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May 28, 2021

Beyond the Coup: Can the United Nations Escape Its History in Myanmar?

Posted by Ambassador Kelley Currie

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted to Just Security on May 27, 2021)

When Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun took the floor of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 to condemn the weeks-old military coup and announce his loyalty to the elected government, he not only shocked all those tuning in who expected a pro forma defense of the Tatmadaw’s power grab and denunciation of U.N. interference. He also provided Myanmar’s democratic movement a potentially powerful new tool, both to help secure their legitimacy, and to shift the historic dynamics of U.N. failure in Myanmar. To make the most of this tool, the nascent National Unity Government (NUG) must quickly learn how to work with the U.N. system and leverage it for its intrinsic utility as well as to build out their footprint internationally. To date, the results have been mixed, but there are signs that the NUG is learning. Whether these efforts ultimately will be effective also depends on whether the U.N. system can learn from its own failures in Myanmar and make the necessary course corrections at this pivotal moment.

Past Imperfect

The U.N.’s history with Myanmar has been a multi-decade case study in the moral hazards that international organizations face when dealing with regimes that do not care about either the welfare of their own people or the opinions of outsiders. After being one of the first of the newly independent post-colonial countries to join the U.N., Myanmar enthusiastically participated in U.N. activities during the parliamentary democracy period. It even requested the U.N.’s help in dealing with spillover from the Chinese civil war, when both Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist troops breached Myanmar’s border.

After Ne Win’s 1962 coup, however, successive military regimes rigorously limited their engagement with international organizations out of an almost fanatical devotion to neutrality. Like other autarkic dictatorships, the Ne Win regime deeply distrusted the U.N. and particularly eschewed involvement with its field-based activities, even though his countryman U Thant served as U.N. Secretary General during much of the first decade of Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) rule. It was not just the U.N. that drew Ne Win’s suspicions: nearly all foreign organizations were kicked out of Myanmar during the 1960s and diplomats based in the country were heavily restricted. The BSPP’s fetishization of neutrality was such that Ne Win withdrew Myanmar from the Non-aligned Movement in 1978 because he was concerned it had become too partisan toward the Soviet Union. Given the role of Southeast Asia as a major theater of Cold War contestation, and China’s mercurial role in these geostrategic games, one can hardly blame Myanmar for wanting to remain aloof from it all. But Ne Win’s autarky also ensured that Myanmar essentially was suspended in amber for more than a decade.

Faced with a ruinous economic situation, however, the post 1974-BSPP and its successors in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), while no less xenophobic, recognized that the U.N.’s rapidly expanding aid agencies could be useful as they attempted to address the country’s disastrous economic situation. The Tatmadaw generals seemed to innately grasp that these various humanitarian and development agencies cared more about their agency’s particular development and humanitarian mission set than about the quality of Myanmar’s governance and these agencies were competing for “clients” in the developing world. Having been locked out of Myanmar at the height of the BSPP’s autarky, these agencies were desperate to experiment on its broken economy and what they viewed as a tabula rasa society ripe for their modernization efforts. This gave the BSPP the ability to arbitrage aid agencies’ ambitions and silos, strictly limiting their staffing and physical access and insisting on a high degree of control over their activities in the country. Even after Ne Win resigned as BSPP chairman in 1988, the SLORC and SPDC continued to use humanitarian access as a bargaining chip to ensure that agency operations were compliant. In the most striking—but far from the only– example of its extreme suspicion toward the U.N., the Burmese regime initially rejected U.N.-led humanitarian assistance in the wake of 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people, wiped out the critical Irrawaddy Delta rice production zone, and left millions homeless.

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