Britain’s decision to appoint a new ambassador to Myanmar in July has alarmed European allies who fear the move will result in a de facto recognition of the military regime that seized power on 1 February.
High-ranking diplomatic sources told The Independent that the UK has submitted credentials to the sanctioned junta, conceding to pressures from the Myanmar side to rewrite a request that had already been sent before the coup, when a civilian government was still in power.
The letter of credentials for an ambassador-designate is normally addressed from one head of state to another, bringing with it an implicit mutual recognition despite not being an official acknowledgement of any particular government. The self-appointed prime minister of Myanmar, General Min Aung Hlaing, is known for having a soft spot for flashy official ceremonies. To avoid taking this formal step and granting a possible photo opportunity to the commander-in-chief, other western embassies have decided to nominate a lower ranking chargé d’affaires – a formality to signal an unwillingness to deal with the junta, while continuing diplomatic activity with a head of mission.
Embassies which underwent a turnover of staff in the past months, such as Germany, Denmark and Finland, have all opted to nominate a chargé d’affaires and “could not comprehend the decision of the UK to step up the recognition of the military so far”, a senior diplomat in Yangon said. Other countries had been considering a similar move but there is now fear within the EU that the example set by Britain will push other countries to follow suit.
Myanmar had been under military rule for over 50 years prior to a partial shift towards democracy in 2015, with the first free elections in decades won by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. But six months ago the military returned, ousting the country’s elected leaders and quashing subsequent protests with violence, with victims including children and many of the generation Z that grew up under democratic rule. With the economy and health system on the verge of collapse, the country is now suffering a deadly wave of Covid-19.
The UK has publicly condemned the decision of the military to seize power and reject the overwhelming electoral victory in November 2020 of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, whose civilian government had been in a strained power-sharing agreement with the generals since 2016.
Britain has put pressure on the junta at the UN Security Council, calling for meetings to discuss the situation in Myanmar and consistently condemning the actions of the military, which has killed over 1,000 people since the coup and arrested thousands, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an NGO based in Thailand.
Its latest decision comes just as a parallel National Unity Government (NUG), formed by the ousted lawmakers, is pushing to secure a place for its own ambassador at the United Nations. The parallel government was created through online meetings to challenge the military coup and support nationwide protests that highlighted the extent of the unpopularity of the junta. The current representative to the UN is Kyaw Moe Tun, who has expressed explicit support for the pro-democracy protests. Since then, two men have been arrested in the US for an alleged plot to kill him.
“This is a crucial moment,” the diplomat in Yangon told The Independent. “In September it will be decided who will represent Myanmar at the UN and if the military wins, then it is the end for the NUG, they’ll just become a clandestine movement.
“We Europeans really don’t understand why Britain went this far,” he added.
A tweet by the new ambassador Pete Vowles announcing his appointment in July was followed by similar comments by Burmese citizens.
“The people of Myanmar may be wondering who the new British ambassador to Myanmar will present his credentials to, if it’s the National Unity Government or the Myanmar military,” a Twitter user posted in July.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office declined to comment on the issue when approached by The Independent.
Vowles took up his appointment in Myanmar this month, according to the Foreign Office. He was previously Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office director for Asia, Caribbean and Overseas Territories, and held earlier posts in Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India.
In April, while the UK was requesting credentials, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UK, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was locked out of the embassy by pro-junta staff after expressing support for the protest movement, and then substituted by a new ambassador. The Foreign Office acknowledged the receipt of a communication by the junta announcing the appointment of a chargé d’affaires at the helm of the Myanmar embassy to the UK.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office said: “The UK remains steadfast in its opposition to the coup and the brutal violence against innocent people.
“We will continue to pursue justice for the Myanmar people and work with our international partners to push for a return to democracy.”