P.S. Suryanarayana

With China and Russia continuing to rein the U.S. in, the Security Council has now moved away from its January posture of no collective action and towards a politically non-prescriptive stand on the Myanmar issue.

Myanmar’s ruling junta has finally failed in its bid to fly under the radar of the United Nations and avoid being held accountable for crushing a popular uprising by Buddhist monks, students, pro-democracy activists, and others.

U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari will, on Monday, begin a new round of diplomatic efforts to persuade or pressure Myanmar’s military regime to move towards “an inclusive national reconciliation.” Significantly, the “direct support of the U.N.” is on offer to help the junta, styled the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), “achieve” such reconciliation.

New series of talks

Towards this end, Mr. Gambari will now begin a series of talks with the leaders of key states in Myanmar’s extended neighbourhood — Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, and Japan.

In the earlier phase of diplomacy in this regard in late September and early October, Mr. Gambari met SPDC Chairman Than Shwe and Myanmar’s celebrated democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. On that occasion, the U.N. Special Envoy held talks with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as well. Singapore chairs the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar.

As of now, the SPDC’s bid to evade international censure was facilitated, for some time at least, by the differences among key members of the U.N. Security Council on its own role to set right the affairs of a sovereign state. Complicating this political issue, despite its humanitarian dimension, was the argument that the current Myanmar crisis did not pose a threat to peace and stability in that country’s neighbourhood and the wider global arena.

China and Russia, both permanent members, took this line. The U.S., Britain, and France — the other permanent members with similar veto powers — wanted to condemn the SPDC for its latest crackdown on pro-democracy activists and demanded the immediate release of all political prisoners. In the event, the Security Council issued a presidential statement, “strongly deploring” the recent use of “violence” by the SPDC against “peaceful protesters.” It was also emphasised that the SPDC should recognise the “importance of releasing all political prisoners and remaining detainees” in connection with the latest protest marches by Buddhist monks and others.

A relevant question is whether the SPDC has got yet another reprieve at the hands of the Security Council. In January, Russia and China vetoed a move by the U.S. and its allies to censure the SPDC. A subterranean political issue accounted for those vetoes — the first double veto on any matter since the end of the Cold War over 15 years ago. China and Russia suspected that the U.S., in the name of resolving the Myanmar issue, sought big-power consensus on Western-style democracy as the norm for internal governance of the U.N. member-states. These suspicions, by no means dissipated, have influenced the discussions in the Security Council this time as well.

Non-ideological intervention

However, the gravity of the present situation, marked by the deaths of monks and others at the hands of the SPDC’s soldiers and police, has resulted in a non-ideological intervention by the Security Council. With China and Russia continuing to rein the U.S. in, the Council has now moved away from its January posture of no collective action and towards a politically non-prescriptive stand on the Myanmar issue. In advocating a “genuine dialogue” between the SPDC, on one side, and Ms. Suu Kyi as also “all concerned parties and ethnic groups,” on the other, the Council does not call for anything more prescriptive than the generic norm of a “peaceful solution.”

It is true that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has described the SPDC’s recent action against the unarmed protesters as “a brutal crackdown.”

However, the Council’s latest collective position has been shaped by not only China and Russia, at one level, but also the ASEAN, a special invitee, at the other. After expressing a sense of “revulsion” at the SPDC’s “reported” behaviour this time, the ASEAN gradually started advocating that Myanmar’s military establishment must be part of the solution to the current political crisis in that country.

The overall Western perspective on the current crisis was reflected in a comment by the British Ambassador to Myanmar, Mark Canning. In his view, the underlying dynamics of the situation there have now fundamentally changed.

In the totality of diverse perspectives, therefore, some out-of-the-box ideas have now completely gone off the table. One such idea was that India could perhaps host Ms. Suu Kyi, with her consent as well as that of all other parties concerned, as a means of securing her personal freedom, if her liberty were to be de-linked from the larger democracy issue in Myanmar. However, the ASEAN, which often called upon India and China to help resolve the Myanmar crisis, has never advocated such a radical step. Yet, Myanmar dissident leaders still want India to play a pro-democracy role in regard to their country.