Monday, 25 September 2023 06:16 GMT

Another UN Myanmar Envoy Bites The Dust

(MENAFN- Asia Times) United Nations Special Envoy to Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer is leaving her position in mid-June after some 20 months of being stonewalled by the generals of the State Administration Council (SAC).

Heyzer always faced an insurmountable challenge since being appointed to the position in October 2021, just eight months after the SAC's military coup d'etat sparked a major nationwide uprising.

The knives will likely be out for Heyzer. Inevitably, death by a thousand tweets, social media cancellation and mob frustration will denounce her efforts before a more objective assessment could, and should, take place.

None of these angry denunciations should be dismissed or derided: they register intense frustration inside and outside Myanmar at the international community's collective failure to goad the junta into relinquishing power and restoring democracy.

But under these conditions, neither Attila the Hun nor a K-Pop band would have any real chance of something approaching a breakthrough.

And what would“success” for an envoy entail? The SAC surrendering? Freeing Aung San Suu Kyi? Achieving what she always, consistently, called for – a cessation of hostilities and ending daily abuses against civilians?

Heyzer is not responsible for any of the regime's atrocities and was increasingly critical of them. However, more than Heyzer herself, two groups should be blamed for the lack of progress since late 2021: the SAC and the UN.

Myanmar's coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

It was apparent early into Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his SAC's reign of terror that they had no interest in outside mediation. Heyzer was only permitted to visit once to meet the SAC leader in August 2022 and the balanced assessment of her short visit would be“unmitigated disaster.”

It didn't help that the envoy wore a khaki-colored htamein (sarong), to which the semiotics-obsessed Myanmar political culture interpreted as a sop to the generals. State media running photos of grinning generals and Heyzer didn't go over well either.

But in an exchange of statements, the first from Heyzer, the second from the SAC, a line-by-line refutation of her points, made it clear that there was little chance of a meaningful recovery.

Heyzer's points were mostly consistent and principled: de-escalate violence, release political prisoners, permit unfettered humanitarian access and engage in multi-stakeholder talks.

They adhered closely to previous statements and other international efforts, and under the circumstances highly unlikely to produce any meaningful progress for Myanmar people on the ground.

The rebuttal a few days later in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar was vintage Myanmar military obduracy. The counter-statement started with“the one-sided statement of the Special Envoy created misunderstandings about Myanmar by the international community and the public and thus, the discussions of the meeting are fully described.”

In Min Aung Hlaing's transcribed words, he told Heyzer“I have been serving as commander-in-chief of Tatmadaw (military) since 2011, which turns 11 years. Through the experience received during these years, I regret to observe that the statements by the United Nations are one-sided.

“Accordingly, I am of the view that you, in your capacity as the special envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar, should overcome this issue as a priority... (t)o improve the relations between Myanmar and the United Nations, we have constructively engaged with the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Myanmar. I do not have any personal feelings for you. With the aim to cooperate with the United Nations, I have agreed to meet you.”

The general went on to fully deny any human rights violations:“(w)e are just targeting the location of the insurgents who attack security forces and counter them. We will never initiate the attack if there is no attack on us. And there is no government and country in the world that accepts armed attacks. I categorically reject the allegation of burning the villages and houses of the people. The Tatmadaw always protects the people of Myanmar.”

With a first meeting going that poorly, the SAC was clearly stating they had little inclination to be availed of the envoy's entreaties. But the failure of diplomacy and engagement is a systemic United Nations failure, not an individual one of Heyzer's.

If anyone deserves a red card for failing Myanmar since the first day of the coup, it is UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. When you have a poorly performing leader, an utterly dysfunctional Security Council, a bloated and bloviating General Assembly and multiple corrupt agencies competing for donor funding by inflating not just budgets but the actual ability to operate within Myanmar, casting blame on an individual envoy is grossly dishonest.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (C) talks during a press conference at the Kutupalong refugee camp after meeting with the Rohingya community in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar on July 2, 2018. Photo: AFP / Munir Uz Zaman

In carefully assessing Heyzer's time in the job, the regular meetings of UN agency heads in Naypyidaw, always made public by the SAC's propaganda machine, undermined Heyzer's approach.

Security Council Resolution 2669 in December 2022 established the limits of UN influence, and said loud and clear, as voluminous and coherent as consensus exercises can ever get, that you have the UN special envoy and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): that's it.

Which translates to, we won't put any more effort in than we already have. The SAC presumably knows this, especially when out of the 15 votes, China, Russia and India abstained.

And last, Heyzer had to contend with a rambunctious UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Tom Andrews who has far exceeded his mandate as an“independent expert” and at times saw himself as the real special envoy to Myanmar.

On principle, Heyzer seemed an apt choice. A Singaporean social scientist, former head of the UN's regional office in Bangkok, ESCAP, she seemed more amenable to the generals than her Swiss predecessor, or some of the previous envoys who enjoyed mixed success in very different circumstances.

But the SAC simply wasn't interested in chit-chat, with Heyzer or ASEAN's Five Point Consensus. They seem to only have time for Russian and Chinese officials, or the mendacious Japanese meddler Yohei Sasakawa.

Pundits will now be speculating on a suitable replacement for Heyzer. But should there be an entirely new approach to Myanmar? The envoy may have only made one visit to Myanmar, but she met with regional states and visited China. Her failure was not in being idle, but rather being ineffective in an invidious situation.

Heyzer was actually starting to push the traditional boundaries of UN envoys' risk appetite. Her call for an Inclusive Humanitarian Forum (IHF) to be developed with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and key ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) such as the Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) was an imperfect but nevertheless refreshingly unorthodox approach to addressing the humanitarian crisis sparked by the coup.

In a March statement, Heyzer suggested:“(t)he Forum could comprise a core group of (UN) Member States, notably Myanmar's neighboring countries and other regional actors, to engage inclusively in seeking a comprehensive assessment of ground realities and identify ways to overcome obstacles for operational actors to more effectively reach those in need...the IHF discussions with local actors have proven to be an important vehicle driving constructive discussions and building greater solidarity and coherence.”

Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on 'Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day' in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

It's likely this proposal, obviously as much a political framework as a humanitarian coordination body, caused disquiet in the more conservative UN apparatus.

Going through the motions of another candidate and the squandered time of 'giving them a chance' should not be an option. The UN leadership should either take the position more seriously or drop the position altogether, and deploy the funding instead to supply healthcare and food to Myanmar's suffering people.

But taking a more holistic view, international diplomacy on Myanmar has been an utter failure, as the West is clearly exasperated with the SAC's obtuse disregard for reason.

Far from cheering“ding dong the witch is dead” at Heyzer's departure, critics should be bracing for whatever potential appeasement of the SAC lays ahead from a distracted and morally hollow international community whose muscle memory seems increasingly set to re-engage the abusive, coup-installed regime.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar

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