A year after the Burmese military overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, horrifying statistics of death, torture, detention and disappearance of civilians continue to mount. As of Jan. 19, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 1,484 civilians have been killed and 11,638 arrested since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup. The army, called the Tatmadaw, is looking for 1,966 more people it has targeted, the exile association reported from its base in northern Thailand.
At the same time, the military, under the coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is losing troops in increasing numbers as desperate local resistance groups, some aligned with the opposition National Unity Government, turn to violent tactics: ambush, assassination and destruction of army installations and critical infrastructure.
This is the rapidly deteriorating situation facing the new United Nations special envoy, Noeleen Heyzer, who took up her appointment in mid-December, working from Bangkok. Heyzer, a political and social scientist from Singapore with decades of experience in Asia, was formerly head (executive secretary) of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, from 2007 to 2014. From 2016 until her recent appointment, she was a scholar and analyst at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Well before Heyzer was chosen by Secretary-General António Guterres as his special adviser, she was warning that Myanmar, also still called Burma, was slipping into a civil war. Now she sees that reality emerging close by. There has been no effective “road map” out of the crisis or even productive talks about talks since the spring of 2021, when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) adopted a five-point plan for reconciliation, which the coup leader flatly rejected.
“Basically, what is happening on the ground now is that positions have hardened, and no one and no side is willing to talk to the other,” Heyzer said in a phone conversation with PassBlue in mid-January. “They think that one side can outdo the other by using violence.”
From Bangkok, Heyzer is working to carry out a multilayered new strategy to engage and expand regional and global involvement and action on Myanmar. She told PassBlue that she had met about a hundred potential partners in governments and other institutions in planning the initiative. She also receives daily reports from various sources inside Myanmar, where the coup leader has closed the UN envoy’s office.
“Every day I receive cries for help by people affected by the conflict,” she wrote to PassBlue in a subsequent email. “They feel ‘a new wind blowing.’ However, we need collective power and urgent actions to deliver concrete results to keep hope alive for people on the ground. Time is running out.”
A summary of Heyzer’s approach being discussed in diplomatic meetings with government leaders — in Asean, the wider Asian region and eventually global settings — was supplied by her office. It stresses that this progression must first be “a Myanmar-led strategy reflecting the will of the people.”
Four short-term and longer-term goals make up the plan: “humanitarian-plus” access and assistance to the most vulnerable; an inclusive political solution that could feature, in the medium term, elections; support for long-term democratization and rule of law; and protection and support for the Rohingya.
These basic proposals have already elicited widening discussion and suggestions as well as offers of cooperation, particularly on humanitarian issues, Heyzer said. Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, also an army general, met with Heyzer on Jan.17. She was told, according to his spokesman, that “General Prayut will back a push for a lasting solution in Myanmar under a bilateral context that includes Asean and the UN.”
On Jan. 19, one of the earliest written responses to Heyzer’s initiative was a statement from the leaders of three armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar that have opposed the coup and become targets of severe Tatmadaw retribution, including the bombing and strafing of villages and mass slaughters of local citizens.
The three leaders — of the Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party, both on the eastern side of the country, and the Chin National Front in the west — added their proposals to the discussion of next steps.
They include declaring Myanmar an internationally enforced military no-fly zone, setting up centers of protection and safe zones for civilians to enable unhindered humanitarian access and establishing “internationally negotiated humanitarian corridors” in the country or across borders to allow aid agencies to supply urgently needed goods and services.
The Burmese military has a longstanding reputation for keeping out international assistance at the cost of people in desperate need. Heyzer has had personal experience with the obstinacy of the hermetic country. In 2008-2009, after Cyclone Nargis crippled the Irrawaddy River delta in southern Myanmar, leaving an estimated 138,000 people dead and a large agricultural area destroyed, an earlier military regime stalled and blocked international aid for weeks.
Now in 2022, in a widening war, Myanmar, a member of Asean, has tried to block outsider involvement again. Furthermore, not all the other 10 Asean governments have been helpful. In early January, Hun Sen, the autocratic prime minister of Cambodia who holds the rotating chairmanship of the association, broke ranks with other members and went to Myanmar to meet with General Min Aung Hlaing, who had rejected the Asean five-point consensus agreement of April 2021 and was told not to come to the Asean summit in October last year. That agreement, since moribund, called for a cessation of violence, an opening of dialogue and the appointment of an Asean envoy to Myanmar.
To make matters worse, Hun Sen announced last fall that he would replace the Asean envoy to Myanmar, a Brunei diplomat, with the Cambodian foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn, who accompanied the Cambodian leader to Myanmar early this month.
In mid-January, PassBlue asked Yasuhiro Ueki, a professor of global studies at Sophia University in Tokyo and a former UN political affairs officer, for his observations on how to proceed with Myanmar beyond Asean. Japan is both an Asian regional and international power, representing two circles Heyzer wants to bring into the discussion. (It is not a member of Asean.)
“With regard to Noeleen Heyzer’s plans, it makes sense for her to work closely with Asean’s Special Envoy, as Asean is practically the only player in town,” Ueki wrote in an email. “However, Asean’s political influence on the Myanmar regime is still limited. The Myanmar regime is clearly intent on excluding Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters from the political process in Myanmar. [Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to another four years in prison this month for charges that have included possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies.]
“Heyzer should be the eyes of the international community to ensure that the Asean
chair and his special envoy should stay within the bounds of Asean’s five-point plan,” Ueki wrote.
He added: “It is also sensible for Heyzer to bring in additional regional and international players not only to support Asean’s political efforts but also to increase the level of humanitarian assistance to those who are in need. Those efforts should include opening humanitarian access to the areas the military regime does not control.”
“Should ASEAN’s political effort not produce tangible results, Heyzer should try to assemble a larger Friends of Myanmar with those countries that have some influence on Myanmar to assist Asean,” he also suggested.
“Japan has deep economic ties with Myanmar and as the largest provider of ODA [official development assistance] among Western countries there, it has taken a more nuanced approach to the military regime,” Ueki noted, adding that China is still the largest single donor.
“Japan has stopped providing new ODA but continues to maintain lines of communication with the regime through its diplomatic presence in the country,” Ueki wrote. “So far, such lines of communication have not produced any tangible result. Its humanitarian assistance is provided mostly through the UN and does not reach areas that are not controlled by the military regime.
Still, Japan has a potential power to exert influence on the direction of Myanmar with economic measures, but it must work with others to bring its weight to bear.”
This article was updated on news about Aung San Suu Kyi.
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.