Noeleen Heyzer, an expert in conflict resolution, economic development and women’s rights, has been named the next United Nations special envoy for Myanmar/Burma. Heyzer, from Singapore, was the first women to head the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, from 2007 to 2014. Under her leadership, the Bangkok-based Commission focused on cooperation for a more resilient Asia-Pacific region.
Earlier, she held short-term assignments on behalf of the UN with Burmese officials and military leaders. She is no stranger to this tormented and bloodied country, which underwent a military coup on Feb. 1, 2021.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced her appointment as envoy on Oct. 25, a day before the opening of a crucial summit of government leaders from Asean, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs. While not unexpected — reports had been circulating for several months that Heyzer would be the secretary-general’s choice — it was still a bold move toward intensifying international pressure on Myanmar’s military leadership. Heyzer, who starts on Dec. 13, succeeds Christine Schraner-Burgener of Switzerland.
Since the coup, the Burmese military has been turning the country into a killing field to desperately hold onto power against a rising civilian opposition. These opponents are now equipped with a weaponized volunteer defense force and inflicting scores of casualties among government troops. Asean, showing rare muscle, has barred the coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, from attending the virtual summit this week as it runs until Oct. 28. (President Joe Biden is attending.)
In a dramatic gesture, some Asean members, led by Malaysia, have raised the possibility of recognizing the opposition National Unity Government, which was established in April in Myanmar by ousted elected leaders. The European Parliament and the French Senate have voted to recognize the NUG, as it is known. The Burmese military blames foreigners for interfering and promoting unrest throughout Myanmar.
Heyzer, 73, has openly criticized both the Burmese military coup of Feb. 1, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the initial tepid responses and inaction from Asean, given its traditional reluctance to engage in confrontation or even attempt mediation in the crisis. Her analyses have sounded alarms from the early days after the coup, as Aung San Suu Kyi was being held under increasingly restrictive detention and remains in an undisclosed location under the military’s control. She appeared in a courtroom this week in Naypyidaw, the capital, facing charges that include “inciting public unrest.”
In an essay for PassBlue on March 9, 2021, Heyzer wrote: “The situation in Myanmar is growing more violent and polarized. If the situation continues without urgent intervention, the safety and security of civilians will deteriorate rapidly and a window for dialogue between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and its supporters will close further. If this scenario happens, Myanmar will almost certainly implode.”
By June, Heyzer was among those who saw Myanmar heading for civil war. In a message to PassBlue, she wrote that the Civil Disobedience Movement, formed immediately after the February coup, and the shadow National Unity Government “are prepared for civil war, if ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] continues to move at a snail’s pace and proves ineffective in consulting and bringing all sides to initiate dialogue.”
Heyzer was raised in a family struggling in poverty long before Singapore became, per capita and in human development, one of the richest nations in the world. She told her personal story in a recent book, “Beyond Storms and Stars: A Memoir.” She worked her way up by studying hard for two degrees, from the University of Singapore, and holds a Ph.D. in social sciences from Cambridge University.
In 2008-2009, she worked closely with Asean, the government of Myanmar and the UN in recovery work after Cyclone Nargis hit and led a dialogue with Myanmar’s leaders on development and poverty reduction, the UN said in its announcement. As the executive director of Unifem (1994–2007), the predecessor to UN Women, Heyzer played a critical role in the Security Council’s creation of the landmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. She is also a member of Guterres’s high-level advisory board on mediation; part of the governing board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore: and a distinguished fellow of the Singapore Management University and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
In a message to PassBlue on Oct. 25, after her appointment became public, she wrote: “I am deeply honoured to be appointed by the UN Secretary General as his Special Envoy for Myanmar. I look forward to listening to the aspirations and perspectives of all stakeholders in the hope of a peaceful political solution in the country for a better future for all the people of Myanmar.”
This article was updated to correct the title of Noeleen Heyzer’s memoir.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.