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Interview

Myanmar's UN envoy calls for temporary halt to foreign investment

Saving lives must take priority over enriching the military, Kyaw Moe Tun says

Myanmar's ambassador the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, has defined the junta by denouncing it to the United Nations General Assembly.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The international community, including one of Myanmar's biggest investors, Japan, should immediately cut off foreign direct investment into the country until an elected government is restored, urged Myanmar's United Nations Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun.

The diplomat -- who a month ago defied the junta's orders and made a sweeping denunciation of the military takeover at the U.N. General Assembly -- sat down with Nikkei Asia on Thursday to discuss the crisis in his home country and shared his messages to various international actors, including the U.S., Japan, China and ASEAN countries.

"Time is really of the essence for the people of Myanmar," he said. "We need to save lives of innocent civilians, so we keep requesting, we keep appealing [to] the international community to take as strong as possible measures to stop" the violence and protect the people of Myanmar.

The crisis in Myanmar has continued to escalate after the country fell victim to a military coup on Feb. 1. The junta's recent killing of innocent civilians, including children, has prompted a new round of rebuke and sanctions from the international community.

Speaking to Nikkei, Kyaw Moe Tun pleaded with the international community to immediately provide protection to the people of Myanmar "from crimes against humanity committed by the military."

This includes giving humanitarian aid, establishing no-fly zones in the country, cutting off financial flows to the military regime, and suspending foreign direct investment -- requests he said he made in a March 29 letter to the U.N. secretary-general.

Addressing some international observers' concerns that broad economic sanctions might also hurt the welfare of the people of Myanmar, the diplomat pointed to the urgency and gravity of the situation on the ground.

"The spillover effect will be definitely there, so the request that we can make is to make it minimum," he said.

"But at the same time, look at the situation that we are facing: people being killed, people being murdered, people being arrested arbitrarily, and people being beaten," he said.

The comparison is between the economic impact and the need to save lives, he said. The impact on the economy can be addressed at a later stage.

Amid protests and the military leadership's bloody crackdown, Myanmar's economy is already in tatters.

The Myanmar envoy expressed thanks for the support from the international community, including the government of Japan, pointing to the two countries' long history of ties and close relationship. He said he was also struck and moved by the outpour of support by the people of Japan, many of whom took to the streets to protest the coup.

But at the same time, Kyaw Moe Tun also hopes to see tougher actions from Myanmar's old friend.

"Japan is one of the top investors in Myanmar, and so please review it, suspend the business link with Myanmar until democracy returns to the country," he said. "And then also the banking sector: please look at the financial flows into the military regime. Please get [them] off."

The diplomat also stressed the role of Washington's response to the crisis, applauding the sanctions it has imposed so far, including a recent move to suspend all U.S. trade engagement with Myanmar.

American trade flows with the Asian country are relatively limited to begin with. But Kyaw Moe Tun said Washington's response is important because "whatever action taken by the United States will be a solid example for other countries to follow suit."

As for China, the ambassador pointed out that there is a perception among the people of Myanmar that Beijing sides with the military regime.

"So what I see is that [now] is the best time for the China to show that they are with the people, not with the military," he said.

To achieve this, Beijing can condemn the military coup and the violence committed by the military, refuse to recognize the military regime, and stop dealing with the military regime militarily, economically and diplomatically, he said.

Regarding the role of ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, Kyaw Moe Tun said that "we appreciate the role of the ASEAN, but at the same time we have to be realistic [about] how much the ASEAN can help in this difficult situation."

But he hopes that the U.S. and China can have a joint effort with the support of ASEAN countries, despite deep tensions between the two great powers.

Asked whether he was satisfied with Security Council's statement, which stopped short of calling the military takeover a coup, the diplomat said he understands that such language is difficult to include in a press statement, which requires a consensus among members.

In an extraordinary speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Feb. 26, Kyaw Moe Tun called on other member states to "use any means necessary" to act against the military regime and protect the people of Myanmar, saying the "coup must fail."

He ended his remarks with a three-finger salute -- a "Hunger Games" gesture that has become a symbol of resistance in Myanmar. The military leadership had also prepared a statement for him to deliver -- one that he disregarded.

Thinking that he should use this opportunity to have the maximum impact on the crisis in Myanmar, the ambassador communicated to Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar, that he hoped her statement would be "as strong as possible."

On that day, Burgener urged countries not to "lend legitimacy or recognition" to the military regime for the first time since the Feb. 1 coup, saying the coup was a clear violation of the country's constitution.

Kyaw Moe Tun was told by the military regime to step down from his U.N. post but has since remained the permanent representative of Myanmar to the U.N.

"I'm appointed by the elected government, so that the only way I can be removed is by the elected government," he told Nikkei. He said he was not concerned about his safety, thanks to the support from the U.S. as a U.N. host country as well as the local Burmese community here.

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