‘I stand by our decision’: UK envoy forced out of Myanmar

As he leaves his post, head of the British embassy Mr Pete Vowles spoke to Frontier about the UK’s support for the democracy movement, its hope for a “political solution” to the crisis and why the military miscalculated.

The United Kingdom has expressed support for the National Unity Government, which has declared a “defensive war” against the military but seemingly remains opposed to armed revolution. How do you reconcile these conflicting positions?

We’ve always been clear that we support all those standing for democracy in Myanmar, and that position is not going to change. We’re also clear that the NUG will have an important role to play as part of any resolution to the crisis. I understand people feel the need to fight back against the military, to protect themselves and their country, and I think the whole world has seen the courage and determination of the Myanmar people in standing up for their rights and freedoms. I’m not going to criticise anyone for doing that, but Myanmar has already suffered from 70 years of armed conflict, and ultimately the solution will need to be a political one, not a military one. 

What would it take for the UK to recognise the NUG as the government of Myanmar? Is there any scenario in which the UK would consider offering weapons or defence funding to the NUG or People’s Defence Forces?

The UK’s position on this has to be a pragmatic one. It’s a long established policy around the world that the UK recognises States, not Governments. That means we’re not saying we think the [State Administration Council] is the legitimate government of Myanmar, but the reality is that we think we need an embassy in Myanmar so we can continue providing humanitarian support to the millions of people who are now in urgent need and support reformers of the future. To do this, we have to be willing to have some limited interaction with the de facto authorities. It doesn’t mean our Ministers can’t also talk to the NUG and others in the pro-democracy movement – we certainly won’t allow the regime to dictate who the UK government can and can’t talk to, and we will continue supporting the democratic opposition to build a common vision for the future of Myanmar. Since the coup, we’ve also provided over 28 million dollars of life-saving assistance, reaching over 600,000 people who have lost their homes and livelihoods. None of that money is going to the junta, so as long as we can keep directly supporting the Myanmar people in that way, we think maintaining our presence here is the right thing to do.

On the question of providing weapons to the NUG or PDFs, no it’s not something that we’re considering. I know it’s not what many people want to hear, but I don’t think there’s any realistic scenario in which providing weapons would lead to a positive outcome for the Myanmar people. Increasing the flow of weapons into Myanmar will only prolong the cycle of violence and lead to more people being killed. That’s why we’re focused on reducing the military’s access to weapons, which they continue to use against civilians. We have sanctioned Myanmar and Russian arms dealers supplying the military and have long been a supporter of an international arms embargo on Myanmar. We will continue our efforts to pressure countries who sell arms to the military, not least Russia, where arms sales to the Myanmar junta are also helping to fund Putin’s war machine. 

How does the UK view the spiraling cycle of violence, including assassinations from both sides? What might be the long-term consequences of this? What do you envision as a long-term solution to the current crisis?

It’s devastating to see the impact of the military’s coup on the people of Myanmar and what it means for the future of the country. Whatever happens next, it’s clear that the military’s actions are going to have long term consequences, and the deep divisions they have created are going to take a long time to heal. Any violence targeting civilians by anyone should be a clear red line, whatever people’s beliefs or affiliations, and the number of civilians killed since the coup shows what a tragedy this has been for everyone in Myanmar. 

Over time, it’s possible for societies to heal such deep divisions and to agree on a common vision for the future. But none of that can happen until the military stops the violence, until it releases political prisoners, and until it accepts the Myanmar people’s rightful demands for freedom and democracy.

I know many people are frustrated that the international community hasn’t been able to do more to combat the military and to help reverse the coup. I share many of those frustrations myself, but I do think we should recognise the stand that ASEAN as an organization has taken to put pressure on the military. For example the fact that it continues to exclude Min Aung Hlaing and Wunna Maung Lwin from ASEAN Foreign Ministers and Leaders meetings is an important symbol of ASEAN’s unity in standing against the coup. We continue to push for concrete progress on the 5 Point Consensus, but ASEAN deserves recognition for taking a stand and for its willingness to play a real role in trying to resolve the crisis. 

There are multiple conflicts and many deep-rooted grievances to overcome. The process towards a long-term solution is not going to be a straightforward one, but it’s something the UK will remain committed to. We are clear that justice for victims will need to be a central part of the process. Holding to account those responsible for human rights violations and abuses is vital to end the culture of impunity in Myanmar and achieve lasting peace. That’s why the UK will continue to support the [Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar] and organisations such as Myanmar Witness who are gathering evidence that can be used in future prosecutions.

