Report

The End of Quiet Diplomacy in Myanmar

The U.N. dials up the pressure campaign against Myanmar’s putschists.

Christine Schraner Burgener arrives at Sittwe Airport in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
U.N. Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener arrives at Sittwe Airport in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the site of the mass displacement of Rohingya Muslims, on Oct. 15, 2018. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

In the weeks following Myanmar’s military coup, United Nations special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener privately delivered a blunt appeal to foreign diplomats: Shun Myanmar’s military regime lest you lend it legitimacy, impose an arms embargo, and hit the coup plotters with targeted financial sanctions. Make it hurt.

The envoy’s outreach marked a stark departure from the U.N.’s traditional nonconfrontational approach to diplomacy, which places a premium on maintaining cordial relations with regimes in power. In the past, U.N. envoys to Myanmar, including Burgener, and other top officials have largely held their tongues in public, even when the countrys military, known as the Tatmadaw, threatened democracy and carried out mass atrocities against the country’s minority Rohingya Muslims.

The Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar has changed that.

“I have to be loud now so that people understand that this is not acceptable,” Burgener said, who has been criticizing Myanmar’s military rulers as cruel and repressive since the coup in front of the U.N. Security Council and in interviews with the press. Burgener said the U.N. is not in a position to openly promote the imposition of sanctions before the U.N. Security Council, saying it is up to member states to make such decisions. China and Russia have made it clear they oppose sanctions. But she can offer governments her own advice.

She has been privately counseling a broad range of punitive measures against key sectors of Myanmar’s economy controlled by the military, including sanctions on Myanmar’s oil and gas sector. She has also urged sanctions against military economic powerhouses, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation, which own some 120 businesses in construction, pharmaceuticals, insurance, tourism, banking, and precious stone mining like jade and rubies, according to a report by a U.N. fact-finding mission. Burgener has advised one Asian delegate to invite State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi—the former de-facto president who is now under house arrest after the coup—to the next Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, sending a strong message that the legitimate government of Myanmar is not present.

“For the last three years, I was guided by a strategy of quiet diplomacy,” Burgener said from Bern, Switzerland. “I rarely gave interviews. I tried to be balanced in my statements not only in the Security Council but also in the General Assembly. In my view, this was the right strategy because my task was to bring the Burmese government closer to the U.N.” She points to some early successes, including gaining permission for a U.N. expert to travel to the Rakhine State, the site of the Rohingya crackdown.

“When the coup started on the first of February, I decided to change immediately my strategy,” she said. “I didn’t see my role any more as being a bridge between the government and the U.N.” During the past two and a half months, Burgener has unleashed a string of barbed tweets, statements, speeches, and interviews highlighting the junta’s crimes. In a closed door briefing, Burgener appealed to the 15-nation Security Council “to consider all available tools to take collective action.”

“The military’s cruelty is too severe,” she warned. “Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day [March 27] was marked by some 100 brutal killings by security forces turning against their own citizens, including children, youth, and women. … A bloodbath is imminent.”

Burgener’s about-face has won her and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres rare praise from human rights advocates.

“They tried the soft approach. They failed. The shift to speaking the truth approach is definitely something we welcome,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. “The U.N. has taken a very clear, moral, and principled stand and demonstrated clear moral leadership.”

But the strategy has also fueled criticism, particularly among regional powers that see her tough talk as grandstanding, undermining any mediation role she could play with Myanmar’s leaders. “She has discounted herself as an effective bridge in favor of posturing,” said one ambassador from an Asian country who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Targeted pressure requires a channel for communications, and the special envoy right now has disqualified herself from talking to the military junta.”

Burgener’s approach echoes steps taken by Western countries, especially the United States, to ratchet up financial and political pressure on the coup’s plotters, including by imposing sanctions on Burmese military leaders, their relatives, and their businesses as well as military-controlled conglomerates.

Immediately after the coup, U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the move as a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned the United States will take “firm action” against military elements responsible for the violent crackdown on Burmese protesters, while U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States would apply additional sanctions against Burmese military junta if the violence continues. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield highlighted additional steps, including sanctions on senior military officials and limits on U.S. exports to Burmese security forces.

U.S. officials said the administration’s punitive approach, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, has provided an example for the United Nations.

“We are building a foundation with diplomacy, which I think helps the special envoy; it certainly buttresses her ability to be forceful,” a senior official at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said. “She is working in an environment that is supportive of taking a strong stand.”

The United States has been talking with other countries in the region, including Japan and South Korea, to dial up the pressure on the junta, a second official at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations added. “We are trying to maintain pressure and engage in rigorous diplomacy to have the military leaders in Burma change their calculus. How far we go with that, we will have to see.”

Tough action isn’t likely to be coming out of the U.N. Security Council any time soon, since China and Russia oppose imposing sanctions. “One-sided pressure and calling for sanctions or other coercive measures will only aggravate tension and confrontation and further complicate the situation,” China’s U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, recently told the council.

But China, which had forged close relations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, is said to be concerned that the military coup could destabilize China. It has joined the Security Council in condemning the violence against peaceful protesters, calling on the military to show restraint and immediately release Burmese President Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi.

China’s cool response to the coup’s plotters has provided U.N. leadership, which is typically reluctant to break ranks with Beijing on a matter within its sphere of influence, with greater political freedom to pursue a tougher line on Myanmar. Days after the coup, Guterres urged governments to work together to “make sure” the coup failed. “It is absolutely unacceptable to reverse the result of the elections and the will of the people,” Guterres said in an online discussion with the Washington Post.

The latest crisis in Myanmar has its roots in the country’s Nov. 8, 2020 general elections, in which representatives of the National League for Democracy, which is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80 percent of the votes. But Myanmar’s military challenged the outcome, orchestrated a coup, detained the victors, and carried out a bloody crackdown that has led to the death of several hundred protesters.

Previous U.N. envoys treaded lightly when dealing with Myanmar. Vijay Nambiar, who sought to maintain smooth relations with the military regime during the country’s delicate transition to democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi, feared public denunciations of Myanmar’s military leaders might backfire, making it more difficult for the new government to rein in military excesses.

“I believed that publicly upbraiding the government on the Rohingya issue and the use of expressions like ‘genocide’ were likely to be counterproductive and could further weaken the hand of the incoming government of [Aung San Suu Kyi] in tackling the issue,” he wrote in a letter back in October 2017 to Foreign Policy.

Burgener started in a similar fashion in 2018, before her abrupt change of course after the coup. She said she is planning to travel to Bangkok on April 8, the first stage of a regional tour she hopes will result in an invitation to travel to Myanmar. So far, Myanmar’s generals have ignored a request to travel to the country on a World Food Program plane.

Time is not on her side. Burgener has accepted a senior post in Switzerland’s justice department and will step down from her current position at the end of the year. “Many think I’m a lame duck, but I give 150 percent,” she said. “I hope we can reach something before I quit this job.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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