Burmese Daze - Irresponsibility not to Protect?
Press Briefing March 18th, 2021
Yanghee Lee, Brad Adams, Chris Gunness, Ian Williams
Press Briefing March 18th, 2021
Yanghee Lee, Brad Adams, Chris Gunness, Ian Williams
Ian Williams: Good afternoon from New York, from the Foreign Press Association, I am Ian Williams, president of the Foreign Press Association in New York. We have a distinguished panel of guests here tonight to discuss an issue that isn't getting as discussed as much as it should. Obviously, the covid epidemic and other things that keep people's minds off the crucial issues...We have Chris Gunness, formerly with the BBC at the U.N., So he knows the U.N. and then he was with the U.N. in the Middle East as press representative for UNRRA. We have Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch who specialized on the Asia Desk on Myanmar for many years. And we have Yanghee Lee, who was the special rapporteur, which for those of you don't know, is the term of art in the UN for people who are supposed to keep an eye on particular situations. So, Yanghee was the rapporteur for Myanmar and I gather not now but maybe she wants to say something about that when the time comes. So if we could lead in on this, since you were the rapporteur, Yanghee, people are confused, we have a prime minister who is everybody's darling, won the Nobel Prize and then lost the Nobel almost. If they could take it off, they would do, they'd break her medal over their knees and and disfrock her. But now she is a hero again because the military, who she let loose on the Rohingya, are now rampaging against her and the ordinary people of Burma. So perhaps you could from your point of view, what is the situation? Why did the military do this since they seem to be running the place anyway?
Yanghee Lee: Well, thank you for having me. Good evening. Good evening or good morning. It's morning in my time. So I'm going to speak a little bit to address the extremely grave situation on the ground in Myanmar. The attempted coup staged by the military has not succeeded. The people of Myanmar have so far been incredibly effective in resisting the military's attempt to seize power by mobilizing massive peaceful protests, a nonviolent civil disobedience movement and strikes by a public and private sector workers which have brought government and economy to a standstill for nearly seven weeks now. This remarkable anticoup civilian movement has demonstrated the unrelenting strength of public opposition in Myanmar to military dictatorship and has held out against one of the most vicious and oppressive forces in the world. But the military generals remain determined to impose their rule and and crush the opposition movement by force. In pursuit of this objective, they're using the security force to inflict a deliberate process of killings and other forms of terror on the civilian population that is steadily escalating in intensity. And this is consistent with the strategy used repeatedly by the Tatmadaw against Myanmar's national ethnic nationalities. Without intervention, the escalation is likely to culminate in a major lethal crackdown as the junta attempts to crush the dissent once and for all. We have already seen massacres. There's been more than two hundred people who have been killed. Young children, aged 16 and 14 shot dead, and the head snipers aiming for the head. I've seen video clips of the security forces say "aim shoot to kill to the head" and and other obscenities which I cannot say here in the public domain. More than two thousand people have been now arrested and charged and sentenced in relation to the coup. More than three hundred and twenty two students are detained. And the junta has actually they've abrogated the 2008 constitution by attempting this coup, but they're using the constitution against the civilian population. And they've introduced an article for 5058 high treason, if you talk against the military or what's happening, if you talk about what's happening in Myanmar now, you are slapped with 5058, which never existed before. Now the military junta is charging Aung San Suu Kyi with incredible, outrageous charges, several corruption charges. We have seen a military man come out, a general come out and said that "I've been can giving her annually in a black envelope one hundred fifty thousand dollars." And so, as you said Ian, in the beginning, this icon or beacon of human rights, actually, it was the international community that put her up on that pedestal of the beacon of human rights. She was never really a beacon of human rights, I don't think. But it was the international community that put her there. She was fighting for democracy and freedom, and she was a nationalist. So she really enjoys this enormous popularity with the people, about the 80 percent of the majority of the people. And this is where she is now. And you say that she's still now hailed as the mother of the country. She always had that popularity within the country.
Ian Williams: But except with the Rohingya I gather.
Yanghee Lee: Absolutely. It was under her watch. And I've said this in my beginning when the coup attempted that it was under her watch, we saw a genocide and we saw her defending the military that now has put her in detention and slapped her with horrendous charges. We saw her defending the military in The Hague and the ICJ court proceedings.
Ian Williams: So have you any idea or explanations for why the military turned on her? If they had a popular willing figurehead who was doing everything that they asked her to? Why would you remove her unless exceptionally stupid and power hungry?
Yanghee Lee: Well, I didn't say this, you said that word. They were in the best position between 2015 and 2020. But I think what really prompted this is that after the 2020 election, the NLD won even a larger margin. And Min Aung Hlaing has always wanted to retire from the military and into a presidency position or a leadership position within the government, because when he steps down, he loses the financial assets, the control of the financial assets in the Myanmar Economic Corporation and the Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and his family and his cronies will not have easy access to these fortunes. And it really got him I think it got him anxious that he has to retire or step down in June because the military has already picked another person to replace him. He's already extended that term of commander in chief, and now he really has to step down. And so this really prompted him to stage this coup or attempt, this coup.
Ian Williams: But there's no dissent from the military. I mean, he's basically slapping them in the face by saying, "I'm not going to go. I'm not going to let you guys get your turn in the trough."
