The UN special envoy to Myanmar has been widely rebuked for suggesting that pro-democracy activists should negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the country’s military, which is accused of atrocities including genocide.
Almost 250 civil society organisations published a statement condemning the comments, warning they risked emboldening the military to commit “grave crimes with total impunity”.
“These statements could set a dangerous precedent, that those who take control through brutal means – massacring, killing, raping, arresting, torturing, burning villages and people, targeting civilians using airstrikes and shelling – be welcomed to share power,” it said.
The statement was signed by 247 local and national civil society groups including Progressive Voice, Women’s League of Burma and Union of Karenni State Youth.
Noeleen Heyzer, the UN’s special envoy for Myanmar, provoked controversy during an interview with Channel News Asia when discussing ways to address the country’s crisis. Asked about the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement – an idea firmly opposed by the Myanmar people – Heyzer responded: “The point is, we have to start a process. And you can’t immediately come in with the ultimate solution of what you want. The military is in control at this particular time and something has got to be worked out. It could be a process,” she said.
Heyzer added: “I know that many people, especially the young, are willing to die fighting for a total political transformation. Any political transformation requires a process and it is not going to happen overnight. And therefore I want them to have something to live for, not to die for. They need to negotiate what this power sharing could look like over a long term. And they have to be at the table.”
The comments prompted a furious response from activists, who have been subjected to relentless violence by the military, which seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi a year ago. Many young people have taken up arms and joined local defence forces to fight for democracy.
The office of the special envoy of the secretary general on Myanmar has since issued a statement to local media, claiming that Heyzer’s comments were misinterpreted. The special envoy had “never proposed power sharing as an option”, it said.
The statement added: “The special envoy has emphasised in no uncertain terms that any peace process has to be led by the people of Myanmar.”
Naw Hser Hser, of the Women’s League of Burma, a signatory of the joint statement, said the UN was growing distant from the calls of the people of Myanmar.
“Ultimately, the people of Myanmar are realising that it is they themselves that will be the ones to succeed in this revolution,” she said.
“Despite vehement calls from the people of Myanmar, the UN has yet to take action to stop the terrorist military’s grave crimes. One year has passed [since the coup] and the UN security council has issued only statements and even failed to hold an open meeting or issue a concrete resolution,” Naw Hser Hser added.
The extreme violence used by the military to try to suppress opposition was a sign of its lack of control, she said.
“In rural areas, they are losing ground, as local people’s defence forces and ethnic organisations control swathes of territory. New administrative structures, comprising the people, are being established at local levels, governing where the military cannot. They are far from being in control,” said Naw Hser Hser.
Even before the coup, the military was guaranteed huge powers under the 2008 constitution, which granted it a quarter of all seats in parliament and control of key ministries, including home affairs and defence. Nonetheless, the military seized power on 1 February 2021, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) of voter fraud – an allegation that has been dismissed by observers.
Zoya Phan, coordinator of the European Karen Network, said Heyzer’s comments had been made on the same day the military launched more airstrikes against civilians in south-eastern Karen state, also known as Kayin state.
“The Burmese military was in a power sharing with the NLD-led government before the coup. However, the attacks against ethnic people didn’t stop,” said Zoya Phan, who is also campaigns manager for Burma Campaign UK.
“With the Burmese military, our country will have no positive future,” she added.