UN chief urges Myanmar military government to return to democracy

UN chief calls the situation in Myanmar an ‘unending nightmare’ for citizens and a threat to the security of the region.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the Myanmar military to immediately allow the country to return to democracy, saying the current situation was a threat to peace in the region.

Myanmar has spiralled into bloody conflict since the military removed Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in a coup in February last year.

The escalating crisis dominated a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc, which has led so far fruitless diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed.

“The situation in Myanmar is an unending nightmare for the people and a threat to peace and security across the region,” Guterres told reporters on Saturday.

“I urge the authorities of Myanmar to listen to their people, release political prisoners and get the democratic transition back on track immediately. That is the only way to stability and peace.”

After meeting ASEAN leaders, Guterres said it was vital that a peace plan agreed with the generals – but so far not enforced – came into effect.

“Indiscriminate attacks on civilians are horrendous and heartbreaking,” he said.

The military has faced widespread armed opposition to its rule and has responded with brutal force.

More than 2,400 people have been killed in the past two years, according to the monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, while the UN children’s agency estimates that one million people have been displaced.

In a reminder of the daily horrors faced by the Myanmar people, residents and media on Friday accused the military of burning houses and killing at least five civilians in a raid on a village in western Rakhine state, where conflict with armed ethnic groups has also reignited.

Raising pressure

ASEAN leaders blocked Myanmar’s military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from attending the gathering over the spiralling violence in the country, and amid frustration that the generals in Myanmar are uninterested in implementing a peace plan.

The group agreed to a “five-point consensus” with Min Aung Hlaing at a special summit in April last year aimed at ending the chaos in Myanmar, but military has made no effort to implement it.

Increasingly frustrated ASEAN leaders on Friday told their foreign ministers to devise a concrete plan to move the consensus forward.

An empty chair for the Myanmar delegation at a meeting with representatives of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

They also gave their blessing to the ASEAN special envoy meeting Myanmar’s civilian political groups – a move that drew a furious response from the military, which regards any opponents of its regime “terrorists”.

Western powers have heaped sanctions on the military, but violence has escalated in recent weeks, with deadly military air raids on civilian targets, including a school and a concert.

US President Joe Biden will use talks with ASEAN leaders later on Saturday to urge them to keep pushing the military to end the violence.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the president would “discuss how we can coordinate more closely to continue to impose costs and raise pressure on the junta”.

The military has justified its power grab by alleging fraud in the November 2020 general elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide.

The generals have pledged to hold elections next year, but the United States and the UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar have said there is no chance of the vote being free and fair.

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