Yanghee Lee: So there has been I think there has been some unhappiness with him in the military because of his corruption and his greed. But at the same time, a large portion of the military generals enjoy the access to a lot of fortunes through Min Aung Hlaing's greed.
Ian Williams: Brad you're with Human Rights Watch, which has been calling for action. What action can the world do to help? We couldn't help the Rohingya people it seemed - they were driven into exile, they were burnt out, they were raped, they were looted, they were driven across the border and they're still in the refugee camps. So it doesn't augur well for intervention to support the uprising, as it were, in Burma. What what can we do? What are you calling for from Human Rights Watch?
Brad Adams: Well, thanks for having me. There's a lot we can do and a lot the world can do, the world just has to choose to do it. We did have the Trump administration when the Rohingya crisis happened in 2017, they were not particularly sympathetic to Muslims, they weren't particularly sympathetic to refugees, I'm putting that mildly. And they didn't lead a response. And for better or for worse, many governments say that the absence of the US at that time standing up for human rights, democracy and the rights of minorities and the vulnerable was decisive. And I don't want to overstate the benevolence of the Biden administration - we have to see what they actually do, not just what they say, but we do have a different environment right now. We have a US government that has spoken out very clearly and very quickly about this. We also have residual sympathy for Aung San Suu Kyi internationally. We as a human rights organization, you just said it. Most people who follow Myanmar closely have given up on Aung San Suu Kyi. She's lost her moral leadership. She used to say when she was being held either in prison or under house arrest, "use your liberty so that we can obtain our liberty." And she did, a slight amendment to what Yanghee was saying, she did hold herself out as a human rights activist. We've learned subsequently and she said this as a candidate, that she's not a human rights activist, she's a politician. I think we all thought she was something more and different than she was, but her embrace of the military, even before the Rohingya genocide and then her defense of the military at The Hague and subsequently has stripped all illusions. So we're fighting this for the Burmese people. I mean, we as human rights activists are fighting for the people of Burma, not for Aung San Suu Kyi. That's really clear. And I think many people inside Burma have also lost some illusions about her. That said, she and her party are a rallying cry. They did win these two consecutive elections. The military, as Yanghee said, can't imagine getting into power through legitimate means so they took this decision to short circuit the whole democratic experiment. And what we fear is they're going to come back with some kind of Thai or Cambodian style quasi fake democracy, where they engineer which parties can stand, which candidates can stand, they hold the election under circumstances that are nowhere near free or fair but they hope the rest of the world will turn a blind eye. Whether they're that sophisticated or not, that they can actually get to the finish line of that kind of process, because that's more or less what Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief has outlined. He said within a year we'll have elections and we'll be democratic. And the only way that the Army is going to preside over democratic elections are one thing that they're going to win. Whether they can pull that off is unclear. So what should the world do? You know, the clearest responsibility that the UN Security Council, the Security Council didn't act in the Rohingya situation. They didn't act under the prior 50 years of military dictatorship in Burma. So we have very low expectations. But, you know, one thing that's been interesting is that China has signed up to a presidential statement, the Security Council, that they could have blocked and that it basically had some basic elements about protecting people, about not using violence. And in the question is, how strongly will China stand by the military? Do they want to be seen globally as the only country that's really defending a military that staged atrocities, genocide, ethnic cleansing, has driven the country to the brink of disaster over the course of decades and now has staged a coup against a process that they themselves designed. And I think that's an open question in the long run. In the short run, we have to do other things because the Chinese are going to continue to block the most significant action the Security Council can take, which would be a global arms embargo, targeted maximum coordinated sanctions and by sanctions let's be really clear. We don't want generalized economic sanctions. We don't want to drive the Burmese economy back into the Stone Age. We don't want to create mass unemployment. But as Yanghee was hinting at, there are massive revenues. There's billions of dollars a year going into Burma through oil and gas revenues. There's probably a billion dollars a year in gemstones. There are hundreds of millions in sales of zinc. I mean, who knew about zinc in Burma and and many other extractive industries, there's tons of teak. Some of that can be sanctioned. So we're proposing that Total, for example, which runs a pipeline that provides much of the oil and gas revenue, should put their money, should be ordered by governments,they won't do this voluntarily but Total should be ordered by governments to put the money that they're receiving into Escrow for the people of Burma, not to hand it over to the military. Of course, targeted sanctions against individuals are happening, they're happening slower than they should. The US is moving more slowly than they should, the EU, the UK and others are moving more slowly than they should. And we need this to be coordinated. We need Japan, South Korea and Australia. We need the states of the European Union, the UK, the US, Canada, the countries that could take a strong position to go to this effort for maximum coordinated, targeted sanctions, because it's only if we start hitting the financial resources of the regime that they're actually I think there's a consensus on this that we think that they're going to start bending and think about whether they've overreached and need to have a new plan.
Ian Williams: One of the suggestions made about why the Chinese supported the presidential statement was that they saw that they were on the verge of being thrown out of out of Burma by the population.There were attacks upon Chinese owned facilities and factories I believe. You know, they were being identified with the regime and were suffering as a result. So, I mean, they get their abacus out and they work out cost and loss, "maybe we're back. We're backing the wrong side."
