The UNGA Resolution on the Situation in Myanmar: Why was the Rohingya Issue Neglected?

The United Nations General Assembly resolution on the ‘Situation in Myanmar’ adopted on 18 June 2021 with 119 votes in favour, 1 against and 36 abstentions has raised a fundamental question of excluding a critical issue of today’s world, the Rohingya crisis. The resolution has basically called for an arms embargo against Myanmar and condemned the military’s February seizure of power. The 193-member body also requested unimpeded humanitarian access to stop the country’s slide into poverty, dysfunction and despair. It makes a plea for the Myanmar military to “respect the people’s will as freely expressed by results of the general election of November 8, 2020, to end the state of emergency, to respect all human rights of people of Myanmar and to allow the sustained democratic transition of Myanmar, including the opening of the democratically elected parliament, and by working towards bringing all national institutions, including the armed forces, under a fully inclusive civilian government that is representative of the people’s will.” The resolution was initiated by a core group of 50 sponsoring member states, including the US, EU, UK, and Canada, among others. The core group finalized the resolution in consultation with ASEAN members.

Thirty-six countries have abstained from voting. It is altogether 74 (1+36+37) member states who have not cast their votes in favour of the resolution. Some key OIC members such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates abstained from voting. Some ASEAN and SAARC members such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka also abstained. Many African and Pacific Island nations did not find it worthwhile to participate in the voting. Countries like Russia, China and India abstained mysteriously abstained from voting virtually, opposing the resolution apparently voicing their reservations against the UN interference in domestic affairs of Myanmar. Interestingly, although Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry rejected the resolution, the UN-based Myanmar Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who in February denounced the military takeover, voted “yes” and urged the international community ‘to take the strongest possible action to immediately end the military coup.’ It is clear that the resolution has failed to create a resounding majority, what we generally observe in the UNGA voting patterns.

One of the fundamental limitations of the resolution and its failure to draw more support from the UN members was its inability to incorporate the Rohingya issue in it. The resolution has evidently skipped the most pressing and widely discussed global issue, the Rohingya crisis. There was no reference to the issue of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas in the resolution. The resolution did not include any recommendations or actions on the issue of repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Neither does it recognize nor stress the need for creating a conducive environment in Rakhine for the safe, sustainable and dignified return of the Rohingyas. The resolution also lacks the determination to address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis through collective means.

Bangladesh, along with other nations, have expressed their utter disappointment and strong views for the UNGA’s failure to include the Rohingya crisis in the draft so that the resolution would reflect a broad-based and comprehensive reality in Myanmar. In this context, the deliberations of representatives from some members may be mentioned for understanding the importance of the Rohingya crisis. The representative of Bangladesh asserted that the resolution is of utmost to the country, which shares borders with Myanmar.  Stability in Myanmar is critically important for finding a durable solution for the Rohingyas hosted by Bangladesh. To Bangladesh, the resolution fell short of its expectations, failing to recognise the urgent need to create conditions for the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of the Rohingyas. Bangladesh makes a strong point expressing disappointment, as the representative in her speech stated that text deviates from other resolutions and outcomes adopted in the Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian), the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.

The Turkish representative and the President of UNGA stressed that this is not just a crisis for the people of Myanmar, highlighting the 1 million Rohingyas sheltering in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and commending that country for helping its neighbours in their “darkest hour.” The representative of Iran asserted that the country would abstain from the vote because the draft resolution failed to address the plight of Rohingya Muslims adequately. The Egyptian representative stressed the need to ensure the safe, sustained repatriation of the Rohingya and protect that population’s fundamental rights.  The representative unequivocally mentioned that Egypt would abstain from the vote due to the unclear link between the agenda item and the Rohingya issue. The representative of Saudi Arabia said his delegation abstained as the resolution ignored his delegation’s request for sponsors to include a clear reference to the plight of Rohingya refugees in the operative paragraphs. Although voted in favour, the representative of Iraq told the text does not accurately describe the situation facing Rohingyas on the ground.  The delegation disassociated from preambular paragraph 19. The representative of the United Arab Emirates said her delegation also abstained because certain operative paragraphs did not sufficiently address the Rohingya issue.

Why was the Rohingya issue neglected in the crucial voting of the UNGA?

First and foremost, the exclusion of the Rohingya issue in the UNGA resolution is a major diplomatic blunder in the UN-based global diplomacy. It demonstrates a lack of commitment or vision about the most persecuted community in the world, the Rohingyas. To put it candidly, the interests of the Rohingyas have been sacrificed in the resolution. Second, the Rohingya crisis has been undermined due to geopolitics and the power politics of major powers in the world. Although the sponsoring nations of the resolution have shown their support to the Rohingyas, this particular action shows a contradiction in their policies and attitudes. Third, the sponsoring nations might have wanted to draw more support from some of the UN members who are historically supportive of the Myanmar regime. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam may be mentioned in this context.

Fourth, the resolution has repeated the historical misstep of the Western powers that have always prioritized ‘regime change’ over the acute humanitarian emergencies like the Rohingya crisis created by the genocidal crime of the Myanmar regime. The premature visit of the former United States President Barack Obama in Myanmar in 2012 was criticised that it rewarded the military who just released Suu Kyi and did not embark any genuine political changes for future democratic Myanmar. Finally, the resolution has overemphasized the role of the ASEAN that has undertaken a peace initiative through convening a special Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, in April 2021. Ironically, the ASEAN initiative has been ineffective and inadequate to force the Military coup leaders in Myanmar to reverse the political order in the country. The killing of more than 900 people in Myanmar, arrest of Suu Kyi and hundreds of political leaders and activists, identifying the National Unity Government (NUG) as a terrorist organization and continuing violation of the 5-point consensus of the ASEAN by the current military regime does not speak for any change in their approach.

In conclusion, one may argue that although this UNGA resolution was initiated under the agenda item ‘Prevention of Armed Conflict,’ there was a scope to include the Rohingya issue. A closer look at their real intention behind the resolution would clearly show that many countries who have drafted and supported it were guided by narrow geopolitical interests. It also shows that despite facing a deep political crisis, the Myanmar generals enjoy geopolitical and diplomatic advantages of unusual nature. The sudden dependence of the US and Western world on ASEAN has already proved ineffective for the Myanmar Junta who enjoys cosy relations with its influential members. After all, the support of 119 out of 193 members is far less an expected outcome against the violence and cruelty perpetrated by the regime in power in Myanmar. The UNGA resolution has divided the world instead of uniting it due to its failure to include the Rohingya issue. The resolution has once again demonstrated that the global community is yet to fathom out the sufferings, helplessness and hopelessness of the Rohingyas. It should be emphasized that the Rohingya crisis is integral to any political solution of the Myanmar crisis today or tomorrow. The earlier the global community recognizes it, the better for all Myanmar and surrounding regions.

Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.