rebellion in the Commons

Myanmar coup: China blocks UN condemnation as protest grows

Myanmar coup: China blocks UN condemnation as protest grows

Aung San Suu Kyi

Picture of Aung San Suu Kyi's face behind bars
Aung San Suu Kyi remains detained by the military

China has blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup in Myanmar.

The military took power in the South East Asian nation on Monday after arresting political leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other lawmakers.

The coup leaders have since formed a supreme council which will sit above the cabinet.

In Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon though, signs of resistance and civil disobedience have been growing.

Doctors and medical staff in dozens of hospitals across the country are stopping work in protest against the coup and to push for Ms Suu Kyi’s release.

Yangon General Hospital - medics wear red ribbons in protest, 3 February 2021
Yangon General Hospital – medics wear red ribbons in protest

The United Nations Security Council met on Tuesday but failed to agree on a joint statement after China did not support it. China has the power of veto as one of five permanent members of the council.

Ahead of the talks, the UN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner, strongly condemned the military takeover which came after the army refused to accept the outcome of general elections held in November.

She said it was clear that “the recent outcome of the election was a landslide victory” for Ms Suu Kyi’s party.

In further criticism, the Group of Seven major economic powers said it was “deeply concerned” and called for the return of democracy.

“We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law,” the statement released in London said. The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

Why did China block the UN action?

China has been warning since the coup that sanctions or international pressure would only make things worse in Myanmar.

Beijing has long played a role of protecting the country from international scrutiny. It sees the country as economically important and is one of Myanmar’s closest allies.

Alongside Russia, it has repeatedly protected Myanmar from criticism at the UN over the military crackdown on the Muslim minority Rohingya population.

“Beijing’s stance on the situation is consistent with its overall scepticism of international intervention,” Sebastian Strangio, author and South East Asia editor at The Diplomat, told the BBC.

While China does benefit strategically from Myanmar’s alienation from the west, this does not mean that Beijing is happy with the coup, he cautions.

“They had a pretty good arrangement with the NLD and invested a lot to build a relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. The return of the military actually means that China now has to deal with the institution in Myanmar that historically is the most suspicious of China’s intentions.”

Myanmar soldiers
The ousted political leaders remain in detention, guarded by soldiers

“Through this foreign policy equivalent of gaslighting, China seems to be signalling its tacit support, if not emphatic endorsement, for the generals’ actions,” Myanmar expert Elliott Prasse-Freeman, of the National University of Singapore, told the BBC.

“China seems to be proceeding as if this is Myanmar’s ‘internal issue’ in which what we are observing is a ‘cabinet reshuffle,’ as China’s state media put it.”

While he thinks a UN statement would not have made an immediate difference, it would still serve as “a first step for cohering an international response. That appears to not be forthcoming”.

Where is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the now-ousted elected government, has not been seen since she was detained by the military on Monday morning.

Dozens of others also remain detained, including President Win Myint, members of her party’s central committee and her personal attorney. They are reportedly being held under house arrest.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) demanded her immediate release on Tuesday. It has also called upon the military to accept the results of the November election, which saw the NLD win more than 80% of the votes.

Key players detained by military
Key players detained by military

Meanwhile, the United States said it had been unsuccessful in contacting the Myanmar military and has formally declared the takeover to be a coup d’etat. This means the US cannot directly assist the government, though most of its assistance goes to non-governmental entities.

The EU, UK, Australia and others have also condemned the takeover.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by the armed forces until 2011, when a nominally civilian government was sworn in.

What is the situation in Myanmar?

Power has been handed over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. Eleven ministers and deputies, including those in finance, health, the interior and foreign affairs, were replaced.

In the first meeting of his cabinet on Tuesday, Min Aung Hlaing repeated that the takeover had been “inevitable”.

The country was calm in the aftermath of the coup, with troops patrolling all major cities and a night-time curfew in force.

Myanmar has a long history of military rule and many people can still remember the terror of previous coups.

But on Tuesday evening, car horns and the banging of cooking pots could be heard in the streets of Yangon in a sign of protest.

Activist groups have called for civil disobedience campaigns, setting up a Facebook group to organise their efforts.