Brad Adams: I think there's a couple of things at play. Yes. Very recently last weekend, there were attacks on some Chinese factories, but the presidential statement preceded that. So we'll see how that affects their thinking. I mean, we are concerned about the rise of anti Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, but also in the region. You can see this in Cambodia and other places around Vietnam, other places around the region. So it's really important to critique the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party's position, without saying it's about China or Chinese people. That's an important distinction I want to make. But I think the other thing that's at play was they liked Aung San Suu Kyi. I mean, they had no problem with Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, her first trip was to Beijing when she became a state councilor. She had good relations with the Chinese government. They were not fearing her as the spearhead of a democratic wave through Southeast Asia. That's a great fear that the Chinese government has. They don't want democracy spreading throughout the region because they're less likely to be allied with China in that case than they would be with the United States or other countries. And they found her to be very pragmatic and pragmatic in a way that we probably don't like, because Aung San Suu Kyi, not only did she target the Rohingya, but she targeted critics, the number of political prisoners went up while she was in power, there was no law reform, taking the laws that were used to put her in prison that she said she would get rid of. She didn't get rid of them. In fact, in some cases, she added to them. So she'd been extremely pragmatic and wasn't seen in Beijing as a threat at all. So I think their view is like this is really we don't need this, it's a headache. You know, they did not want the military, there's no evidence they would want the military to stage a coup. They were perfectly happy with that. The balance of power that exists where the military held all the security forces and they held a veto over constitutional reform, but there was a civilian government in power that was relatively popular and both of them were doing business with Beijing.
Ian Williams: What about what are the chances the question is being mentioned here by Renzo Korona, amongst others, and I was going to ask myself, what are the chances of a referral to the ICC through the Security Council?
Brad Adams: There is zero. If we can't get targeted sanctions or even right now, we can't even get a resolution that would only talk about human rights. The next stage would be a resolution maybe talking about sanctions that have some teeth. An ICC referral would be the biggest step that the Security Council would take and China will never support a Security Council resolution referring this to the ICC. Russia wouldn't and it's not all clear that the United States would. The United States has long antipathy towards the ICC and it's not clear they're going to want to have their fingerprints on such a resolution. And remember, we couldn't get it for the Rohingya where there was a mass killing, 750,000 refugees. A coup is not considered as serious a threat to international peace and security. The crimes aren't as grave by any means as they were. So. Well, while we would support it, we're not even raising it because it's a nonstarter. There are other more important things, more realistic things we can get the Security Council to focus on right now.
Ian Williams: I think it's time to go over to you, Chris. You've been peering down the wrong end of a telescope on Burma for as long as I've known you, which is a long time. So, from your point of view, what's the current situation? How did we get where we are and how do we get out of it?
Chris Gunness: I mean, having covered 1988 and looking at what's happening now, I think it's very important for us all to say it as it is. This is an illegitimate coup that's turned into a reign of terror. In 1988, there were attempts, very successful to suppress crowds, to suppress demonstrators, to shoot into crowds. What we're seeing now is people being dragged out of their homes and summarily executed. That didn't happen much in 1988. We see snipers on rooftops shooting unarmed women and children in the head, demonstrators in the head, according to a very authoritative source in Yangon what we're seeing now in the in the garment factory areas in the north of the north of Yangon is essentially a massacre. I mean, the sources I have there say that in the last three or four days, over 100 people have been shot dead. They say that 500,000 people have been internally displaced and are on the move. Where is the UN country team? There are 2000 U.N. workers there. Who is monitoring where this huge displacement of people are going? Who is looking at whether they need covid protection? Who is looking at who these people are being fed, by being clothed by, are being housed by or giving them medical attention? Nobody. There is a looming humanitarian catastrophe. And as I say, what is the UN doing? I think the UN secretary general should implement the Rosenthal report, the report, which said quite clearly there were huge systemic failures which led to some extent responsible for the genocide in Rakhine State. I think that the Secretary-General, and I appeal to him to invoke Article 99 of the charter. Other Secretary-General's in the past have done this.
Ian Williams: Can you please explain this document?
Chris Gunness: Article 99 of the charter, when there's complete deadlock and stalemate and failure in the international system, as Brad and Yanghee have been describing, the Secretary-General has a charter opportunity to bring to the Security Council under Article 99 any threats to international peace and security. That's an opportunity for a man like António Guterres under huge criticism for all sorts of failures and quite rightly so, to show the world to exert some humanitarian and moral leadership and to do something about the growing moral vacuum that is Myanmar today. I think we could also see member states of the General Assembly unite for peace, as they did over Korea and say, OK, the Security Council is having, you know, is being hamstrung by Chinese and Russian veto. Let's do a uniting for peace action and let's get a lot of things that Brad has talked about, endorsed.
Ian Williams: We have to explain that these are esoteric procedures. But when an issue is in front of the Security Council, which he achieves with Article 99, then when they get high bound on it and the Russians and the Chinese bunker down...
