Myanmar looking to UN for help to end violence

Protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday, March 14, 2021, assist a man injured during a confrontation with security forces. (The New York Times)

The people of Myanmar have huge expectations from the United Nations and the international community following the Feb. 1 coup, with many calling for sanctions and some urging the U.N. to send peacekeepers to stop the killings of peaceful protesters seeking a return to democracy, the top U.N. official in the country said Friday.

Acting resident and humanitarian coordinator Andrew Kirkwood said in a video briefing to U.N. reporters from Myanmar’s largest city Yangon that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other U.N. officials have been very consistent about what’s really needed: “collective member state actions in the Security Council.”

Guterres echoed that message again on Friday, saying “a firm, unified international response is urgently needed” to stop the violence by security forces and return Myanmar to the path of democracy, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“Many people will have seen people carrying placards saying, ‘how many more bodies?’” Kirkwood said. “People are really looking for concerted international action in terms of sanctions. Frankly, some people here want to see peacekeepers.”

“There’s a huge expectation on the United Nations, with the entire international community,” he said. “We are doing everything we can in the current situation, and there is still frustration among the people that the international community hasn’t done more to date.”

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power after 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.

The Security Council adopted a presidential statement — one step below a resolution — on March 10 calling for a reversal of the coup, strongly condemning the violence against peaceful protesters and calling for “utmost restraint” by the military. It stressed the need to uphold “democratic institutions and processes” and called for the immediate release of detained government leaders including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

The statement is weaker than the initial draft circulated by the United Kingdom, which would have condemned the coup and threatened “possible measures under the U.N. Charter” — U.N. language for sanctions — “should the situation deteriorate further.”

Diplomats said council members China and India, both neighbors of Myanmar, as well as Russia and Vietnam, which along with Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), objected to provisions in the stronger earlier drafts of the statement.

Getting Security Council approval for U.N. sanctions or peacekeepers will be an uphill struggle. That’s because it will require support or an abstention from China, a veto-wielding council member that calls itself a friend of Myanmar and has a policy opposing sanctions.

The U.N. has also looked to ASEAN as the regional power to take the lead in trying to end the crisis.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy, urged an immediate halt to the violence on Friday and called for a summit of ASEAN leaders on the coup.

ASEAN, currently chaired by Brunei, also faces internal divisions in agreeing on significant action against Myanmar.

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