Since the 1 February 2021 coup which ousted several elected leaders in Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of Myanmar’s diplomats in post abroad have broken ranks with the military, and have been resisting efforts by the ruling junta to replace them. Competing claims to represent the country can currently be observed, for instance, at the United Nations in New York and at the London embassy.
With respect to the UN, the junta announced in February 2021 that the previously appointed ambassador had been dismissed and that he was replaced by his deputy. The ambassador, however, wrote to the President of the UN General Assembly to assert that he remained Myanmar’s sole representative, arguing that the military had no authority to fire him as they perpetrated an unlawful coup against the democratic government of Myanmar.
Despite his termination having been notified to the UN Secretariat, the ambassador was, as at 20 May 2021, still mentioned in the UN protocol list as the country’s permanent representative to the UN. Unless the situation changes, the rival claims are likely to be addressed by the Credentials Committee of the UN General Assembly – probably at the next session in fall 2021. The Credentials Committee, composed of nine Member States, is in charge of verifying the credentials of delegates of the Member States and making recommendations in this respect to the General Assembly.
Cases of dual governments and competing delegations to the UN typically raise difficult issues, in particular the question of the criteria that should be taken into account in order to determine the (most) representative authorities (effective territorial control? democratic legitimacy? international recognition?…).
Turning to Myanmar’s diplomatic mission in London, the previously appointed ambassador was, in a spectacular move, locked out of the embassy premises in April 2021: it was reported that his deputy and the military attaché had taken over. The evicted ambassador called on the UK authorities not to recognize them as Myanmar’s legitimate diplomatic envoys. The Foreign Office was notified of the termination of his functions by the junta, and – while offering him temporary shelter in the UK – is reported to have stated that it “must accept the decision taken by the Myanmar regime”. Nevertheless, on the London Diplomatic List updated 12 May 2021, the ousted diplomat was still indicated as Myanmar’s ambassador.
As a rule, the functions of a diplomatic agent come to an end, indeed, when the receiving State receives notification to that effect by the sending State (Article 43(a) of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations). However, the case at hand is more complex as it raises the question whether the UK government should accept such notifications from authorities responsible for a coup it has condemned.
The issue might be soon, in whole or in part, at the centre of a litigation before the UK courts. It was reported early May 2021 that the dismissed ambassador is still occupying the official ambassadorial residence in London, but that his former deputy – now apparently running the embassy – was attempting to compel him to leave the residence. An NGO and solicitors supporting the ambassador have announced that they will resist any possession or other legal proceedings to seek to secure the property or access to it: they consider that the former deputy has no authority to represent Myanmar.