially meant to last from 10 May to 31 August, until the end of September. While the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire appears to be in line with Guterres’ call, as well as the subsequent Council call in resolution 2532 for a cessation of hostilities in cases on its agenda, the Tatmadaw ceasefire excludes Rakhine and Chin states because it classifies groups involved in conflict there as terrorist organisations. Council members may be interested in Burgener’s assessment of the impact of the ceasefire so far, the likelihood of its extension, and whether there is a prospect of including Rakhine and Chin states.

Burgener is also expected to discuss the national elections scheduled for 8 November. Members concerned about the potential impact on voting of the ongoing violence and the pandemic may want to know what steps are being taken to make the election free and fair. There may also be interest in electoral monitoring and the credibility of the electoral lists, which have been reported to be incomplete. In early July, the Union Election Commission rejected the application of a local election monitoring group, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), to monitor the elections, a decision that was then reversed. Some Council members may ask about the possibility of Rohingya citizenship issues coming to the fore during this period, as the Rohingya are not likely to be allowed to vote (Rohingya candidates have already been banned from standing in the election).

Some members may stress the need to support international efforts to promote accountability for crimes committed following the violent reaction by Myanmar military forces to the 25 August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on security posts. Several members may have questions about the 8 September New York Times video testimonies of two soldiers who allegedly deserted from the Tatmadaw and confessed to having committed atrocity crimes on the orders of their commanders, and its implications for international action.

In response to an application filed by the Gambia in November 2019, the International Court of Justice ordered provisional measures against Myanmar on 23 January, ruling that it 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 the court’s ruling within four months, with additional reports due every six months “until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court”. Myanmar submitted the first report on 22 May, complying with the 23 May deadline given by the ICJ. The report has not been made public, and members may be interested in hearing what steps Myanmar has taken over the year to comply with the ICJ ruling.

On 25 August, the three-year anniversary of the exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh, Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement renewing his call “to bring greater urgency to this crisis by addressing the root causes of the conflict and creating the conditions for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of all refugees”. Members will be looking for signs of significant progress in creating the appropriate conditions for the return of the refugees from Bangladesh, and Grandi is expected to provide an update on the Myanmar government’s efforts in this regard. It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic may have added another layer of complexity to the return of the refugees, who may be suspected as potential carriers of the virus. In this context, Grandi may stress the importance of building trust, and reiterate the need to implement the recommendations outlined in the August 2017 report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state to assess the challenges in that state.

Grandi may also focus on the need for greater humanitarian access, which has been complicated by the advent of COVID-19 in Rakhine State. He may highlight the difficulty of responding to those affected by the virus under these conditions.

Another issue that Grandi is likely to raise is the need for greater regional involvement in addressing this situation. He may suggest that ASEAN could play a bigger role, including through greater engagement in coordinating the return of refugees and by working with the Myanmar government on creating the conditions for return. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has led more refugees to flee by boat to other countries in south-east Asia. While many ASEAN countries are reluctant to take in these refugees, there may be a need for an ASEAN-wide strategy to address this situation.

Wignaraja’s main focus is expected to be the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between UNDP, UNHCR and the Myanmar government, which in May was extended until June 2021. The MOU, originally signed in June 2018, aims to help create a conducive environment for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. It also focuses on quick-impact projects that will help to promote social cohesion and resilience-based development among the communities in Rakhine State. It seems that since the MOU was signed over 70 quick-impact projects have been approved. Wignaraja may speak about the challenges faced due to COVID-19 and ongoing armed conflict in Rakhine state. She may also suggest a need to go beyond quick-impact projects to medium-term projects that would focus on the longer-term development of Rakhine State.

While it has been possible to hold regular briefings on Myanmar over the last couple of years, it has been difficult getting agreement on public meetings or a Council outcome on this issue. China continues to prefer that the Council not focus on Myanmar. While it sees the return of the refugees as a priority, it believes that the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments, rather than the Council, should manage this issue. At the meeting tomorrow, it is likely to highlight any developments that it views as progress by the Myanmar government in this regard. ASEAN members Indonesia and Vietnam have generally taken a cautious approach in line with that of ASEAN’s general principle of non-interference in the affairs of its member states and have not been strong advocates of greater involvement on the part of the Council. While Indonesia is also a member of the OIC, it seems that their ASEAN identity has generally prevailed. The other OIC members, Niger and Tunisia, have not shown much appetite to push for greater Council engagement so far. The UK, as the lead on Myanmar, with the support of other European members, has kept the issue on the Council’s radar through regular requests for briefings, but these members are aware that the current dynamic in the Council is unlikely to provide an opportunity for stronger action. European members, the Dominican Republic, Tunisia and the US are likely to issue a joint statement following the meeting. The joint statement is expected to cover the upcoming elections, the unrest in Rakhine State, and the rise in COVID-19 cases. It may also highlight the need to address accountability issues, the long-term causes of the conflict in Rakhine state, and the safe, voluntary return of the refugees.