UN Myanmar special envoy set to depart — What now?

June 8th, 2023  •  Author:   Deutsche Welle (DW)  •  5 minute read
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Despite Noeleen Heyzer’s connections with Myanmar’s military-installed government, her efforts to end the conflict in the country made little progress.

The United Nations (UN) Special Envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, is leaving her post next week following challenges with the Myanmar junta in the conflict-torn country.

Following the coup in February 2021, the military ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government and jailed leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi. Nationwide mass resistance unfolded, as civilian protests were met with a brutal military crackdown that has led to Myanmar descending into a civil war.

Heyzer was appointed six months after the coup in October 2021 in an effort to find diplomatic solutions to stop the conflict. But after 20 months in the position, she will depart when her contract ends on June 12, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Heyzer made little progress despite connections

Heyzer served as executive director of UNIFEM, which is part of UN Women, from 1994 to 2007. In 2005, Heyzer was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her struggle to improve the lives of women while promoting peace and justice.

She then became the UN’s undersecretary-general until 2014 and the first woman to serve as executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific until 2015. She was also the United Nations Secretary-General’s special adviser for Timor-Leste in 2013-2015, “to support peacebuilding and sustainable development,” the UN’s peacemaker website states.

But despite Heyzer’s connections with Myanmar’s military-installed government, officially called the State Administration Council, her efforts to end the violence made little progress.

Myanmar police stand guard after anti military coup protesters use fire extinguishers to stop visibility for them in Yangon, March 2021
Protests in Myanmar began shortly after the military seized power in February 2021Image: Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

Not able to build bridges

“Noleen Hayzer’s term as a special UN envoy to Myanmar ended without apparent achievement,” Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst from Myanmar, told DW. “She used to work with former Myanmar junta leaders on development and many people thought she would bring success working with the present generals.”

Heyzer first visited Myanmar in August 2022, and called on military general Min Aung Hlaing to end the violence and put the country back on a path to democracy. She also urged him to release political prisoners and allow imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi to return home.

“She is outspoken about what is happening in Myanmar, listening to many stakeholders, but she was not quite close to working with the State Administration Council. The country is so complicated, and the conflicting parties are not ready to engage in a dialogue,” Aung Thu Nyein added.

In an address to the UN General Assembly in March, Heyzer said both the military-installed government and opposition groups refusing military rule were intent on winning by force and that there were no prospects of negotiations or serious dialogue.

Attacks and airstrikes

People defense forces and ethnic armed organizations have been fighting back against the Myanmar military since they seized control in February 2021. But the junta’s bigger military force and arsenal of weapons gives them the upper hand, and evidence of that has been witnessed in recent months with a rise in devastating airstrikes across Myanmar.

Myanmar: A family changed forever by the military coup

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that UN chief Antonio Guterres is thankful to Heyzer for her “tireless efforts” to bring peace to Myanmar and that a new appointment will be made.

But Heyzer’s role and strategy attracted criticism from opposition and rights groups.

The National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s shadow government that claims to be the country’s legitimate administration, was irked by Heyzer’s August visit, which came days after Suu Kyi was again sentenced to prison time by a military court, receiving a six-year sentence for corruption.

Hundreds of civil society groups and organizations subsequently called for Heyzer to leave her post following her publicized meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing. A joint statement last year denounced the role of the UN special envoy, and referred to Min Aung Hlaing as a war criminal, adding that these types of visits and dialogues were emboldening the military.

“The ineffective mandate of the UN special envoy on Myanmar has let the military junta’s international crimes go unabated and unpunished,” Khin Ohmar, founder of the Myanmar rights group Progressive Voice, told DW. “We have long called for the amendment of the UN special envoy mandate and put forth concrete recommendations to the special envoy but our recommendations were dismissed.”

Ohmar said a new policy to ending the military crackdown must be adopted by the UN.

“The [UN General Assembly] must end the mandate of [United National special envoy] at the upcoming session in September 2023 to prevent further harm being inflicted on the country already deep in devastation,” she added.

“We are looking to the secretary-general’s personal commitment to end the military junta’s nationwide violence and hold them accountable. The UN must pivot to a new policy that prioritizes shattering the Myanmar military, which is the source of violence and root cause of the atrocities.”

Heyzer’s mission impossible

But David Scott Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst, penned an op-ed in the Asia Times, saying Heyzer faced an “insurmountable” challenge, and that the lack of progress in Myanmar should be blamed on the UN and the Myanmar military government.

Mathieson added that Heyzer at least called for an inclusive humanitarian forum to be developed with the NUG and ethnic armed organizations such as the Karen and Karenni groups in Myanmar.

Tin Htar Swe, a Myanmar analyst based in the United Kingdom, echoed these sentiments.

“She listened to everybody, and she had to perform this role in this age where social media is so active. She was more exposed than her predecessors. She was unlucky because she was dealing with very difficult, brutal leaders of the military regime who would do anything to stay in power,” she said.

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