On 18 June, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a non-binding resolution condemning Myanmar’s military regime and urged members to work to prevent the flow of arms to Myanmar. The resolution passed with 119 votes in favour, one vote against and thirty-six abstentions, including Timor-Leste. Controversy about Timor-Leste’s abstention unfolded over the weekend, including harsh criticism from former President Ramos-Horta, who described the Government’s action as a “vote of shame”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation published a press release on Monday 21 June reiterating its support for human rights and Myanmar’s democratic transition, and repeating its call for ASEAN to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It explained further that Timor-Leste voted to abstain on the resolution because there was no consensus on the issue between ASEAN members, which according to the “ASEAN Way” doctrine should be achieved to resolve the current crisis. This lack of consensus is illustrated by the fact that several ASEAN states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam – voted in favour of the resolution, while Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste abstained. Myanmar also voted in favour of the resolution, as Myanmar’s current UN representative is from the civilian government overthrown in the February coup.
Fundasaun Mahein condemns the killing and arbitrary arrest of citizens and opposition which has occurred since the military’s intervention in February 2021, and supports regional and international cooperation measures which aim to restore civilian rule, prosecute human rights violations and achieve sustainable peace. Furthermore, it is clear that the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – has committed many serious crimes during its decades-long rule, and we believe that those responsible for these acts must be brought to justice if peace and democratic rule are to be achieved in Myanmar.
Given these actions, and our own experiences with crimes against humanity, it is understandable that many in Timor-Leste are shocked and angered by the Timor-Leste Government’s decision to abstain from the UN vote, viewing it as sacrificing human rights principles and ignoring the plight of the people of Myanmar in favour of foreign policy goals. While this is a valid interpretation, Fundasaun Mahein believes that an examination of historical and political issues relevant to the recent UN resolution, as well as the role of the UN more generally, is important to contribute to public debate on the implications of this vote in relation to the current situation in Myanmar, regional and international geopolitics and Timor-Leste’s foreign policy.
Myanmar’s permanent civil war and political crisis
While the Tatmadaw bears direct responsibility for the recent coup and related violence and repression, Myanmar’s current crisis is rooted in the state’s long-term inability to exert full control over the national territory, and the resulting civil war, insecurity and long-term isolation of the country. It also relates to the opening of Myanmar to foreign investment since 2010, which has contributed to the economic influence of the military and complicated the country’s democratisation process.
Violent conflict and political turmoil are not new in Myanmar – there are currently more than a dozen armed guerrilla and militia groups operating in Myanmar’s frontier regions, some of which have been waging armed struggle since 1948, the world’s longest civil war. The failure of early civilian governments to resolve either the communist insurgency or ethnic minorities’ demands for autonomy led to the military coup of 1962, which began the long period of military rule lasting until 2011. The Tatmadaw has been fighting a counter-insurgency war for more than six decades, with greater or lesser levels of intensity over time, resulting in countless human rights violations and widespread displacement and insecurity.
Beginning in the 1950s, Myanmar’s border regions also became a site of geopolitical struggle between major powers, as western-supported Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) forces used the area as a base to infiltrate and attack the People’s Republic of China, while China later supported the Communist Party of Burma insurgency. These interventions violated Myanmar’s sovereignty and further destabilised the country not only by expanding the guerrilla presence in the borderlands, but also by transforming the area into the world’s primary opium production zone – the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’, which peaked during the wars in Southeast Asia from the 1960s to 1975.
Continuing throughout the 1970s and beyond, various armed groups used the profits from this illicit industry to fund their causes, which empowered warlords and created permanent networks of arms and drugs smuggling which persist to this day. The Tatmadaw is also implicated in the drugs trade, although its involvement began later as part of a strategy of co-opting guerrilla groups by ‘partnering’ with them in illegal economic activity in return for informal power-sharing and cease-fire agreements. There is evidence that the majority of illicit drugs production now occurs in areas controlled by Tatmadaw-backed militias.
In 1988, a major protest movement ousted the Burmese dictator General Ne Win, but after several massacres a military junta seized control, ignored the results of the 1990 election, and remained in power until the elections of 2011. These were won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which formed Myanmar’s first elected civilian government in almost fifty years. Despite high hopes, between 2011 and the February 2021 coup the NLD Government was plagued by internal instability and controversy, including the Rohingya crisis and the escalation of ethnic conflicts. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and widely praised by international media, received heavy criticism for her failure to adequately respond to the alleged genocide of Rohingya people, and her refusal to directly condemn the Tatmadaw for its role in the atrocities.
Leading up to the November 2020 election, some international organisations noted serious problems, including the government limiting media access for the opposition, although international observers found that the election process itself was sound. However, the Tatmadaw claimed that the election was fraudulent, and on 1 February, just before the swearing in of the new Parliament, declared a state of emergency, seized state power and arrested government members, including Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD President Win Myint. Demonstrations erupted across the country, which were met with deadly violence and mass arrests by the military, with hundreds of protestors and other civilians reportedly killed and thousands detained. Protests continue to this day, despite the military’s brutal repression.