We’ll also continue to support the NUG, the [National Unity Consultative Council] and the pro-democracy movement as it builds a common vision for the future. It’s important that the principles of dialogue and inclusion remain a part of this. In the long term, only a genuinely inclusive political solution will address what is a fundamentally political crisis in Myanmar. 

Pro-democracy activists protest outside the Myanmar embassy in 2021, after the ambassador was ousted by pro-military diplomats. (AFP)

Shortly after the coup, it was reported that the UK saw the coup as irreversible. Has the level of resistance changed this calculation? 

We felt it was unlikely the military would hand back power immediately, but ultimately they will have to face up to the reality that the coup has not been a success and they will have to find some way of stepping back and agreeing a political solution which offers a genuine opportunity for democracy and responds to the aspirations of the Myanmar people for the future of their country. Putting Myanmar back on the path to genuine democracy is the only viable solution to this crisis and it’s an objective that the UK has supported from the start, and will continue to support.

Why do you think the military misjudged the public response?

Like others I can only speculate as to what led to such a clear miscalculation. They may well have underestimated the strength of the Myanmar people’s desire for democracy. I certainly don’t think the military really believe their claims of irregularities in the 2020 elections – the overall result was clear for everyone to see. It’s likely Min Aung Hlaing and the military were shocked by the result though, and felt threatened by a powerful [National League for Democracy] and possible constitutional change. Clearly the military decided to put their own self-interests before those of the Myanmar people and the country.

They have certainly misjudged their own ability to resolve this; they are unable to consolidate power and have proven themselves inept at managing the economy and basic state functions. And it appears that they are more unpopular than ever. 

How do you feel to be forced to cut short your time in Myanmar on these terms?

Personally, I am devastated to leave Myanmar. I came here for three years (hoping to stay for four) and it felt like I was just starting to understand things. So, I am heartbroken. I’m also sorry for all those people who invested time explaining things and helping me understand. Of course my situation is nothing compared to all those Myanmar citizens who’ve had to flee their homes or who are in exile or in hiding. However difficult it has been, I stand by our decision to avoid presenting credentials to the Commander-in-Chief and to avoid legitimising the regime. 

In hindsight, is there anything you think the international community could have done differently, either before the coup or shortly after, to better restrain the military?

I think the international community was doing everything it could to avoid a coup happening. The UK and others knew a coup was a possibility; we were actively working to ensure international support for the democratically elected government and to urge the military to refrain from seizing power. The military chose to ignore the wishes of its own people, so in some ways it is not surprising that it also ignored the wishes of the international community. But we will continue doing everything we can, through speaking out, through working with international partners, through our refusal to present credentials, and through targeted sanctions, to impose a cost on the military for their actions. 

Does the UK believe the pro-democracy movement is genuine in its commitment to reform on Rohingya issues? Is there anything more that could be done to demonstrate its commitment?

There have been some very positive signs from the pro-democracy movement about its willingness to be more inclusive of all minorities, including the Rohingya. The NUG’s commitment to repealing the 1982 citizenship laws is an important step. It’s crucial that platforms like the NUCC are fully inclusive, and this is something the UK will continue to follow very closely. 

What is the legal status of the NLD appointed ambassador to the UK and the Civil Disobedience Movement staff who are in the country? Is the UK going to ensure their protection in the future?

I’m not going to comment on security arrangements or on the personal legal status of individuals in the UK. What I can say is that Kyaw Zwar Minn took a brave stand in speaking out against the coup and we have provided him and his family with support to start a new life in the UK. 

Do you have any final parting words for the people of Myanmar?

Firstly, I want to thank people for the welcome, advice, support (and challenge) I – and my colleagues at the British Embassy – have received from people across the country.  We really value it.

Secondly, I should be honest that as a diplomat living in Yangon it is hard to fully understand what life is like for ordinary people. I’ve never had to worry about the military knocking on my door or arbitrarily arresting me or my family. I’ve not had to make excruciating decisions about whether to get vaccinated from a ‘state’ institution or whether to send my children to school or not. I want to praise people not only for their resilience but also their kindness in the face of extreme adversity. And I want to assure people across the country of the UK’s continued commitment to do everything we can to support you in your quest for peace, freedom and justice.

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