This week on September 14, the United Nations General Assembly will hold its 75th session during which the question of Myanmar’s seat at the UNGA will be debated and voted on. Following the coup d’etat that took place on 1 February 2021, the question of international legitimacy to the military government led by General Min Aung Hlaing still remains a matter of controversy. This is due to the fact that the overthrown National Unity Government and the military remain in a state of conflict with recent calls by the NUG for the political opposition and protestors to continue a revolution against the junta regime. Interestingly this year’s UNGA will see debates relating not just to Myanmar, but also over the seat of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in mid-August.
This debate over a vacant seat at the UNGA is not entirely new. Similar debates have been held over Afghanistan in 1996 following the Taliban coming to power. Cambodia too has faced the debate of the seat at the UNGA twice—first following the 1979 overthrow of the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese intervention, the UNGA decided to retain the seat for the Khmer Rouge and subsequently recognised an alliance of ousted Cambodian parties, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. Later in 1997, when the Hun Sun government overthrew the alliance partner headed by Prince Ranariddh following the 1997 coup d’etat, the debate over the Cambodian seat re-emerged. The task of recommending the credentials of a country for the occupation of the UNGA seat is done through a smaller committee comprising nine members, which is called the Credentials Committee within the UN. Normally the ruling group from within the state that seeks to act as the political representative presents its credentials to this Committee, similar to the presentation of credentials when two countries are engaged in diplomatic ties. In the case of the Credentials Committee itself, there is a critical faultline that needs to be understood. Within the Committee, the dynamics are already set in such a way that contesting sides are represented by global powers—the US, China and Russia—which are its members. While the US has strongly opposed the coup d’etat and categorically refused to recognise the government led by General Min Aung Hlaing, both China and Russia have given recognition to the military junta’s State Administration Council (SAC), setting the space for no compromises on either side.
Both the ruling and opposing sides can present their claims to represent the state and in Myanmar’s case, this is further complicated by the democratic vote that the NUG represents. The controlling authority of the state offers its credentials, which are examined and then presented to the UNGA. In the case of countries where the question of political representation is contested as with Myanmar, the debate over rightful representation becomes critical as it seeks to address the issue of giving international legitimacy to the authority in control of the state. A matter that will create further complexity in the context of Myanmar is the issue of control over territory and population—both these currently are with the military regime, which gives it an advantage vis-a-vis the unity government. So while the NUG represents the will of the people, the SAC has control over the state—bringing to the forefront the critical dilemma of the UN’s inability to address matters that fall into the purview of domestic issues. This weakness of the UN evolves from within the Charter itself as it precludes the organisation’s ability to interfere in domestic matters, limiting the ability to implement change from outside.
One of the foremost challenges for the UN in this context is how to evaluate the ground realities within Myanmar, especially when the military regime has overthrown a democratically elected government that won the general elections in November 2020. In the aftermath of the coup d’etat, the Myanmarese ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, categorically condemned the military coup. He asked the international community to deny recognition to the military leadership, unequivocally call for the reversal of the coup and recognise the democratically elected government. This was an unprecedented move by Myanmar’s UN envoy and publicly led to a diplomatic standoff in May 2021 when the SAC sent its representative stating that the former Myanmarese representative had violated his role in the UN.
Following this, in June 2021, the UNGA passed a resolution that had two significant aspects to it. First it clearly called for the military to recognise the political will of the people of Myanmar as expressed in the November 2020 vote. Second, it also emphasised the need to ensure that other nations do not continue trading in arms with Myanmar’s military as this could be used against the protesting civilian population within the country. However, the weakness of any UNGA resolution is that these are non-binding and there are no mechanisms for their implementation, which has been evident through various issues in UNGA’s history. The debate for the UN seat will critically impact the context of international legitimacy for the military government. Given the complexity of the domestic dynamics, keeping the seat vacant sends a clear message that the military coup cannot be endorsed while putting pressure on the junta to move towards some form of national reconciliation.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi