A Q&A with Chris Sidoti and Voice of America.
By Ingyin Naing
27 April 2023
This week former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon went on an unannounced trip to Myanmar, where he met with the country’s military rulers and urged them to find a peaceful resolution to their more than two-year-old violent political crisis.
The statement released about his visit did not say if he met with any opposition leaders, which a member of Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government criticized in an interview with The Associated Press. Nay Phone Latt, an NUG spokesperson, said international leaders should not meet with the leaders of what he called the country’s “terrorist army.”
“If they want to solve the problem of Myanmar, it is important not to ignore the will of the people,” he told AP.
For more about Ban’s visit and the effort to find a peaceful resolution in Myanmar, VOA spoke with Chris Sidoti, who was a member of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar from 2017 to 2019. More recently he has formed, along with two other former U.N. experts, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, which describes itself as an international group working for human rights, peace, democracy and accountability in Myanmar.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: What is your initial reaction to Ban Ki-moon’s surprise visit to Myanmar?
Chris Sidoti, member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar: Well, it was a surprise. It’s been known for a while that Ban Ki-moon, on behalf of the Elders, the organization of which he is deputy chair, was keen to go to Myanmar. But there was no indication that the visit had been accepted by the military there, or that it was about to take place. So it was a surprise when it happened. Initial reaction on my part was very much wait and see; it’s very hard at this stage to react to the visit as to whether it was worthwhile or not. Because at this point, we don’t know very much about it.
Mr. Ban has issued, or the Elders have issued on his behalf, a statement about the mission. And in that statement, it indicated what Ban Ki-moon had said to the general, but there was no indication of what the general had said to Ban Ki-moon. So it’s very difficult to know – in fact, it’s impossible to know at this stage – whether the visit was worthwhile or not, whether it accomplished anything at all, and whether it will achieve its principal purpose of bringing an end to the violence. So we all wait and see.
VOA: Why do you think Senior General Min Aung Hlaing invited the former secretary-general to Myanmar during this time of increasing violence?
Sidoti: There are a couple of possible explanations. But in the end, we don’t know. The possible explanations are that on the one hand, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing might be feeling increasingly isolated and sees a need to attempt to reach out to the international community to show some willingness to engage. Because to date, he has not shown any willingness whatsoever to engage with anybody, not even ASEAN, the primary alliance in which Myanmar is a member. It may be that there is some connection with the obligation of Myanmar to report to the International Court of Justice by around the 24th of May on its implementation of the court’s orders in the genocide case. The military tried to postpone the next report until next year. But the International Court of Justice only last week refused that application and ruled that Myanmar must issue its report by the 24th of May. So it could be that Min Aung Hlaing simply wanted to have something positive to say in that report. But this is all speculation. Ultimately, we don’t know.
Whatever his motives are, however, whether the visit was worthwhile or not will only be able to be judged on the basis of what results are produced. No matter what the general’s motivation was, he has to respond and respond positively to Ban Ki-moon’s demand that there be a cessation of the violence for him to get any credit out of this visit at all.
VOA: The Myanmar junta focuses on holding elections. Opposition groups like the NUG don’t accept the elections, calling them illegitimate. What is your view on the possibility of legitimate elections, given the current environment in Myanmar?
Sidoti: Legitimate elections under the junta are absolutely impossible. There are no conceivable circumstances in which free and fair and legitimate and acceptable elections can be held under the junta. It’s as simple as that. And that’s why, really, they have eased off their preparations for the elections. Originally, they were talking about holding an election in August. But then in February, they extended the state of emergency, and they can’t hold an election while the state of emergency is continuing. And just before that, Min Aung Hlaing himself, the head of the junta, acknowledged that the junta controlled less than half the country and was not able, therefore, to conduct elections in more than half the country. So it’s absolutely impossible for elections to be held. And although the military is continuing some measure of preparation for the elections, I don’t anticipate we will see any attempt to hold an election this year. And indeed, waiting to next year, the military will continue to find it impossible to hold an election that is going to be free and fair and internationally accepted.
VOA: We have the ASEAN five-point consensus and the U.N. Security Council’s resolution on Myanmar. But we haven’t seen implementation of any of these by the junta. The Special Advisory Council on Myanmar has called for more pressure on the military regime to end violence. The NUG has called for anti-aircraft weapons and alarm systems to prevent attacks on civilians. Do you think there is support for that in the international community?
Sidoti: The international community has been very slow to provide support for the democratic movement in Myanmar, beyond rhetoric, beyond words, and this is a tragedy. The NUG is calling for defensive weapons. I don’t see any prospect at the moment of that being responded to by other countries.
But there is much that the international system can do short of providing weaponry. The United Nations itself and ASEAN itself have been notable failures in their commitment to resolving the Myanmar situation. Yes, there is a five-point consensus. Yes, there was a Security Council resolution last December. Both were very positive moves. But both fell far short of what is required.
I’m afraid that the Myanmar situation condemns the ineffectiveness of ASEAN and the United Nations. The reputation of these two international organizations is on the line in relation to Myanmar. There is much to be done short of providing weapons, but to date, the U.N., ASEAN and other states have not been prepared to do it.