United Nations

Southeast Asia states sidestep Myanmar, focus on pandemic and climate change at UNGA

Mara Cepeda
Southeast Asia states sidestep Myanmar, focus on pandemic and climate change at UNGA

Vaccine equity, climate change, the crisis in Myanmar, and the South China Sea dispute are among the key issues raised by Southeast Asian countries during the 76th United Nations General Assembly

Spencer Platt/Pool/Reuters/Shutterstock/NTF-WPS

The Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore also call for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea

Southeast Asian countries faced the rest of the world in the United Nations and appealed for equitable access to life-saving coronavirus vaccines and aid in combatting climate change. 

But the region continues to be split over what the UN Human Rights Council has described as a “human rights catastrophe” in Myanmar, now gripped by turmoil and violence months since the military takeover that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government. 

All 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations called for greater global solidarity in addressing the gaps in pandemic response and climate financing during the high-level debates of the 76th UN General Assembly held from September 21 to September 27. 

But only four countries directly raised the crisis in Myanmar in their speeches – Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, with the latter having the loudest rallying cry for its embattled Southeast Asian neighbor. 

This is not surprising, as Myanmar did not have a speaker of its own during the UN General Debate

Myanmar’s current UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, earlier appointed by the civilian government, was initially scheduled to speak on the last day of the debates. 

He even asked to renew his UN accreditation despite being the target of a plot to kill or injure him over his opposition to the junta.

But Kyaw Moe Tun later withdrew his name as the UN is yet to settle the competing claims over Myanmar’s seat in the inter-governmental organization. 

He gets to retain his seat at the UN for now through an understanding between China, Russia, and the United States, 3 of the members of the Credentials Committee that decide on who gets to represent countries in the UN.

Moscow and Beijing agreed not to object to Kyaw Moe Tun remaining in the UN as long as he does not speak during the UNGA. 

Must Read

LIVE UPDATES: United Nations General Assembly 2021

LIVE UPDATES: United Nations General Assembly 2021
‘Grave concern’ for Myanmar

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the situation in Myanmar “remains a grave concern,” saying Malaysia is particularly worried over the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. 

“Malaysia cannot emphasize enough the importance of respecting the will and interests of the people of Myanmar. There is a need for a peaceful solution to be found, especially with a multitude of challenges besetting the country,” said Yaakob.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said already some of the junta’s violations in Myanmar may amount to war crimes and even crimes against humanity, arguing military authorities are showing no signs of any effort to address the abuses. 

Other ASEAN member-states like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand also said the political crisis in Myanmar should be part of the UN’s common agenda. 

The three countries, however, merely said they are exerting vigorous efforts to fulfill the five-point consensus that ASEAN member-states earlier forged to help end the Myanmar crisis.

These include ending violence, a constructive dialogue among all parties, a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate the dialogue, acceptance of aid, and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar. There was no mention of releasing political prisoners in the statement.

“The great hope of the global community must be met with concrete steps and tangible results. These responsibilities fall upon our shoulders. The global community awaits. It is our duty to provide hope for the world’s future,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

In June, the United Nations General Assembly also called for a stop to the flow of arms to Myanmar and appealed for release of political detainees.

‘Man-made drought’ of vaccines

Presidents, prime ministers, and foreign secretaries from ASEAN states reiterated their urgent need to secure more COVID-19 vaccines, as the region grapples with the recent surge in infections and deaths caused by the more infectious Delta variant. 

Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking Philippine president, lambasted rich countries for hoarding COVID-19 vaccines at the expense of poorer nations like his own. 

“There is a man-made drought of vaccines ravaging poor countries… This is shocking beyond belief and must be condemned for what it is – a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally nor morally,” Duterte said. 

Other countries also called for better vaccine access, but had a more tempered approach.

Brunei second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yuso, said there is an urgency for UN member-states to “work together” with pharmaceutical companies to ensure the COVAX facility is able to fulfill its commitments to deliver “equitable, accessible and affordable vaccines for all.”

Widodo acknowledged politicization and discrimination are among the issues hampering vaccination programs across the world. 

He pushed for a standardized global health protocol in cross-border activities as well as “quick” and “fair” mobilization of health resources like vaccines, financing, medicines, medical equipment, and health workers. 

Must Read

Southeast Asia needs vaccine access to curb record deaths – Red Cross

Southeast Asia needs vaccine access to curb record deaths – Red Cross

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob likewise appealed for a more effective health diplomacy, reminding world leaders  to regard public health “as a global public good rather than the exclusive domain of individual nations.” 

Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh also asked countries with advanced medical sciences as well as scientists worldwide to make “concerted efforts” in combatting COVID-19, especially in vaccine research and development.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha then pushed for universal health coverage for all countries as well as the creation of a new Pandemic Treaty, one that “focuses equal and borderless access” to public health services. 

Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan promised it would help developing states bridge the digital divide cause by the COVID-19 crisis, noting some 3.8 billion people across the world remain digitally disconnected. 

“Digital transformation is not just about new technologies and new hardware. Fundamentally, it is about improving lives and empowering people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. It is about strengthening the resilience of our societies and economies,” he said. 

‘Warning bell’ vs climate change

The devastating impacts of climate change was a hot topic for Southeast Asian countries in the UN General Assembly. 

Most striking was Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s speech, as he rang the “warning bell of shocking destruction” amid inefficiencies in governance now challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of a warmer planet.  

“The pandemic sounds a warning bell of the shocking destruction that may be caused by non-traditional security challenges such as diseases or climate change, if they are not addressed at timely and decisively. The pandemic has also exposed the shortcomings of the global governance system and the increasing inequality among nations,” said Phuc. 

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said climate change is an “impending challenge” that requires an urgent and concrete global response at all levels.”

He backed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call to scale up support for regional adaptation and mitigation efforts to precent the planet’s temperature from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Must Read

UN sounds clarion call over ‘irreversible’ climate impacts by humans

UN sounds clarion call over ‘irreversible’ climate impacts by humans

Other ASEAN countries also renewed their commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But they hoped developed nations, which are some of the biggest polluters in the world, would do more to reduce their carbon footprint, too.

“We therefore appeal for urgent climate action, especially from those that can truly tip the balance. Developed countries must fulfill their longstanding commitment to climate financing, technology transfer, and capacity-building in the developing world. This a moral obligation that cannot be avoided,” Philippine President Duterte said. 

Developed nations in the UN have an overdue pledge to raise $100 billion each year by 2020 to provide climate finance to poor countries, many of whom are grappling with rising seas, storms, and droughts made worse by climate change.

UN Secretary-General Guterres said has seen “encouraging” declarations from rich countries to finally fulfill this pledge and hoped this would eventually lead countries to “make serious progress” in the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland in November. 

Peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes

Three Southeast Asian countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore – also raised the longstanding maritime dispute in the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam are among the claimant states in the South China Sea.

In 2016, an arbitral tribunal in the Hague already struck down Beijing’s expansive claim over the South China Sea after the Philippines challenged China’s 9-dash line claim over the contested waters. 

Philippine President Duterte raised the Philippines’ legal victory against China for the second time before the UN, describing the arbitral victory as a “win-win solution for all.”

“The Award must be seen for what it is – a benefit across the board to all who subscribe to the majesty of the law. No amount of willful disregard by any country, however big and powerful, can diminish the Arbitral Award’s importance,” Duterte said. 

But this is a stark contrast to what Duterte has repeatedly been saying back in his home country, where he has belittled the Philippines’ historic tribunal victory in favor of getting loans and grants from his “friend” Beijing. 

The Philippine President has aligned himself more with China and Russia than with Western democracies most associated with the UN.

Must Read

Duterte and the West Philippine Sea: A strategy of failed compromises

Duterte and the West Philippine Sea: A strategy of failed compromises

Vietnam’s Phuc, meanwhile, reiterated the ASEAN’s position that there should be peace and stability in the South China Sea. 

He urged all countries concerned to uphold the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and work towards finally completing a code of conduct for all South China Sea claimants.

“We believe that all parties should refrain from unilateral actions that may further complicate the situation, resolve disputes and differences through peaceful means in line with the UN Charter and international law, particularly UNCLOS 1982,” said Phuc. 

While Singapore is not among the claimants in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Balakrishnan still expressed support for the UNCLOS as the tiny island state is heavily dependent on maritime trade. 

“UNCLOS is the foundation for rules-based governance of the oceans in all its aspects… The 40th anniversary of the adoption of UNCLOS next year is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to UNCLOS as the primary legal instrument for oceans governance, and do more to ensure its effective implementation,” he said. – Rappler.com

Rappler multimedia journalist Mara Cepeda is a 2021 fellow of the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship. She will be virtually covering the 76th United Nations General Assembly, foreign policy, and diplomacy during the program.

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.