CAMEROON – The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar said the generals who have seized power in the Southeast Asian nation indicated they don’t fear renewed sanctions, though they are “very surprised” that their plans to restore military rule without much opposition isn’t working.
Christine Schraner Burgener told U.N. correspondents Wednesday that after the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government from power she warned Myanmar’s army that the world’s nations and the U.N. Security Council “might take huge strong measures.”
“And the answer was, ‘We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past,’” the U.N. envoy said.
When she also warned the army that Myanmar would become isolated, Schraner Burgener said, “the answer was, ‘We have to learn to walk with only a few friends.’”
The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Suu Kyi’s rise to power after 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.
Schraner Burgener noted that opposition to the coup was being spearheaded by young people who lived in freedom for 10 years, noting they “are well organized and very determined they don’t want to go back into dictatorship and isolation.” She was speaking by video link from Bern, Switzerland, on what she called “the bloodiest day since the coup.”
Schraner Burgener urged a united international community “to take the right measures,” stressing that Security Council sanctions that must be implemented by every country would be “more powerful” than sanctions by individual countries.
The council has scheduled closed consultations for Friday on calls to reverse the coup — including from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres — and the escalating military crackdown, which Schraner Burgener said killed 38 people on Wednesday alone.
Schraner Burgener said she receives about 2,000 messages a day from people in Myanmar, many desperate to see an international response. She said she also speaks every day with representatives of the ousted Parliament and has spoken several times with the armed forces deputy commander-in-chief, Soe Win, most recently on Feb. 15.
Schraner Burgener said the deputy commander explained in their first phone call on Feb. 4 that the new State Administration Council — the name for the new ruling junta — is charged with implementing a five-step military roadmap.
That roadmap, which the junta has also published in state-run media in Myanmar, includes reconstituting the electoral commission, which rejected the military’s allegations of fraud in a November election where Suu Kyi’s party won 82% of the vote. She said that has already been done.
It aims for a national cease-fire agreement with all 21 ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, which Schraner Burgener said is going to be difficult as 10 have already taken a strong stand against the coup.
It also aims at stamping out COVID-19 and recovering business activity. It’s final task is holding new elections in a year.
Schraner Burgener said in her view the military’s “tactic” was to investigate members and leaders of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, prove they committed crimes like election fraud, treason or working with foreigners, and put them in prison.
“And then the NLD will be banned and then they will have new elections where they want to win, and then they can continue to stay in power,” she said.
“The army had told me the plan — to threaten the people, to make arrests and then the majority of the people would go home because they have fear,” Schraner Burgener said. Then the military “have the control back again,” and people will get used to the situation “and go back to business as usual.
She said the army is surprised by the opposition, which has been led by young people.
“I think that the army is very surprised that it doesn’t work because in the past, in 1988 and 2007 and 2008, it worked,” she said, noting the years of previous violent military crackdowns on uprisings against its rule.
She has an office in the capital, Naypyitaw, and has been asking to return since the coup on condition she can talk to the military leaders and see representatives of the ousted parliamentarians and Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint, who are among some 1,200 people she says are detained.
“I really hope to visit Myanmar as quickly as possible,” she said. “I don’t have the solution on the silver plate, but I have some ideas which I would like to discuss.”
Schraner Burgener didn’t disclose the ideas.
She said the military has told her the time isn’t right yet for a visit. She asked if she could visit if she lifted her conditions and said she was told it wouldn’t make a difference.
During her three years as the U.N. special envoy, Schraner Burgener said she always warned the Security Council and the General Assembly that a coup could happen because she knew the structure of the government — that the military had the power.
Under Myanmar’s constitution, drafted under military rule, the army maintained control of many key ministries surrounding defense and security and also was guaranteed enough seats in Parliament to override any changes to the charter.
“I always felt she was on a tightrope dealing with the army,” Schraner Burgener said of Suu Kyi.
Schraner Burgener said she thought military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who staged the coup, was “really afraid” that Suu Kyi would have more success with reforms following her “overwhelming victory in the election.”