On 17 August, the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar (Special Envoy), Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, met with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and junta-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin, despite clear warnings from civil society not to lend legitimacy to the junta. While the Special Envoy attended these meetings, the people of Myanmar further witnessed the military junta ramping up brutal violence aimed at civilians, including the massacring of civilians in Sagaing Region and torching villages to ash in Magwe Region.
This is not the first blunder from the Special Envoy who suggested in an interview with Channel News Asia on the first anniversary of the coup attempt, the need to negotiate a power-sharing settlement with the junta. In addition, during the interview, she erroneously stated that “the military is in control” of Myanmar. The Special Envoy later walked back the former comments, and agreed to meet with Myanmar civil society members in February and April, in which she received a set of concrete recommendations from the civil society organizations. Among these recommendations, Myanmar civil society expressed clear views against the Special Envoy meeting with the junta under conditions and in a manner that would lend the junta legitimacy. Yet, these recommendations were ignored. The Special Envoy allowed herself and her mandate to be used by the junta to bolster their legitimacy, something they have desperately been trying to attain for the past nearly 19 months.
The Special Envoy’s mandate, while vague and ineffective since the outset of its origin, is nevertheless meant to assist in the promotion and protection of human rights. Predictably, the junta welcomed the Special Envoy with carefully orchestrated pageantry, photo opportunities and warm welcomes and smiles – all to be used as fodder for their propaganda, including being plastered over the junta’s media mouthpiece and claimed that the Special Envoy met with the “current government” of Myanmar. The junta released a so-called “description of discussion” between the Special Envoy and Min Aung Hlaing, and claimed among other things, that the Special Envoy did not use the words Rohingya and referred to Min Aung Hlaing as ‘kind-hearted’. It should have been painfully clear to the Special Envoy from the outset, given past actions of the junta, that there is no appeasing this junta in negotiating – they simply will not comply.
This is yet another example of the UN actor utterly failing to stand with the people of Myanmar, instead choosing to lend legitimacy to an illegal junta – one that is continuing to commit mass atrocities. While the Special Envoy met with the junta leadership, protesters occurred in Yangon and Sagaing Region, with one group of protesters holding up corrugated iron placards reading “How many dead bodies UN need to take action? [sic]”
In the same week the Special Envoy visited Myanmar and day after she called for an end to violence and aerial bombing, the junta burned down 600 homes and stored rice in Yesagyo Township, Magwe Region, forcing 4,000 villagers to flee, leaving sick and elderly behind. At least three people were killed by junta troops during these raids, including two elderly people. This followed an incident in Shwebo Township, Sagaing Region, where junta troops tortured and murdered seven civilians, including 14 and 15 year old brothers, traveling in search of gold mining work. A week prior to the Special Envoy’s visit, the burned remains of 18 bodies, including a 10 year old girl, were found viciously massacred in Yinmabin Township, Sagaing Region – which had also suffered heavy air strikes from Mi-35 fighter jets and ground troop attacks.
A tidal wave of criticism has followed the visit of the Special Envoy, including from Myanmar’s National Unity Government and civil society. On Wednesday, 864 civil society organizations called for the UN General Assembly to withdraw the mandate of the Special Envoy, as this post has never served a useful purpose, and even more so in the current crisis context and is actively working against the will of the people of Myanmar. The groups stressed the need for the Secretary-General to address the Myanmar crisis directly.
The UN must take decisive measures to end the horrific acts of the junta, and as the Rohingya genocide commemoration has recently passed, we are reminded of the lack of progress towards justice and accountability for Rohingya and other ethnic communities, who have suffered for decades at the hands of this military. The UN Secretary General must take the lead and a personal role in responding to the crisis in Myanmar, showing a serious commitment to resolving the devastating human rights and humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold.
The only way forward for Myanmar is through a federal democracy, free from this brutal military. Thus, the UN as a whole must recognize and work with the National Unity Government, ethnic revolutionary organizations, civil society organizations and other actors to establish a genuine federal democracy in Myanmar; terminate the Special Envoy’s mandate; and push UN Member States to put a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions into effect to end this junta’s reign. These calls have been made loud and clear by Myanmar civil society and their regional and international solidarity partners since 1 February 2021; it is well and truly time for Mr. Guterres to listen to and respond with concrete actions. It is also time that Dr. Noeleen Heyzer proves her commitment to the people of Myanmar by taking one concrete action – recommending the UN to terminate this Special Envoy post in the upcoming 77th session of the UN General Assembly.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Australian Institute of International Affairs
By Blood Money Campaign, Burma Academy, General Strike Committee of Nationalities, Minority Affair Institute, Nway Oo Guru Lay Myar (Little Gurus), Sitt Nyein Pann Foundation and Spring Revolution Myanmar Muslim Network
By Burma Campaign UK
By Justice For Myanmar
By Karenni National Progressive Party
By Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs
By National Unity Government of Myanmar
By Progressive Voice, Karen Human Rights Group, Burma Human Rights Network and Myanmar Action Group Denmark
By Secretary-General, United Nations
By Solidarity For Myanmar People
By Special Advisory Council for Myanmar
By UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar
By United Nations Myanmar
By United Nations Secretary-General
By National Unity Government (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation)
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”