UN general assembly votes to stop flow of arms into Myanmar

The UN has called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders, delivering a symbolic but sharp global rebuke to Min Aung Hlaing’s military junta.

The UN general assembly adopted the resolution by majority vote with 119 countries in support on Friday. Only one country — Belarus — voted against the resolution, with China, Russia and 34 other countries abstaining. China argued external pressure could aggravate the situation but has not ruled out an arms embargo in future.

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The text is non-binding and its language was softened during negotiations with some of Myanmar’s regional neighbours. But diplomats and human rights groups said the effort nevertheless marked an attempt from the international community to isolate the junta at a time some countries were pursuing ties with the generals.

“This is a setback for the junta,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, adding it was “very unusual” for the general assembly — the UN’s policymaking body of 193 member states — to weigh in on a coup. “The generals and their allies will find it harder to tell the world that their takeover is now just a fact of life that everyone should accept.” 

Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, said the UN Security Council should now “step up” and impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar given Friday’s “very strong” endorsement at the general assembly.

The 15-member UNSC, whose decisions are binding on member states, discussed Myanmar on Friday but has not so far considered an arms embargo.

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“Today’s vote seems to indicate that China has yet to throw itself in with the junta,” said Charbonneau, adding he hoped Beijing would not block a UNSC arms embargo.

The crisis in Myanmar was caused by the military’s overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on February 1 after it disputed a landslide victory by her National League for Democracy in November’s election.

At least 865 people have been killed and more than 6,000 arrested since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group.

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Myanmar’s military has suppressed mass peaceful protests in the weeks following the coup. More recently the violence has broadened in scope to include clashes between troops and urban anti-regime guerrillas or armed organisations in some of the country’s ethnic minority states. 

Myanmar’s leader went on trial this week in Naypyidaw, where she faces multiple criminal charges that her lawyers and human rights groups say were fabricated to prevent her from seeking office again.

Human rights groups and civil society activists inside Myanmar had urged the UN to take action, and described an arms embargo as one of the steps the world community might take that would do the most to stop bloodletting in the country.

However, diplomats have so far considered that a Security Council resolution had little chance of passing because permanent members China and Russia, the Myanmar military’s two biggest arms suppliers, have veto power.

The vote comes at a time some of Myanmar’s neighbours are opening contacts with junta officials, angering anti-coup activists who want the world to isolate the junta and deprive it of revenues.

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Asean, the 10-member south-east Asian grouping to which Myanmar belongs, this week held an online meeting of defence ministers attended by a regime official, in which Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, also participated. Asean members were split on Friday’s UN vote, with Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand all abstaining and the majority, including Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, supporting.

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The UN, China, and Asean have all been targets of anti-coup protesters, who burnt Asean’s flag at a Yangon protest this week. The bloc in April agreed a five-point consensus on de-escalating the violence in Myanmar, but angered the anti-coup camp by inviting Min Aung Hlaing to the summit at which it was agreed.

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