New UN Myanmar envoy prompts hope for breakthrough

Noeleen Heyzer will replace Christine Schraner Burgener, who was barred entry by junta.
New UN Myanmar envoy prompts hope for breakthrough Noeleen Heyzer in an undated photo.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Noeleen Heyzer as the new Special Envoy to Myanmar, and observers expressed optimism Wednesday that the Southeast Asian native’s fresh perspective could lead to a breakthrough in the country’s nine-month political crisis.

Heyzer, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and a Singaporean, familiarized herself with Myanmar while chairing the U.N.’s Southeast Asia Regional Commission in the early 2000s. The 73-year-old former Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on Peacebuilding and Sustainable Development in Timor had visited Myanmar several times prior to 2010 to assist people affected by Cyclone Nargis.

She will replace outgoing Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, who had held talks with leaders—including junta chief Min Aung Hlaing—on the sidelines of an emergency summit convened in Jakarta by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in April to address the situation in Myanmar amid crackdowns that followed the military’s Feb. 1 coup. A five-point consensus to end violence was agreed upon at that meeting which included giving a special envoy to Myanmar access to all political parties, but Schraner Burgener was ultimately barred from entering the country and will step down within the week.

The U.N. created the special envoy position in 2018 to address the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who were the target of a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state a year earlier, causing about 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

Moe Thuzar, a Southeast Asia expert, said Heyzer—whose appointment was announced on Monday—is knowledgeable about the situation in Myanmar and the region in general, and believes she will be able to work with ASEAN to help resolve the political crisis that has unfolded in the nearly nine months since the military coup.

“Now, although the situation is different from 2008, negotiations between ASEAN and the United Nations should be ongoing and they should continue to have coordination with goodwill and in the interests of Myanmar,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“This is not a path that ASEAN is taking alone, nor a path paved by the United Nations alone. We will have to work in tandem with the international community.”

Ye Tun, a former political analyst and lawmaker, said the appointment of a special envoy from Singapore—an ASEAN member—underscores the U.N.’s special focus on helping Myanmar transition from a military coup to a functioning democracy.

“A citizen from Singapore, an ASEAN member, will be able to focus more on our country. She might come up with more ideas,” he said.

“Our country has already been sanctioned by ASEAN and [Min Aung Hlaing] was not invited to the ASEAN Summit for failing to implement its recent agreements and resolutions. I think the U.N. is paying more attention to our issue now.”

Barred from summit

In an unprecedented move earlier this month, ASEAN foreign ministers barred Min Aung Hlaing from the virtual ASEAN summit that kicked off Tuesday in Bandar Seri Begawan, saying he backtracked on the consensus that he had agreed to during the emergency meeting in April.

The snub was widely seen as an embarrassment to the junta, which on Tuesday issued a statement saying it was choosing not to attend because ASEAN had denied the military government representation.

Bo Hla Tint, the newly appointed special envoy to ASEAN for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), told RFA that further options for an envoy should be considered in case the military bars Heyzer from visiting Myanmar.

“The former special envoys couldn’t do anything when the military refused them entry into the country,” he said.

“There won’t be any significant results just by appointing a new special envoy without a Plan B. If this is a preparatory move because there is word the junta might act along the five-point ASEAN agreement, we will have to wait and see.”

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that if Heyzer “acts impartially and fairly,” the military will cooperate with her, in accordance with U.N. conventions, but would “not accept any action taken with a political motive.”

“I want to say that it would be acceptable if [she] looks at the situation from all angles and acts in a balanced way,” he said.

“Otherwise, I would just say that it’d be difficult to make progress if they act with a political goal in mind as they had done in the past.”

Military cooperation essential

Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, said the special envoy could be more effective at resolving the crisis because she is from an ASEAN nation, but added that she will not be able to succeed in her mission without the military’s cooperation.

“ASEAN’s changing stance [on Myanmar], cooperation with the West, and regional actions are all important and these factors would enable her to play a more active role,” he said.

“However, no matter how effectively she carries out her work, if the military is not really willing to solve the problem, she will not be very successful.”

Nearly nine months after the military’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,218 civilians and arrested at least 7,026, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

The junta says it unseated the National League for Democracy government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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