Myanmar’s Fired UN Envoy Pushes Asean to Get Tough on Army Coup
Soldiers set on fire barricades set up by protesters in Yangon earlier in March. (Photographer: STR/AFP)

Myanmar’s Fired UN Envoy Pushes Asean to Get Tough on Army Coup

It’s been more than two months since Myanmar’s military staged a coup, but the country’s pro-democracy envoy to the United Nations continues to arrive daily to his office, where he lobbies ambassadors and UN officials to help reverse the takeover.

There’s only one problem: Since giving a dramatic speech in February at the UN in defense of his country’s demonstrators, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun has been fired by the Myanmar junta, and many of the people he claims to represent have been thrown in jail.

Myanmar’s Fired UN Envoy Pushes Asean to Get Tough on Army Coup

The plight of Myanmar’s nascent democracy will dominate this weekend’s special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Indonesia. Even with more than 700 protesters killed by the military since February, expectations are low that the bloc -- which has a long history of “non-interference” in other members’ internal affairs -- will act decisively.

Myanmar’s Fired UN Envoy Pushes Asean to Get Tough on Army Coup

Myanmar’s seat at the meeting will be filled by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the nation’s new military government, who is making his first overseas trip since the coup. That’s sparked criticism from protesters and observers who say the region has been too cautious in addressing the crisis.

Moe Zaw Oo, deputy foreign minister in the parallel National Unity Government that was formed earlier this month by close allies of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed disappointment that his representatives were not invited.

“By inviting General Min Aung Hlaing and his council to the summit, Asean has not only ignored the representation of the legitimate government of Myanmar, but also inflicted a deep sense of betrayal amongst the Myanmar people, who continue to sacrifice their lives and freedom for democracy,” Moe Zaw Oo said Friday.

For diplomats like Kyaw Moe Tun, whose three-finger “Hunger Games” salute at the UN podium made him a hero among activists in Myanmar and others around the world, there’s still a chance.

“They need to take stronger action against the military,” he said in an interview. “We appreciate the support they’ve extended to the people in Myanmar but without more aggressive action, more people are going to die.”

Asean leaders haven’t formally invited members of Myanmar’s pro-democracy alliance known as the National Unity Government to the Saturday gathering in Jakarta. And some leaders such Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have said they’ll stay home and send a subordinate, a relatively strong sign of disapproval for a bloc that historically shuns such overt statements.

In a letter dated Tuesday to Brunei, which holds the rotating chair of Asean, the top diplomat of Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government said it hadn’t yet received an invitation to the meeting.

“It would be remiss if Asean fails to listen to the voices of Myanmar people,” Zin Mar Aung, the group’s minister of foreign affairs, wrote in the letter seen by Bloomberg. “It is of the paramount importance that Asean stands with the people of Myanmar, not with the oppressive and illegitimate coup leaders.”

Since the coup, Asian nations have condemned the violence to various degrees while stopping short of supporting sanctions or any other measures that would hit the military’s finances. The leaders of many Western nations and international organizations want to see more.

“I have repeatedly called on the international community to work, collectively and through bilateral channels, to help bring an end to the violence and the repression by the military,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield earlier this month called on Asean countries “to review their financial and other linkages to the military.”

“The military needs to feel the costs associated with its horrific actions,” she told UN Security Council members this month. “At this point, only concrete action will change the military calculus.”

Myanmar’s Fired UN Envoy Pushes Asean to Get Tough on Army Coup

Despite its history of non-interference, Asean’s meeting comes as the military struggles to take control of a population that has resisted its rule every step of the way since the coup. Protesters, including students, civil servants and even diplomats, have refused to heed the junta’s orders to resume their duties, sending the economy into a free-fall amid persisting violent attacks on civilians.

“It’s hard to downplay the risks in a very ethnically diverse country populated with a variety of armed movements and armed actors,” said Ashish Pradhan, a senior UN analyst at the International Crisis Group, when asked about the potential for Myanmar to descend into a broader cycle of violence.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said his country will reiterate calls for the unconditional and immediate release of its political detainees, including civilian leader Suu Kyi. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who will attend the Jakarta meetings, will push Myanmar to accept regional observers on the ground.

For Kyaw, as well as more than a dozen other diplomats in places like Tel Aviv, London and Tokyo who have spoken out against the coup, watching diplomacy move slowly while their people are gunned down or tortured has been agonizing.

The envoy, who moved with his family to New York from Geneva just months before the coup, knows the stakes are high for him, too: a failure to reverse the coup could force him to seek asylum for himself, his wife, and his children. For now, Myanmar expatriates in New York have insisted on shepherding him back and forth between his suburban home and his Manhattan office for protection.

“I understand the price could be very high, but I had no choice but to speak up,” he said. “I try not to think about it now and I see it as a last resort.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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