Special Envoy to Restive Myanmar Draws Mixed Reception

August 11th, 2021  •  Author:   Voice of America (VOA)  •  6 minute read
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By Zsombor Peter
August 11, 2021

BANGKOK – Myanmar’s shadow government says it welcomes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ appointment of a special envoy to help resolve the country’s post-coup crisis even as some rights groups reject the choice and regional lawmakers raise concerns.

ASEAN, a 10-nation bloc that includes Myanmar, or Burma, named Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Yusof to the envoy role last week.  The appointment comes six months after Myanmar’s military toppled the country’s democratically elected government, touching off mass protests the junta has met with a bloody crackdown and hobbling efforts to beat back a raging COVD-19 outbreak.

Ousted lawmakers, ethnic minority groups and leaders of a grassroots civil disobedience movement have joined forces under the banner of a National Unity Government to try to wrest control from the junta. The NUG’s spokesman and minister of international cooperation, Sasa, who goes by one name, welcomed Erywan’s appointment.

“I would definitely like to see his success as much as possible, and we are here and stand by ready to engage with our special envoy,” he told VOA. “At the end of the day he is in the best position [to help].”

All parties concerned 

Sasa said he has spoken with Erywan since the coup and established an open channel of communication with the diplomat from Brunei, which has been leading ASEAN’s efforts to deal with the crisis as this year’s chair of the bloc.

The ad hoc role of ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar is part of a five-point plan the bloc’s leaders agreed to on April 24 at an emergency meeting to address the post-coup crisis in the country. The plan tasks the envoy with visiting Myanmar to meet with “all parties concerned” and mediating talks between them.

The military regime running the country declared itself a caretaker government on August 1 and named senior general Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, prime minister. It had previously declared the NUG a terrorist organization.

Sasa said Erywan’s mission would bear fruit only if the junta lets him engage “freely and openly and honestly” with all groups, including the NUG, and if he draws up and sticks to a time-bound action plan that includes the release of political prisoners.

“There needs to be a timetable for everything that needs to be done. The people of Myanmar are dying, and if there is no timetable then it’s not going to work,” he said.

Major powers have delegated responsibility for finding a diplomatic solution to Myanmar’s crisis to ASEAN. Yet the bloc has come under fire for the slowness of putting its five-point plan into action — it took leaders more than three months to name an envoy amid reports of infighting over who to name.

Speaking to reporters in Brunei over the weekend, Erywan said he should be given full access to all groups when he visits Myanmar but gave no indication of when that would be. In a televised address days earlier, Min Aung Hlaing said he was ready to work with ASEAN’s envoy.

A crisis of faith 

Rights groups are wary at best of the envoy’s prospects of helping move Myanmar back onto a democratic path.

In a joint statement on Friday, local civil society groups flatly rejected Erywan’s appointment because ASEAN gave the NUG no say in the selection process. The statement did not name the groups, fearing for their safety, but claimed support from more than 400 organizations.

In a statement of its own immediately after Erywan was named, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a caucus of past and present lawmakers from across the region, said it had “legitimate concerns” about him.

The group criticized Erywan for meeting only with junta leaders at the head of a diplomatic mission to Myanmar in June, before he was appointed special envoy, and “pushing their narrative” of holding new elections rather than recognizing the results of a 2020 poll the generals’ proxy party decisively lost.

Kyaw Win, executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, said many in Myanmar have little faith in ASEAN’s special envoy because they have little if any faith in ASEAN itself.

“What the people of Burma are seeing is a very doubtful view of ASEAN because for the past 30 years ASEAN has a very cosy relationship with the military. … This is the perception in people’s minds in Burma,” he told VOA.

The military filled Myanmar’s ASEAN seat from 1997, when the country formally acceded to the bloc, until 2011 when the generals began ceding some control to a quasi-civilian government. The junta has been allowed to fill the seat again since February’s coup. Its opponents say that demonstrates the bloc’s bias for the junta and confers the regime a degree of international legitimacy it has no right to.

“There is no neutrality here, so how can we … trust that he [Erywan] could deliver what the people of Burma [are] fighting for?” Kyaw Win said. “I don’t think there is lots of hope.”

Step by step 

Any special envoy tapped by ASEAN will be bound by the bloc’s tacit acceptance that the junta is now running Myanmar, said Min Zaw Oo of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, a local think tank.

“So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s him [Erywan] or another envoy in place. As long as they are working within the ASEAN charter and ASEAN framework, there will always be the limitation,” he said.

Working within those constraints, the envoy will be hard pressed to persuade the junta to sit down with the NUG any time soon, the analyst added. But he said there was still hope Erywan could get talks going between the military and other groups, namely the National League for Democracy, at least those members who have not jointed the NUG.

The NLD party came to power after a landslide election win in 2015 and easily secured a second term in last year’s polls. Its top leaders were rounded up the morning of the coup and have been put on trial for sedition and other charges widely seen as trumped up, including the toppled government’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The envoy’s efforts may jumpstart the dialogue among the stakeholders, so the military, some of the civil societies, political parties, the NLD, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders. That could be partly successful. That means there could be a dialogue, or at least the envoy could talk to all the stakeholders to hear them out for the next step to move forward,” said Min Zaw Oo.

Unless the envoy can eventually pull the NUG into the process, though, he doubts ASEAN and its special envoy can ultimately bring Myanmar out of its crisis.

“More or less we could not expect much; there will not be a total cure to the situation,” he said. “The potential for possible dialogue, yes, but not likely a solution.”

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