Less than two months after starting her job as the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer has just learned this lesson: never underestimate the popular opinion of the country you represent, or you will suffer.
Making this mistake has come at a big price for the veteran diplomat, who has been familiar with the country since the early 2000s and used to be the UN secretary-general’s adviser on peace-building and sustainable development in Timor-Leste.
She is now under fire as the Myanmar people have seriously criticized her for comments she made during her recent interview with Channel News Asia. The Southeast Asian country has been in revolt since February last year due to the military coup. According to the UN, the regime has killed at least 1,500 people in year-long protests against the takeover with massacres, tortures and airstrikes among other atrocities.
In her interview, she said “the military is in control at this particular time” and those defying the military must negotiate a power-sharing arrangement as a solution.
The diplomat said she is aware that many young Myanmar people fighting for a total political transformation are willing to die, referring to members of the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) who have taken up arms to topple the regime.
“I want them [to have] something to live for, not to die for. They need to negotiate what that power sharing could look like over a long term,” she said.
Her remarks sparked a serious online frenzy from the Myanmar people. To Heyzer’s embarrassment, two days after saying “the military is in control at this particular time,” Myanmar people successfully held their nationwide “silent strike” on Tuesday, the anniversary of the coup, by staying indoors—sending a clear message to the regime and the world that the military junta can’t control their daily activities, let alone their lives.
Her suggestion the Myanmar people seek “negotiation” and “power sharing” with the junta only made them more furious. Having witnessed how brutal the Myanmar regime is, the majority of Myanmar people now take it for granted that any attempt to negotiate or share power with the junta is nothing more than “a direct insult” to the more than 1,500 people killed by the regime. Furthermore, as the majority are rejecting military rule in the country by any means at this moment, while also demanding justice, Myanmar people unsurprisingly took the UN envoy’s “power sharing” recommendation as a slap in the face.
So, the UN special envoy on Myanmar shouldn’t be upset when she sees reactions from YouTube viewers like, “Such disappointing comments. You really didn’t know people of Myanmar.”
After becoming aware of the stormy response from the Myanmar people, the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar attempted some “face-saving” on Tuesday by insisting that Heyzer has never proposed power sharing as an option.
“We are aware of a recent media interview with the Special Envoy and regret its misrepresentation indicating she used the term ‘power sharing’ and proposed it as a solution in the context of the political crisis in Myanmar,” it said in a statement, adding that “the Special Envoy stressed we must stand firm with the people of Myanmar.”
But the statement comes too late.
Despite her claim that she has never proposed power sharing as an option, the special envoy made no attempt to correct the CNA interviewer when she said Heyzer had “broached or suggested … the idea of power sharing.”
Now she is paying the price.
On Tuesday, 247 Myanmar civil society organizations at home and abroad rejected her proposal of power sharing and raised the alarm over her misinterpretation of the facts on the ground to mean that the military is in control. They said these statements could set a dangerous precedent, leading those who take control through brutal means to feel they should be welcomed to share power.
“Such suggestions send a signal to the military that the UN is willing to act as a broker for their power despite the grave crimes they have committed, and further embolden them to commit atrocities with total impunity,” they said in a statement.
On Twitter, Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement simply called on Heyzer to resign from her post so as not to prolong the agony of the long-suffering Myanmar people, as she doesn’t understand their aspirations or the situation on ground.
“Not only did she start her job from an ignorant patronizing defeatist position, but also doubled down on her mistake and lied it was ‘misrepresentation’ when she was given a chance to correct,” it said.
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