At the time, many governments – including Timor-Leste – and multilateral organisations expressed concern about the coup and called for the military and NLD Government to resolve the issue through peaceful dialogue. Others – mainly western states and their allies – condemned the military’s actions and demanded that it reinstate the civilian government, release prisoners and end violence against protestors. The US Government has since imposed sanctions on Tatmadaw officers, and the United Kingdom drafted a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning the coup and demanding the restoration of democracy and release of prisoners. After several members – including China, Russia, India and Vietnam – refused to support the resolution, the UNSC prepared a “presidential statement” condemning violence and calling for the release of government officials and a negotiated settlement between the government and military.
The politics and contradictions of human rights
As mentioned above, Fundasaun Mahein is deeply concerned about the humanitarian impacts and security implications of the ongoing repression and violence occurring in Myanmar, and supports regional cooperation efforts to restore civilian rule, end violence and achieve lasting peace. At the same time, we are concerned that some of the public discussion related to Timor-Leste’s vote somewhat oversimplifies what is an extremely complex issue, while ignoring the many contradictions between the recent vote and the positions taken by states on numerous other issues.
First of all, the development of human rights principles and international law has not been smooth, apolitical or neutral, but rather has been a highly contested and deeply political process. Following the Second World War, sharp divisions emerged between groups of nation-states over the definition of fundamental human rights: large capitalist states emphasised the primacy of civil and political rights, while the Soviet Union and Global South countries argued that social and economic rights were inseparable from civil and political rights, and accused the west of pushing its own concept of human rights to legitimise its own political system while avoiding the question of wealth inequality or redistribution.
The inherently political nature of these concepts is illustrated by the fact that human rights arguments are frequently used selectively to advance state interests: powerful states regularly invoke the language of human rights, democracy and freedom to condemn and justify interventions against smaller countries, in pursuit of other political and economic interests. The UNSC has also used similar language to provide a veneer of legitimacy for major military interventions, such as the 1950 invasion of Korea, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, all of which failed to bring peaceful resolutions and instead have led to long-term destabilisation and many deaths.
Furthermore, many of the countries which voted in favour of the Myanmar resolution are themselves implicated in historical and ongoing state violence, human rights abuses and undemocratic actions. For example, many of these countries sell large quantities of arms to the governments of Colombia, Morocco, Israel, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, all of which have committed large-scale human rights abuses. Timorese people will remember that many UN member states voting in favour of last week’s resolution also supported Indonesia’s military occupation of Timor-Leste both materially and at the UN. The NLD’s own record on UN resolutions on human rights abuses in Myanmar also reveals a degree of hypocrisy: following a 2019 resolution on the Rohingya crisis, the NLD Government’s UN ambassador condemned the resolution as “another classic example of double-standards [and] selective and discriminatory application of human rights norms designed to exert unwanted political pressure on Myanmar”.
Timor-Leste’s foreign policy: more public discussion is needed
While some may argue that these examples devalue the concepts of human rights or democracy, for Fundasaun Mahein they simply illustrate the reality of the foreign policy dilemmas faced by small countries, and how many countries use such principles selectively to promote political interests, while ignoring them when it is convenient. Thus, while ideally foreign policy decisions should always be based on principles, the importance of this latest UN General Assembly Resolution is probably not best understood in simple terms of “right vs wrong”: rather, the positions adopted by different countries reflect a complex balance of political interests, geopolitical dynamics and principles.
While the Timor-Leste Government explanation for its decision to abstain as being due to the lack of consensus between ASEAN members is plausible, as with any political decision it was likely also influenced by several additional factors. Some have interpreted the vote as indicating that the Government is “scared” to anger any ASEAN members in case one opposes our accession, and there may be some truth to this. When viewed in this way, Timor-Leste appears to have chosen pragmatism over principles. However, this is not new for Timor-Leste: while our leaders regularly make statements in solidarity with far-away Western Sahara and Palestine, most of Timor-Leste’s leaders have been silent on West Papua, while promoting reconciliation with the Indonesian military rather than seeking prosecution for crimes against humanity committed during the occupation, for similarly pragmatic reasons. On the other hand, it could be said that the Myanmar vote was also consistent with Timor-Leste’s previous statements on the crisis, as well as its commitment to ASEAN principles of sovereignty, non-interference and consensus, while from a diplomatic perspective, the ASEAN states which voted for the resolution may have damaged relations within the bloc.
By pointing out these ambiguities and contradictions, Fundasaun Mahein does not wish to support or condemn particular actions, but simply point out the reality that foreign policy is always a balancing act between principles and pragmatism. This is especially true for small countries with powerful neighbours, as illustrated by Timor-Leste’s engagement with Indonesia since independence. This is an extremely important topic for Timor-Leste’s future, but until now there has been insufficient public debate regarding Timor-Leste’s foreign policy or strategic positioning, aside from the objective of joining ASEAN and remaining as a member of CPLP. As a result, most geopolitical discussions in Timor-Leste are informal and speculative, and based on our experiences with conflict, clandestine organising and being a small country navigating complex rivalries between bigger powers.
To help Timor-Leste continue to develop towards more open and mature regional and international engagement, Fundasaun Mahein believes that we need to develop a clear, coherent and principled foreign policy through extensive public debate and consultation between government, civil society, academics, private sector and other stakeholders. While there is certainly space for criticising Timor-Leste’s Myanmar vote, we believe that oversimplifications of complex issues are unhelpful, and argue instead that Timor-Leste’s decision should be viewed in the context of our developing foreign policy, and the dilemmas and contradictions of international politics and human rights discourse.