Chris Gunness: Then you to unite for peace. And the other major thing I think we could talk about more and I don't think we should get hung up too much on Suu Kyi because I mean, I reported on the revolution in '88 before she was even heard of you know, she wasn't a force then and she rose to power on the back of oppressed people. She never spoke out against oppression, she never gave the '88 generation seats in her office or seats in the cabinet or in parliament, and she certainly never spoke out for oppressed people in Rakhine State. And I think pinning the fate of a nation on one woman when there are 55 million other people is going to lead to very distorted policies, just like it has done in the past. But let's see some action. Let's see. I mean, the IIMM the independent investigative mechanism for Mynanmar yesterday the head of it called for evidence. Well, let's collect some evidence. The civil society in Myanmar, we really need to amplify their voices, are crying out for justice and accountability. Let's get gathering evidence. The head of the IIMM gave out an email address and said, send me stuff. That with the sorts of signed witness statements that that we're getting from Human Rights Watch, for example, Amnesty International, that, combined with social media, begins to meet the evidential standard for universal jurisdiction. What about Interpol red notices that are triggered when... okay it's only a holiday ban, but it stops them going for weekends in Bangkok? It basically prevents and delegitimizes the Burmese army at a time when the coup leaders are desperately seeking recognition and thank goodness no U.N. member states have recognized the junta, recognized the illegal illegal coup leaders. But there are all sorts of other pressures that can bring action. The UN country team needs to be kicked into action. They need to be doing something. I speak to them all the time. There's no leadership. The humanitarian team leader is not even in the country. They're having all sorts of debates about recognition, nonrecognition. Should they be here? Should they be in Naypyitaw? Should they be in Yangon? There's really a complete lack of humanitarian leadership. There's a lack of political leadership. The General Assembly should be doing far more.ASEAN has got, you know, in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand, you have extraordinary civil society. And they're saying to their leaders, just like civil society in Myanmar, "listen to us. And if you don't listen to us, you and ASEAN will become irrelevant and unrepresentative, just like the leaders of Myanmar are getting." ASEAN doesn't need that. It's not doing very much because of this strange principle of non-intervention. But the ASEAN leaders risk becoming irrelevant, just like the Myanmar leaders risk becoming irrelevant and the Secretary-General and other world leaders risk becoming accomplices to crimes against humanity unless they actually start to act.
Yanghee Lee: If I may. You know, I've always said that back in 2017 or even before, starting with the 2015 boat crisis, when the Rohingya started to emigrate and when ASEAN countries sent them back. And I started to talk with the country team and the ASEAN diplomats in Yangon when I was there. And I said clearly the Rohingya issue is going to turn into a regional issue soon and lo and behold, now it's a regional issue. But I said on top of that, I said human rights died in Myanmar in 2016 and 2017. It was clear that the human rights died in Myanmar. There was nobody talking up about Myanmar. There was a dispute about, shall we call the Rohingya's 'Rohingyas' or not? And I went into a large dispute with the country team about calling them Rohingya. And so it was it was incredible that in a country team, the humanitarian country team, there's no human rights observers or team from OHCHR in Myanmar. And as Brad was saying, we've joined together to establish a advisory panel, advocacy panels, special advisory council for Myanmar. And it seems to be working in the targeted sanctions started to work. And that really made, I think, made the military a little more nervous. Now, I think that's the only way we have to go through targeted sanctions, not only the military generals, but their family and their cronies and their associates. And we need to, as Brad was saying, a global arms embargo in Myanmar, that would help incredibly. Finally, my country came out with this seizing of military relationship of corporation, no arms sales and we are going to look into developmental assistance, etc. And so more countries in the region like Japan,South Korea, must come up with these bold actions. India has been very quiet. It has enjoyed this military military relationship with Myanmar and been very quiet. Vietnam and the Security Council will oppose anything that will put Myanmar - the military junta into a little bit of a problem. And the oil and gas industry as Brad was saying and I've repeatedly called on oil and gas, extractive industries. These funnel into the pockets of the military leadership and so those relationships must be cut.
Chris Gunness: Ian, could I just butt in here and say that the reason I think that a General Assembly special session would be good is because these very things that Brad and Yanghee are talking about - a global arms embargo, targetted sanctions, that is the place to have them globally applied because that is the place where all countries in the world are going to be heard and the Security Council can say what it likes but everyone has a vote and everyone has a voice in in the General Assembly and they should use it.
Brad Adams: Can I say also, one of the great risks right now is that if the world, I don't like the term international community,because it implies there's community interest but we don't have that, obviously, because we have great differences but whatever the term we use - if external powerful external actors, whether they're governments or businesses or the joint ventures that are controlling a lot of the cash that goes into Myanmar, if they don't act and if they don't start having some impact on the ground, there is a risk that what has always been a non-violent response from civil society and the public in Myanmar could turn into something very dangerous because people in Myanmar feel very let down. They're being slaughtered as others have said, and they feel like there are very strong voices right now saying that if the world's going to come and help us, we have to do it ourselves. And there are there are voices that came out over the weekend and earlier this week basically calling for an alliance between the democracy movement, as it were, and ethnic armed groups to unite against the Burmese military. And the problem with that is that the goal here is maximum pain for the military and minimum pain for Burmese people and civilians. And I think if we get into a situation where out of desperation we have an armed insurgency, we will have maximum pain on civilians and minimum pain for the military because the military will be able to tell the world, "hey, look, we are now engaged in self-defense". Right now it's black and white, bad guys, good guys. Whenever you get an armed insurgency, they're going to be abuses on both sides. It's going to get messy. It's going to cloud the picture. And reflexively, a lot of the world, a lot of countries will start saying, wait a second, we don't want anything to do with the opponents of the coup, because now it's something different.So, it's really important for a practical reason as well, that the world mobilizes to support people inside Burma and show them some progress and some steps forward as soon as possible to head off these understandable impulses, like, you know, if you're not going to help us. I mean, if I'm sitting here in California and the U.S. military takes over, I'm going with my instincts, I'm going to fight, I'm not going to wait for the rest of the world to come to my aid. You can understand why that impulse will be there, even for people who have a propensity for nonviolence. So there's a real risk that this could actually spiral into something very different.
