U.S. and China Avert Potential Clash in U.N. Over Myanmar Representation
Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations, a holdover from the country’s deposed civilian government, will sit out a series of high-level meetings in New York this week, averting for now a potential clash between the U.S. and China over who should represent the country on the world stage.
The question of who ultimately takes Myanmar’s seat at the U.N. is central to the battle for international legitimacy between the country’s military regime and the democratically elected government it overthrew in February.
The compromise allows Kyaw Moe Tun to participate in all U.N. functions after the annual “general debate” ends next week, fending off a challenge by Myanmar’s military junta, which wants him replaced. The issue of who should represent the country in the long term is postponed to a future date.
“This seat will not be taken by a representative of the military, that is for sure,” Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun said in an interview, adding that he won’t make a speech or be present for the event. “In the long run, there will be a lot of occasions for me to deliver many, many statements—there will be a plenary, there will be committees—that’s very important to me and to the country.”
For now, a U.N. credentials committee tasked with adjudicating the matter appears united against recognizing the regime, but divided over the degree to which they are willing to publicly back its opponents. The nine-member committee, which includes the U.S. and China, will meet in November to weigh a decision. Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun said he doesn’t anticipate a challenge meanwhile, and expects continuity until and after the meeting.
People familiar with the matter said that representatives from the U.S. and Europe helped broker the arrangement that keeps Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun in place for now. Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun said the issue was discussed several times during routine conversations with counterparts in other U.N. missions, declining to identify them, and that he came to understand his “best option” for achieving consensus was to skip the “general debate.”
The compromise suggests that the U.S. and China are reluctant to lock horns over Myanmar, where Washington has long supported democratization efforts and Beijing has deep economic and strategic interests. China is one of a few states, including Russia, to engage the junta since it seized power, though there are limits to the relationship.
Myanmar’s military didn’t respond to a request for comment. China’s mission to the U.N. couldn’t immediately be reached.
The dispute is one of three similar cases playing out at the U.N. this year, as a military coup in Guinea and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan have raised questions over who should represent those countries in international organizations. But Myanmar’s case is unique because it is the only state for which there are two rival candidates: the incumbent Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun, and army loyalist Aung Thurein, with whom the junta seeks to replace him.
Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun is a career diplomat who was appointed by the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Feb. 1, Ms. Suu Kyi’s government was overthrown in a military coup hours before it was due to be sworn in for a second term. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a resounding victory in 2020 elections, but the military claimed the vote was fraudulent. International observers said the vote was mostly free and fair.
Ms. Suu Kyi and much of her government have been detained ever since. Mass protests against army rule erupted across the country, and were met with a violent crackdown by military authorities that left more than 1,000 dead and thousands jailed.
There is virtually no chance the junta’s pick will get the U.N. seat under the current assembly, a majority of which supported a June resolution condemning the military’s recent violence, and would likely vote down any effort to seat him.
However, diplomats said countries sympathetic to the junta, such as China or Russia, might seek to ingratiate themselves with the military by arguing that the seat should be made vacant while the country struggles through its deepest economic crisis in decades. Legal scholars say there is no justification for leaving the seat empty, based on precedent. The current arrangement is an effort to prevent that outcome while Western democracies seek a consensus that would, at the least, uphold the status quo.
“On merits, the decision ought to be clear,” said Michael Posner, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under the Obama administration and is the director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business.
“But this is political; here you have two permanent members squaring off and the world divided,” Mr. Posner said. “In that context, the decision is basically to make no decision or postpone it to avoid a conflict.”
Retaining the current ambassador despite the junta’s attempt to dislodge him wouldn’t only deny the junta formal recognition but also open diplomatic pathways to engage with the ousted leadership, which formed a shadow administration in hiding in April called the National Unity Government.
The U.N.’s acceptance of Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun’s credentials wouldn’t in itself amount to recognition of the NUG as Myanmar’s governing authority, but it would bolster their claims of legitimacy and ease bilateral engagement with member states.
Some advocates say the latest arrangement amounts to a gag order on Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun. In late February, shortly after the coup, he seized global attention with an emotional address to the U.N. in which he declared allegiance to the ousted government and denounced the military regime. The next day, the junta said he was fired. Both Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun and the U.N. ignored the dismissal.
In early August, two Myanmar nationals were arrested in New York and charged with conspiracy to injure or kill Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun. The junta denied any involvement, though the Justice Department said the plan involved an arms dealer based in Thailand who sells weapons to the Myanmar military.
Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of Myanmar’s shadow government, said the arrangement “is not the optimal solution” but the NUG accepts it as a necessary step to achieving long-term recognition.
“We need to make certain compromises, and this is one of them,” she said