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Myanmar Junta Uses UN Envoy for What It Craves: Legitimacy

The UN Secretary General’s special envoy for Myanmar has been used by the country’s military regime to enhance its legitimacy—something it has otherwise been denied by the international community due to its coup against the country’s elected government last year and the regime’s ongoing bloody crackdowns on its opponents.

The envoy, Noleen Heyzer, is now in post-coup, conflict-torn Myanmar. The UN said she “will focus on addressing the deteriorating situation and immediate concerns as well as other priority areas of her mandate.”

She met with the country’s military regime chief Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday afternoon and was not allowed to see the country’s ousted leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now in solitary confinement in a regime prison.

Shortly before her meeting with the regime chief, however, the junta’s spokesperson said at a press conference that the meeting was the “Myanmar government’s official meeting.”

“I will repeat, the UN envoy is meeting officially with the current Myanmar government,” said spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun.

United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer (center) walks with high-level officials following her arrival at the airport in Yangon on Aug. 16, 2022. / AFP

Following the coup in February last year, millions of Myanmar people took to the streets to reject the military takeover and refused to accept the junta as their government. The international community also declined to accept the junta as the legitimate government of Myanmar. It has refused to engage with the generals, with the exceptions of China, Russia, Japan and India. Even the UN has declined to recognize them. Instead, the world body has continued to recognize Myanmar’s ambassador from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government as the country’s representative.

Since then, the regime, which has now killed more than 2,000 people in the country, has been desperately seeking recognition from other countries as Myanmar’s rightful government. Making matters worse for it, it’s also facing a contesting claim by the National Unity Government (NUG) formed by elected lawmakers from the NLD and their ethnic allies.

Now, Heyzer, as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy, has helped to satisfy the regime’s craving for legitimacy.

For Min Aung Hlaing, a visit by the UN envoy at a time when most of the world has turned away from him means a lot. He will simply be thinking that the UN would not bother to see him to discuss the country’s issues if it did not see him as the head of government. That’s why he invited her—and she came. Then the regime hurriedly proclaimed the event as an official meeting with the “current Myanmar government.” Heyzer has failed Myanmar’s people once again, after insulting them in February by saying they seek “negotiation” with the country’s military—the institution that has been killing them.

Her visit comes at a time when diplomatic efforts to resolve the Myanmar crisis led by the UN and regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have made little headway, with the generals refusing to engage with their opponents.

After Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Foreign Minister-cum-ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar Prak Sokhonn, Heyzer is the third dignitary working on Myanmar issues to meet the junta leader. It must be enough to make her predecessor Christine Schraner Burgener, envious. The latter’s highest achievement before leaving the position in September last year was having phone calls with the regime’s second man, Soe Win.

So far, efforts by Hun Sen and Prak Sokhonn to convince the regime to stop killing its own people—a part of ASEAN’s peace plan for Myanmar—have borne no fruit. Prak Sokhonn recently admitted that not even Superman could fix the Myanmar crisis, as the regime has kept committing atrocities against civilians.

Under these circumstances, Heyzer flew to Myanmar and snapped up Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation after, as the UN says, “extensive consultations with actors from across the political spectrum, civil society as well as communities affected by the ongoing conflict.”

From the moment the trip was announced, however, it set alarm bells ringing.

U Kyaw Zaw, spokesperson for the NUG, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that although the shadow government understood Heyzer is trying to do her job as a special envoy, “the UNSG special envoy must avoid giving legitimacy to the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and [his governing body] the State Administration Council.”

The NUG’s seriousness on the issue was evident, with its foreign minister and deputy minister also making comments on the same day. The trio of NUG officials said now is not the right time for Heyzer to visit the country, given the regime’s recent sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy activists to further jail terms, as well as the executions of four activists in July. They cautioned the UN envoy to be aware of the failure of her ASEAN counterpart’s visits.

In fact, after she was condemned for her power-sharing comments in February, Heyzer became the first international envoy to meet with the NUG’s parliamentary body and its relief and resettlement minister Dr Win Myat Aye to discuss issues including humanitarian assistance for Myanmar. It’s not clear if she has had more meetings with the NUG.

At the time of reporting on Wednesday, details of the meeting between the UN envoy and Min Aung Hlaing were not known.

Even if she did push the junta leader during the meeting to stop his soldiers from killing civilians and torching their homes, her words will be ignored.

Prior to his meeting with the envoy on Wednesday, Min Aung Hlaing said at his governing body meeting on Tuesday that “if terrorist attacks continue to be carried out, we will act in accordance with our policy of anti-terrorism.” By “terrorists” he was referring to the NUG and People’s Defense Force (PDF) groups, which are waging an unwavering campaign of armed resistance against the regime across the country. His remarks imply that the junta has no plans to stop its violence.

When Heyzer landed in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday, Scot Marciel, the former US ambassador to Myanmar, tweeted that while she was in an impossible situation, he didn’t see any value in going to meet the generals.

“I mean how many senior UN and foreign officials need to be rudely rebuffed by the junta before the world stops trying to ‘persuade’ the generals to be reasonable?” the former ambassador’s Tweet reads.

On the same day, the NUG said in an announcement that the UN special envoy’s visit must be directed at ending the junta’s violence, its weaponization of aid, its persecution of political prisoners, and its impunity.

“Anything short of this would be an appeasement of war criminals,” it said.