Yanghee Lee: If I may jump in here again, I do hope that it doesn't spiral into something like this, and Brad said that the ethnic armed organizations have started to mobilize and talk with each other. And I think the former Northern Alliance might be forming some solidarity movements. But I really think that the international community, the world has to now walk the walk. We've talked,for decades now because there was nothing that happened in decades. I just want to say something about Hlaingthaya in northern Yangon, the massacre that happened a few days ago and the garment factories, the Chinese garment factories, I'm not so sure if it was the protesters or the labor workers who burned the factories because they were under close guarded areas and they could not have moved out of their dormitories or their places. And this is where they earn their living. And they work like 14 hours a day and they make less than two dollars a day. But this was there, we call a rice pot. The Burmese will call them rice pot. But I think that this might be another diversion tactic. I'm not sure I'm being too bold maybe for saying this at this moment, but there is a lot of new things happening. Again, it's going to be different strategies by the military junta. And as Brad said, the military junta has a lot of power. But I think what really should scare the world is that they not only have arms power, ammunitions or munitions, they have these sophisticated surveillance techniques that some countries have provided Myanmar with. And they're using this to the utmost to track down and there's the facial recognition technology to track down every single person who participated in the CDM Movement.
Chris Gunness: Could I just say very quickly that this the word accountability, I think, should be used in relation to what's happening because you have a lot of witnesses, you have a lot of social media information, you have a lot of people leaving the area. Witnesses who signed testimonies can be taken. You've got plenty of UN officials. You've got you've got OHCHR, the international investigative mechanism for Myanmar, you've got all sorts of people who are prepared to receive this. You've got countries who in their own jurisdictions can also press for action. This is a real, this particular place and these last few days is a particular test case for what the world can do. The diplomats of Yangon people are going there, the UN is there, the NGOs are there, the iBurmese civil society is there. Everyone is there. If we can't take action over 100 people being killed and it's probably a lot more. Some people say as high as 150 people in three days, then what can we take action over? What happened in 1988, is the Army tested international reaction by shooting a couple of people, trying this, trying that, it escalated and it escalated. And only when they got away with shooting people in their dozens did in September 19th, 20th in 1988 , did they actually do the huge massacres right in city hall outside the American embassy, where some people say as many as 500 people were shot dead. So, I've no doubt that what we're seeing is the army testing, looking for international reaction, discovering that there's very, very little. And then under the noses of the international community, just like it did in 1988, start doing massacres. But the big difference this time is social media generation, that a highly energized Myanmar civil society movement all over the place doing extraordinary things. And I think we have to trust, we have to put our trust in the imagination, the will, the courage, the commitment, the extraordinary humanity of Burmese civil society and we should be supporting what they're doing, particularly over the question of transparency, getting to know the facts and accountability, bringing to justice the perpetrators. And I think that this is a particular example where we as outsiders can do an awful lot more to support what the civil society activists, civil disobedience movement are actually doing in Myanmar.
Ian Williams: Caitlin Huu from CNN, wants some comments on what impact it has that several of the Myanmar ambassadors abroad have defected and spoken out. Does that help with those hesitant countries that are at the moment forming a thin blue line like the New York Police Department, Patrolman's Association, when one of the members of ASEAN goes Dingo.
Yanghee Lee: It was very brave. It is very brave of those ambassadors around the globe, a handful of them but I'm not sure if it will have a good impact. I'm not sure. But I could be I could be wrong.
Brad Adams: I think if it has an impact, it'll be internal. I don't think globally and externally it matters much to the governments where they essentially defected.
Yanghee Lee: They're putting their families and relatives in Myanmar in jeopardy. But they've gone ahead with this and that. So that's very courageous.
Brad Adams: Yeah, they've become a rallying cry for people. I think, you know, that moment has passed. It was the case when it happened. So much is happening now that it's very hard for people to think about the defecting diplomat because they're dealing with life and death issues on a daily basis.
Chris Gunness: But I think it's very important to see this in the context of a general strike that, OK, it's a diplomat going on strike, but they are saying more than just I'm a diplomat going on strike. They're saying to the world community, I am supporting civil society activists. I'm supporting all sorts of professional groups, including in the police force, public servants. I'm a public servant. They're saying to the world, I am going to come out strongly for those compatriots I have back home who are risking their lives, risking their families food on the table in order to join this movement. And I think it sends a very, very important signal at a time when the debate is on for recognizing, not recognizing the battle over legitimacy of the junta versus the democratically elected government is raging And I think that has a real symbolic importance in sending the message that decent human beings representing Burma on the international stage will not allow the legitimization of an illegitimate regime to go ahead, certainly not on the international stage. I think that's a very important message for those ambassadors, brave as they are to be sending.
