TANZANIA – The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned Tuesday that the political, human rights and humanitarian crisis in the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation is deepening and taking “a catastrophic toll on the people.”
Noeleen Heyzer told the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee that more than 13.2 million people don’t have enough to eat, 1.3 million are displaced and the military continues operations using disproportionate force including bombings, burnings of homes and buildings, and the killing of civilians.
Heyzer’s briefing was her first at the U.N. in New York since she visited Myanmar in August and met the head of the military government, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
She said the meeting “was part of broader efforts by the U.N. to urgently support a return to civilian rule.” She stressed that “there is a new political reality in Myanmar: a people demanding change, no longer willing to accept military rule.”
Heyzer said she made six requests during the meeting with the military’s commander-in-chief, including to end aerial bombing and the burning of civilian infrastructure; deliver humanitarian aid without discriminating; release all children and political prisoners; institute a moratorium on executions; ensure the well-being of and allow meetings with the country’s imprisoned former leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and create conditions for the voluntary and safe return of over 1 million Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh to escape military crackdowns.
Myanmar for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Suu Kyi’s rise to leadership in 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.
That ended with the military’s Feb. 1, 2021 coup following November 2020 elections in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly and the military contested as fraudulent.
The takeover was met with massive public opposition, which has since turned into armed resistance that some U.N. experts, including Heyzer’s predecessor, Christine Schraner Burgener, have characterized as civil war.
Much of the international community, including Myanmar’s fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have expressed frustration at the hard line the generals have taken in resisting reform. Myanmar’s rulers agreed to a five-point ASEAN plan in April 2021 to restore peace and stability to the country but the military has made little effort to implement the plan.
The plan calls for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels and a visit to Myanmar by the association’s special envoy to meet all concerned parties. Heyzer and ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn, a Cambodian minister, have both visited Myanmar but neither was allowed to meet Suu Kyi.
Heyzer told the human rights committee there are some avenues to pursue.
“While there is little room for the de-escalation of violence or for ‘talks about talks’ in the present zero-sum situation, there are some concrete ways to reduce the suffering of the people,” she said.
Heyzer said she has been working “extremely closely” with the ASEAN envoy and the ASEAN chair, but she was critical of its five-point consensus, which doesn’t deal with the Rohingya or how best to return Myanmar to civilian rule.
Another issue that is critical, she said, is that the humanitarian aid under the five-point plan “actually works through the channels of the military, and it doesn’t quite reach the people that are most in need.”
Heyzer said that since many more people will be forced to flee Myanmar to escape violence, she will keep pressing ASEAN “to develop a regional protection framework for refugees and forcibly displaced persons.”
“The recent forced return of Myanmar nationals, some of whom were detained on arrival, underlines the urgency of a coordinated ASEAN response to address shared regional challenges caused by the conflict,” she said.
On the humanitarian front, Heyzer said key armed ethnic organizations and the opposition National Unity Government appealed to her to convene a forum “to facilitate protection and humanitarian assistance to all people in need, in observance of international humanitarian law.”
She said the plight of the Rohingya, and other forcibly displaced from Myanmar, “remains desperate, with many seeking refuge through dangerous land and sea journeys.”
Violence between the Arakan Army and the government in northern Rakhine state, where the Rohingya fled from but where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still live, “has escalated to levels not seen since late 2020, with significant cross-border incursions,” she said.
Heyzer said this is endangering all communities, harming conditions for the return of Rohingya, and “prolonging the burden on Bangladesh.”