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Myanmar: Public Briefing by the Secretary-General

Tomorrow (28 September), UN Secretary-General António Guterres will brief the Council on the crisis in Myanmar at the request of Egypt, France, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Myanmar’s national security adviser, Thaung Tun, and a representative from Bangladesh are expected to participate. This will be the first public briefing on Myanmar since July 2009 when then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the Council. Tomorrow’s meeting follows briefings on Myanmar under “any other business” on 30 August, 13 September, and yesterday (26 September). No outcome is expected from tomorrow’s meeting, but it seems there is growing interest in trying to get agreement on a presidential statement.

This further focus on Myanmar in the Council comes after a number of ministerial meetings last week on the issue on the sidelines of the General Assembly’s high-level debate, as well as numerous bilateral discussions.

On 18 September, the UK hosted a meeting on Myanmar which included ministers from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Indonesia, Turkey, Sweden, the US ambassador to the UN and a representative of the European Union. Following the meeting, Britain, France and Australia urged State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to push for an end to military violence against the Rohingya.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Contact Group on the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar met at ministerial level on 19 September. Following the meeting, the Contact Group issued a statement expressing concern over the actions by government security forces against the Rohingya, which it said has “reached the level of ethnic cleansing”. The statement also called on the Myanmar government to make an official statement about the casualties and internal displacement of Rohingya, to stop the violence, and to accept the UN Human Rights Council’s fact finding mission, which has been tasked with conducting an investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law. It also urged the Security Council to take immediate action on the issue of the Rohingya and urged the adoption of a resolution on the Rohingya in the General Assembly. It seems that the Secretary-General also met with some OIC ministers last week on this issue. Council members Egypt, Kazakhstan and Senegal are all members of the OIC and may reflect some of the views expressed in the OIC Contact Group’s statement in the meeting tomorrow.

On Saturday, 23 September, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers discussed Myanmar during their annual informal meeting in New York. This was followed by a meeting of ASEAN ministers with Guterres. Myanmar is a member of the organisation, which has made it difficult for ASEAN, which operates by consensus and has traditionally adhered to a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its members, to take a strong position. Among ASEAN members, Malaysia has been the most critical of the violence in Rakhine state and of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. It seems that finding consensus on a joint statement was difficult and instead it was agreed that the Philippines, as the current chair of ASEAN, would issue a Chair’s statement following consultations with the other members. The chair’s statement, which was issued following the meeting, expressed concern over recent developments in northern Rakhine state, condemned the attacks against Myanmar security forces on 25 August 2017 and all acts of violence, and urged the parties to avoid actions that would further worsen the situation on the ground. It also agreed that solutions to the root causes of the conflict need to be found and welcomed the commitment by the Myanmar authorities to ensure the safety of civilians, take steps to end the violence, and address the refugee problem through a verification process. In an unusual move, Malaysia dissociated itself from the statement, stating that it was a misrepresentation of the situation, particularly as it omitted any reference to the Rohingya.

The briefing under “any other business” yesterday was provided by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman at the request of Sweden. It was requested to provide Council members with an update on recent developments and to allow members to obtain more information on the discussions that took place on the sidelines of the General Assembly. It seems that Feltman updated members on the number of villages abandoned and the refugee flows into Bangladesh. He also reiterated the Secretary-General’s three points for immediate action: suspension of military and security operations; unfettered and safe access for UN agencies and partners to affected communities; and the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of those who fled the country in the wake of attacks. It appears that yesterday’s meeting allowed members to express their views in a more private setting than the public briefing already requested.

Although the situation in Myanmar was discussed during the Secretary-General’s lunch with Council members on 12 September, this will be Guterres’ first formal briefing to the Council on Myanmar. He is expected to reiterate the expressions of strong concern and points that he has made in recent meetings, particularly the three immediate actions highlighted by Feltman yesterday. In addition, Guterres may refer to his meetings with members of ASEAN and the OIC last week and suggest closer collaboration between the UN and these organisations. In this context, he may elaborate on the possible role ASEAN could play in the delivery of humanitarian aid, particularly as the UN is not currently allowed access. If Myanmar agrees, it seems that ASEAN is ready to provide humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre. Guterres may also emphasise the need for a political solution that addresses the root causes of the problem, in particular the statelessness of the Rohingya.

The Myanmar national security adviser is expected to be consistent with statements by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and deny that there is any ethnic cleansing taking place against Muslims, while stressing the complex nature of the situation in Rakhine state. He is also likely to explain the military’s response to the 25 August attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as a fight against terrorism.

Bangladesh may reiterate some of the points made by its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in her speech to the General Assembly last week. She urged Myanmar to allow the return of the refugees and called for safe zones to be created under UN supervision in Rakhine state.

In tomorrow’s meeting, many Council members are expected to reiterate the messages in the press elements they issued following the briefing on Myanmar under “any other matters” on 13 September. Although not a formal product, this was the first time in nine years that the Council was able to agree on any kind of outcome on Myanmar. Council members expressed concern at reports of excessive violence by security forces following the 25 August attacks and called for "immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, re-establish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians, restore normal socio-economic conditions, and resolve the refugee problem." They also called for the government to facilitate humanitarian assistance and to fulfil commitments to provide aid to all displaced people.

Some members may be ready to go beyond these agreed messages. For some time there have been political sensitivities for some members inhibiting any Council initiative criticising Myanmar’s democratically-elected government, given that it does not control the military and is thus not directly responsible for the operations in Rakhine. However, the continuing violence and atrocities against the Rohingya appear to have led to a shift in attitude for these members. There has also been increasing dissatisfaction over the position taken by Suu Kyi. In addressing the situation in Rakhine state for the first time on 19 September, she condemned all human rights violations and unlawful violence, but did not identify the perpetrators, saying that it was not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. It is possible that some members may push for Suu Kyi to more actively defuse tensions between communities and possibly call on the Myanmar government to implement the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations in full. The Commission, which was headed by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recommends that the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims; ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access throughout the state; tackle Rohingya statelessness and “revisit” the 1982 Citizenship Law; hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable; and end restrictions on freedom of movement.

Some of these shifting positions were seen at the General Assembly. On 19 September, British Prime Minister Theresa May in her speech to the General Assembly announced that the UK would end all defence engagement and training of the Myanmar military until attacks against civilians in Rakhine state had stopped. In his speech to the Assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron characterised recent actions in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing. Also during the opening of the Assembly, US President Donald Trump called on the Council to take “strong and swift action” to end violence against the Rohingya.
China apparently did not have strong objections to having a public meeting on Myanmar, as it had in the past. It is likely to be more openly supportive of the Myanmar government than other members and may emphasise the need for the government to protect its national security interests. Additionally, China may suggest that dialogue and consultation are needed to resolve the conflict.

Looking ahead, France has indicated that it will be holding an Arria-formula meeting during their presidency next month, focused on the situation in Myanmar and the srecommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, with Annan participating..

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