Brad Adams: And it's worth pointing out that there's a lot of professional groups inside Myanmar that have said they will not cooperate with the new authorities, will not recognize them as a government, and some of them are being targeted as a result. I mean, health care workers are being targeted because many doctors and nurses have said that they will have nothing to do with the regime. They'll provide care to people who need it, but they don't recognize the people who claim that they're the new government.
Chris Gunness: And I think it's also important to recognize that Burma is a kleptocracy. The military go into a village, point a gun at someone, say this fish farm belongs to me. I'm coming back next week and getting the profits. And in a situation where an army can steal the national economy, the best way to get back at them is to go on strike because you're destroying their powerbase.
Over two days ago, the artists have declared that they will not support the military junta. And what happened was they went in and burned down the studios with all the paintings or the artifacts and books of the artists have just burned to ashes.
Ian Williams: They do seem to be almost Pol Pot like in their determination to eliminate every shred, but is there a role for what we might call secondary revulsion in the sense that the neighboring countries... can we bring international pressure on Vietnam, India, China, all of the other countries that are standing by and tacitly providing a shield for what's going on inside Myanmar.
Yanghee Lee: I think countries like Japan and South Korea, who have good relations with countries like Vietnam and India, they should also use their leverage to persuade these countries to take some stronger actions. Singapore is, I think, fair. And Singapore can do a lot in terms of putting pressure on the military because a lot of military assets are in Singapore.
Brad Adams: Yeah, I mean, let's remember that the reason why a lot of countries may want to push back against the coup in the military is because of their view of China. I mean that is not a game that I, particularly as a human rights activist want to play. But if you're looking at as a political scientist, that is probably why Vietnam may someday want to distance themselves a little bit from the Tatmadaw because the Tatmadaw is seen as a client of Beijing. But at the same time, we have other dynamics, the same with India. India may decide that they want to become a little bit more supportive of the democracy movement, even though we have an authoritarian leader in India and they're deporting Rohingya as we speak. And here's a time when you've got to be protecting the Rohingya from the military that committed acts of genocide against them. But one of the main players has always been Thailand. And there was a time in the 1990s and 2000s when Thailand was looking like a budding democracy. That's all gone. Thailand's suffered two coups in the last 15 years themselves. We have a de facto military government, even though they've enshrined themselves through a pretty lame election. And they would see themselves making more common cause with the Burmese military now than they would with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. And that's important. And one of the biggest providers of cash to the military in Burma is the PTT, the huge oil company in Thailand that then distributes a lot of that oil to third parties. And they're right now beyond reach. So what do we have to do to change that? I mean, we need the United States to lean on the Thais because they have a very, very close security relationship with Singapore. The same thing. Singapore, as Yanghee said, is the banker for the military regime inside Myanmar.They need to be subject to the kind of international sanctions that would require them by law to take action because the Singaporeans are not going to take action voluntarily. But if they would be subject to sanctions themselves under US law, which, of course, has a very long arm internationally, they may then feel like they'd rather comply with US law than make the profits that which in the end are fairly marginal from doing business with Myanmar.
Ian Williams: With the various regimes about how can the UN operate... the country team has been mentioned, the humanitarian coordinator, resident coordinator and the others, I mean, there have been times in the past, I remember with East Timor when the UN country team played a signal role in preventing massacres, when the Indonesians and their surrogates were rampaging through the streets of East Timor. Is there any role for the UN here? Is there any sign of someone growing a spine from the Secretary-General downwards?
Chris Gunness: If I may, I mean, I think you have to distinguish between the UN as a political entity and the security and the Security Council and all of those issues and the UN as a humanitarian entity. And I think we've heard in his discussion why the political track, apart from one or two potential initiatives by the Secretary General or in the General Assembly, perhaps might begin to create some waves on the political side you can understand that things are essentially hamstrung, but on the humanitarian side, I don't think we should be so pessimistic though I do think the UN country team is in a sorry state. And I think, as I said, a lot of the issues identified by the Rosental report have simply not been implemented and that is an absolute moral disgrace. Antonio Guterres should really get the humanitarian coordinator who's not even there into the country. I mean, the two most senior people on the humanitarian side and on the political side are not even in Myanmar. So you've got people at the D1 level making decisions, really quite important decisions, strategic decisions around their programs without any real leadership, without any real guidance from on high. And the other big thing at that level, people are simply frightened of being thrown out of the country. If you're a D1 in the UN system, you're terrified of taking some sort of decision which gets your organization thrown out. And when there are such low level people making such important decisions decisions tend not to get made. And that's what's going on right now with the U.N. It needs to be ratcheted up. That needs to be proper humanitarian leadership, coordinating how these groups, they haven't all decided should they have a presence in Naypyidaw, should they stay in Yangon? How should they even how should they even describe the coup leaders? They haven't even worked that out yet. I mean, that's where they are. And that's you know, for humanitarian action to happen as I've seen with the U.N. in other parts of the world, there has to be strong humanitarian leadership, knocking heads together, getting people to coordinate their programs, getting people to démarche the regime en masse and demand things. That sort of thing has to happen. And it's not happening now. As I say on the political side, we can accept that well.. we don't have to accept, but we have to accept that these are the realities but on the humanitarian side, it could be a lot different. And as I say, with this huge population on the move going back into the Irrawaddy Delta, goodness knows where they are. Goodness, who knows who is doing anything about them. That is a rolw of relevance right now, which the UN country team, the humanitarian country team in Myanmar can get involved with and they are simply not at the moment. It's a disgrace.