Staff at 70 hospitals and medical departments across the country have reportedly stepped away from all non-emergency work.

Hundreds of healthcare workers, including senior doctors, have participated in the “Red Ribbon movement”, with many donning a red ribbon on their clothes to show they were against the coup. Online, many changed their social media profile pictures to one of just the colour red.

Some medics are also wearing symbols like black ribbons in silent protest.

Myanmar at a glance

Myanmar is a country of 54 million people in South East Asia which shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos.

It was ruled by an oppressive military government from 1962 to 2011, leading to international condemnation and sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent years campaigning for democratic reforms. A gradual liberalisation began in 2010, though the military still retained considerable influence.

A government led by Ms Suu Kyi came to power after free elections in 2015. But a deadly military crackdown two years later on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh and triggered a rift between Ms Suu Kyi and the international community.

She has remained popular at home and her party won again by a landslide in the November 2020 election. But the military have now stepped in to take control once more.


Lords defeats government over UK courts’ role in genocide rulings

Lords defeats government over UK courts’ role in genocide rulings

Peers vote for second time to amend trade bill and take a tougher stance on China’s human rights record

Lord Alton, an independent peerLord Alton, an independent peer, urged the Lords to give the high court a role in determining whether a country is committing genocide. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP 

 Diplomatic editor

Peers have inflicted a crushing defeat on the government over its approach to China’s human rights record by voting for a second time to amend a trade bill and give British courts a role in determining whether a country is committing genocide.

Any such judicial determination would require the UK to review any bilateral trade agreement with Beijing, because of its abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and other regimes accused of genocide.

 Ministers move to stop backbench revolt over UK courts’ role in genocide rulingsRead more

Peers on a cross-party basis voted on Tuesday by 359 to 188 – a majority of 171 – to insist the UK courts should be handed this new role, and the issue will now go back to the Commons next week. Ministers oppose the measure.

The government suffered a major backbench rebellion in the Commons on the proposal last month when its majority was cut from 80 to 11, and it will now face another knife-edge vote.

Peers had first voted in December by a majority of 126 to give the courts a role in determining genocide, so the tide is flowing against the government in the Lords.

The votes come as a growing phalanx of Tory MPs demand the UK takes a tougher stand over China’s suppression in Hong Kong and its treatment of Uighurs. The issue also raises wider moral questions about how ministers will be held to account if they seek to sign post-Brexit free trade agreements that ignore human rights.

Lord Alton, an independent peer, urged the Lords to give the high court a role, saying his narrow and specific measure was “neither a futile gesture or virtue signalling”. He cited a number of senior lawyers who have said the UK courts are competent to determine whether a genocide is under way under the Genocide Convention.

Alton added that the international criminal courts are not able to make such determinations about China’s treatment of the Uighurs due to the Chinese ability to veto any such reference.

He has adjusted his genocide amendment to meet objections that the original proposal required the government to act on any high court determination.

Ministers, on the back foot, have been trying to find a concession that keeps the issue of genocide away from the national courts, arguing the judges do not want such a role, it could weaken the separation of powers and its rulings could cause diplomatic difficulties. The British courts can already find individuals guilty of genocide.

 UK free to make trade deals with genocidal regimes after Commons voteRead more

In a last-minute letter to peers sent on Tuesday, Lord Grimstone, the trade minister, suggested the foreign affairs select committee could pronounce whether a country is committing genocide, and could prompt a Commons debate.

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, discussed this proposal with the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, on Monday, and the proposal faced criticism from the Committee on Tuesday, partly due to the fact its powers to subpoena witnesses are limited and the concession was not presented in the form of a formal amendment to the trade bill.

Lord Blencathra, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said the idea that a select committee, meeting for a couple of hours a week, could be better thanthe high court taking evidence day after day was “for the birds”. He added “whatever the select committee decided, the government can ignore it”.

He said the Foreign Office’s thinking on genocide was trapped in the past decade and urged the prime minister to take a personal look and realise that the department’s old policy on genocide was no longer sustainable.

Lady Kennedy, the Labour peer and human rights barrister, said the world was watching whether the UK “could change the ecology of law by making genocide have serious meaning in our contemporary world”.