Veteran Diplomat Noeleen Heyzer Appointed UN Special Envoy to Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 26 October 2021

A former under-secretary-general of the United Nations who had warm relations with Myanmar’s previous regime and their proxy government has been appointed as the new United Nations special envoy on Myanmar.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Noeleen Heyzer as the successor to Christine Schraner Burgener, who was appointed in 2018 when the post was first created, mainly to tackle the Rohingya Muslim issue in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, in partnership with the country’s government.

The newly appointed 73-year-old Singporean will not only inherit the main mission but also her predecessor’s failed task of trying to persuade Myanmar junta leaders to engage in dialogue to settle the ongoing political and social turmoil caused by the coup in February.

At a press conference last week, the outgoing Schraner Burgener said the regime would not be ready for compromise because they didn’t react to her “proposal for dialogue.”

“I’m sure my successor will try to do the best,” she said.

Trained as a social scientist, Heyzer has also served as the UN secretary-general’s adviser for Timor-Leste to support peace-building and sustainable development.

As a former head of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Heyzer is no stranger to Myanmar. She visited the country several times under the previous military regime, which ruled Myanmar until March 2011, and knows well the poverty endured by many in the Southeast Asian country. She was also a supporter of the country’s transition to democracy, which was halted by the coup.

When the then regime was reluctant to allow international relief assistance in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc in the country’s Irrawaddy Delta area in 2008, killing more than 130,000 people, the then head of  ESCAP was also involved in getting aid delivered to those in need by organizing a post-Nargis recovery conference in Bangkok.

After the then junta released Myanmar’s popular democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in late 2010, the UN official stepped up her dialogue with the generals for the sake of the country’s development, telling them, “We can bring the best minds here to work with you,” according to Thant Myint-U latest book The Hidden History of Burma.

Then she invited Nobel Prize-winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz to Myanmar to hold a talk for civil society representatives and government officials, including then Prime Minister U Thein Sein, who would become the country’s president a few months later in the regime’s proxy government. Thant Myint-U served as an adviser to President Thein Sein.

Heyzer has good relations with Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). When the news of her would-be appointment as the special envoy circulated, some elected lawmakers—since ousted by the coup—welcomed it, expressing hope that she would be able to break the political impasse.

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