Yanghee Lee: You know, the military has been known to do the divide and rule, and they've done this within the UN system. And I witnessed this where they will work with the low hanging fruit. They want to hit one agency against another agency, and you just choose a particular agency to cooperate with. And this happened under the regime and continued on. with Aung San Suu Kyi. I think the military is doing a great job in dividing and ruling the U.N. system. If the U.N. will speak together and form an alliance and all say the same things, they can't throw out all of the UN agencies at the same time.
Ian Williams: If the Secretary-General were to give a united description of these people as illegal, illegitimate and lawbreakers, this would have an effect, wouldn't it, if this is perpetrated all the way down, if he ordered U.N. staff to collect information against the perpetrators.
Brad Adams: I think this is a good point. I mean, we have strong words from Guterres finally on Myanmar, whereas for years we didn't get them. He has a special envoy appointed to be the political liaison for the U.N. and she played good cop. I mean, she's been clear about that. She played good cop and Guterres was supposed to play bad cop. Well, he never was the bad cop. That's all we've had is good cop from the U.N. for the last few years. And then a coup comes and surprise the military isn't worried about the U.N. response. And now while Guterres words are better, there's no real action. He hasn't convened the Security Council as Chris said. He hasn't made it clear to my knowledge, and I think I would know this to U.N. Staff, that they are empowered to be not just humanitarian workers, but human rights workers in this environment inside Burma because, you know, humanitarian suggests, you know, food and shelter for people. But to be really explicit at its core, the U.N. is a human rights body. It's in its charter. It's supposed to be in its DNA. I used to work for the U.N. In Cambodia. We faced a coup in 1997. Actually, the U.N. actually mobilized very effectively. Then you know why we did it? Because nobody in New York or Geneva had any idea what we were doing. Had they known, we would have been probably told to stand down. And what we need right now is Guterres to tell them to stand up and do it, because Yanghee is absolutely right. They're not going to throw the whole U.N. System out. And if they band together, we should be hearing regular public statements from the U.N. inside the country and Guterres and the member states of the U.N. Should make it clear that they stand one hundred percent behind the people inside Myanmar who are working for the U.N. who are making those statements.
Chris Gunness: And by the way, the accountability mechanisms of the U.N. could be doing a lot more, OHCHR could be getting a lot of evidence. It could be passing onto the international independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar and individual member states could be prevailed upon much more forcefully by those organs of U.N. jurisprudence to start pushing for some kind of accountability. That's not happening either. And that's another thing.
Brad Adams: The OHCHR has not one person in the country.
Chris Gunness: Yeah, they're all in Bangkok.
Brad Adams: Yeah, not one person in the country. But, you know, they could deputize other U.N. Staff and a lot of them know how to conduct investigations.
Chris Gunness: And that's a great area where Myanmar civil society could really help OHCHR out. There are some expert people there are some brilliant lawyers, we shouldn't put down what civil society in Myanmar is capable of. And they could really be helping these sorts of information gathering operations if the U.N. were to like OHCHR were to give them the opportunity.
Yanghee Lee: Let's not forget that it was Aung San Suu Kyi who didn't like the OHCHR.
Chris Gunness: Exactly.
Yanghee Lee: It was her who didn't let them in. And I want to go back to what Brad said, that Christine Schraner Burgener, the special envoy, that she played the good cop. I'm not so sure she played the good cop or she was actually the good cop all along.
Ian Williams: Yeah, there's a there's a point there. But, you know, until recently, one of the most famous Burmese was U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations. And it caused civil disturbance when his body was taken back there and the military basically tried to shuffle him off into an ignominious grave but there was enough popularity there to raise the masses to shout about it at the time. But it is a sort of ignominious end. Who should the U.N. recognize... it's one thing to identify who the enemy is that's fairly clear, it's another thing to give them a name. But what about the question we have here from Caitlin Huu from CNN is what should we make of the CRPH? Are they the right voice for the opposed government? Or would some other voice from the protest movement more effectively galvanize international pressure? Is there any role from the outside to pick and choose which one is going to be the recognized spokesperson for the people?
Yanghee Lee: Well, we have to remember that the people of Myanmar chose 83 NLD, 83 percent, which is a landslide. And they spoke. And we have to recognize CIPH because the argument on the one hand, they represent actually that result of the previous election. But having said that, CIPH has to be inclusive of all the political party that was also elected in the past election. And if so, if that happens and I think we are moving towards that, that it's inclusive. I include we could include all the ethnic political parties, but also expand to include the PPST, the general strike also. And I suggested to them on my platform now is engaged with with all actors that this is the time that they should recognize the Rohingyas too. They also did enjoy seats in the parliament in previous elections. And if they can be that inclusive, this is what the international community can recognize them as, the interim or acting government and they have elected or appointed a vice president and the acting government, part of the acting government and they've appointed about four ministers. And they should and I would strongly recommend that they appoint somebody such as a minister of ethnic affairs to create that platform for inclusivity and minister of law because they can go ahead and ratify the Rome Statute and other international ICCPR and the CAT convention on their own.
