CAMEROON – The outgoing U.N. envoy for Myanmar says “civil war” has spread throughout the country and the international community should consider measures aimed at replacing the military junta’s leaders with people who are more constructive and want to find a peaceful solution to the army’s ouster of the elected government.
Christine Schraner Burgener, whose 3 1/2-year term ends Sunday, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the measures could be sanctions imposed by individual countries or by the U.N. Security Council, “but it’s up to them.”
She proposed the idea of holding “an all-inclusive dialogue” to the deputy commander-in-chief, Vice Senior Gen. Soe Win, on July 16 but never received a response and has not heard from the military since September. She said she thinks the military is determined to win exactly as it did in the past — “but this is not the case anymore, and I hope it will not be the case again."
Myanmar for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to leadership in 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.
The Feb. 1 coup followed November elections which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly and the military rejects as fraudulent. Since the military takeover, Myanmar has been wracked by unrest, with peaceful demonstrations against the ruling generals morphing first into a low-level insurgency in many urban areas after security forces used deadly force and then into more serious combat in rural areas, especially in border regions where ethnic minority militias have been engaging in heavy clashes with government troops.
On Sept. 7, the National Unity Government, the main underground group coordinating resistance to the military which was established by elected legislators barred from taking their seats when the military seized power, called for a nationwide uprising. Its “people’s defense forces” known as PDFs operate in many areas and have received training and weapons from some armed ethnic groups.
The PDFs and ethnic armed groups are now up against Myanmar’s military, one of the largest in Southeast Asia with a reputation for toughness and brutality from years of jungle warfare. Although many Western nations maintain an arms embargo against Myanmar, there is no U.N. arms embargo, and the military buys equipment from countries such as Russia, China and Ukraine.
Last week, Schraner Burgener called what's taking place in Myanmar an “internal armed conflict,” using words from international law.
But in Monday's AP interview, she said, “We have everywhere violence, it’s not controlled anymore, and the scale of violence is very high. And, therefore, I would say, `yes, a civil war.’”
Unlike the generals' coup in 1988, when people were killed or put in prison and the military conducted business as usual, Schraner Burgener said this time “the PDFs will not give up.”
She said people are not yielding, the PDFs are getting more military support from the ethnic armed groups, the U.N. has heard around 4,000 soldiers have defected from the army, and so far neither the United Nations nor the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, has accepted the coup.
The U.N. has heard that many soldiers are on the ground conducting “clearing operations” in northwest Chin state, Schraner Burgener said, reminding the world that the military's “clearing operation” in Rakhine state in 2017 saw villages burned down, widespread rapes and more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
“We heard also from the ground that it will be difficult for the army because Chin region is a very mountainous region, and the Chin people are very determined to defend themselves," she said. “So, I fear that we will have victims on both sides, and it will be terrible.”
With both sides so invested in armed struggle, what could really have an impact to restore peace?
Schraner Burgener said the U.N. Security Council adopted a presidential statement in March calling for a reversal of the coup, upholding democratic institutions, a halt to violence and the release of Suu Kyi and other arrested officials. But the U.N.’s most powerful body has not adopted a legally binding resolution on the military takeover and escalating violence.
The U.N. envoy said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has shifted “from a position of non-interference to say that the reputation of ASEAN is also important, and therefore they didn’t allow the commander-in-chief to participate at the ASEAN summit” which ends Thursday..
“This is quite a strong message, and clearly, we hope that the solidarity in the region will stand with the people” who overwhelmingly elected Suu Kyi last November, she said.
Schraner Burgener said she is in regular contact with the ASEAN envoy to Myanmar, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, whose visit has not taken place because he was told he couldn’t meet Suu Kyi.
“I think this is the right decision from the ASEAN special envoy, but I still hope that certain dialogue will be possible” with the military leaders, though “for the moment, I’m very skeptical,” she said.
The U.N. envoy said she also met privately with Suu Kyi 15 times before the February takeover, and “I am really still convinced that she wanted only the best for the country, and she had to deal with the army, otherwise we would have the coup before." The military-installed government has not let Schraner Burgener visit since it seized power.
She said she is in constant contact with China, which has “an important role in the region,” and doesn’t want to see it destabilized. “So, therefore, I still count on China — that they will make the right decisions for the people and the stability in the region.”
What would the right decisions be?
“Well, I think it must be several measures concerted from the international community, which can maybe lead to a decision to change the leaders of the army to people who are hopefully more constructive and want a peaceful solution,” she said, mentioning sanctions as well.
While the coup has left Myanmar in a civil war, Schraner Burgener said there is one positive result.
The majority ethnic Bamar people — also called Burmans — and the ethnic minorities have “a better understanding of each other,” she said, and “there is more unity in the country.”
She said the ethnic minorities helped those fleeing, gave them shelter and she is already hearing from the Bamar “that they are very sorry that they didn’t help ... the Rohingyas, more in the past.”
If Myanmar can revert to a democratic path, Schraner Burgener said, she hopes in the next five to 10 years the country will have a multi-ethnic government where minorities are protected by law, the citizenship law and constitution are reformed, “and that we have a federal structure in the country where everybody has the same right.”