Chris Gunness: But this gets to the heart of something that the NLD has always had a problem with. I mean, inclusivity, meaning including the ethnic nationalities, because essentially what you have are two major Bamar groups, the two groups representing the biggest ethnic group in Burma, which is basically the NLD on the civilian side and the Tatmadaw on the other side and in a sense that those dynamics remain, those dynamics that have been with the NLD all the way from the start of existence - to what extent can it move from being a Bamar majority party to include all the other nationalities? And I don't think they have an answer to that. And I think the trouble with what's happening now is that there is this tension within the party still about what they're going to do about that. And that's a major, major problem. On the question of inclusivity.
Ian Williams: We're coming towards the end now and I just want to pause and ask for your thoughts. I've been watching the U.N. and other places for far too long now. We have a trail of failed interventions which have resulted in a necklace around the world of failed states, collapse states, think Syria, think Libya, think Nicaragua, Somalia, places where there's been an inept intervention or no intervention and things fall apart, which is not good for the country concerned of course, but surely not everybody in various capitals of the world is short sighted enough to think that they can go on leaving sort of black holes on the political map of the world like this?
Chris Gunness: Ian the thing is that to see this as something which outsiders do to a member state is the wrong optics around this question and maybe one reason why all these interventions have failed is because they're seen as outside interventions. And when you have civil society as it is today, Myanmar so empowered, so imaginative, so energetic, so creative, I think the question has got to be more how can we empower them to make their own choices and make their own future. I mean, we've been talking about listening to them. We've been talking about making connections between the UN country team on the ground and them promoting justice, promoting accountability, transparency, proper reporting. All those things will make a difference. And I don't look to ASEAN governments or any governments for change. I think that people in ASEAN will make their own governments look irrelevant. And that's what's forcing change. And unfortunately, the regional group is nowhere near ready for this. But I think getting regional groups and getting foreign powers to understand that they have to do all the things we talked about in a blanket arms embargo through the General Assembly, targeted sanctions on oil and gas stopping the cash flows. You know, the gem trade, one point five billion a year in oil and gas going to the junta. We have to create Escrow accounts to make sure that that money goes into public work. There are all these things that can that can be done on the outside, but it only will work if we listen better than we've done in the past to the voice of civil society and ordinary people in Myanmar.
Brad Adams: Maybe if I can make two observations. One is a lot of people in Burma and it's not just in Burma, when these kinds of things happen, they want the 82 Airborne to fly in and you know throw out the thugs who are controlling the country and ruining lives, and that's obviously not going to happen and it's not desirable. I mean, Iraq will not be forgotten for generations and rightly so. And that wouldn't lead to long terms stable democracy most likely. The second is that the real problem is prevention, as I mentioned earlier, I worked in Cambodia in the 90s, the U.N. at that point had just finished the biggest peacekeeping mission in its history. And what they do, they left, they pack their bags and they move their roadshow elsewhere. And they left the second string level of diplomats and the third string humanitarian workers on a shoestring budget. And Hun Sen, who was in power before the U.N. peacekeeping mission, he defied the election results when the U.N. was in country with fifteen thousand soldiers and twenty thousand civilians. And then five years later, he staged a coup and he's now one of the world's longest serving leaders. And Cambodians are often wondering, well, what was that all about? What did we gain from that? We watched the last few years, since the reform process started in Myanmar and there was this extreme aversion to putting in place the kind of structures and systems and supporting civil society so that we wouldn't have the kind of laws that are in place now. We wouldn't have this incredibly overweight military and security apparatus in the country. We wouldn't have Total sending this money to the military, which was more or less happening even under the civilian regime. The military has been very wealthy at the top for a very long time in Myanmar. There was an aversion to actually challenging the powers that be, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or the military and supporting civil society and supporting reform. It basically felt like job done. We got Suu Kyi into the capital. She's out of prison, and the NLD's won an election. They don't have much power. But, you know, things will work out and that missed opportunity period of missed opportunities is what we keep seeing everywhere and and the consequences are what's happening in Myanmar today.
Yanghee Lee: I think if the situation currently is very bad and if it turns to worse, since we find that the UK and US embassy they are evacuating or discussing evacuating some family and non-essential workers, I think even if the situation turns from worse to worst, the U.N. should keep its presence there. The U.N. should try to do a risk assessment of all the areas that they work in and really provide protection as much as they can strongly, squarely on the ground. And I also feel that the comprehensive global arms embargo by the United Nations but if on top of that, different countries can have bilateral targeted sanctions and bilateral arms embargo, I know the EU does have an arms embargo, but they must really look at the the specificities of that but the other countries around the region and around the world can do bilateral sanctions. And I think what we need to do is really squeeze the cash flow into the military pockets and that would be one way of incentivizing and motivating them to put down their arms.
Ian Williams: I'd like to thank you all for joining us and thank you to everyone for their questions.