The United Nations special envoy on Myanmar declared Monday that she will not visit the Southeast Asia nation again unless its military government allows her to meet with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The envoy, Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore, also warned of the “tragic reality that large numbers of people will be forced to flee” Myanmar in search of safety, and that the international community must help provide them with humanitarian assistance.
Myanmar’s military seized power in February last year from Suu Kyi’s elected government, plunging the country into what some U.N. experts have described as civil war. Suu Kyi and top figures in her Cabinet and party were arrested, and have since been tried on a variety of charges that critics say were fabricated to keep them out of politics.
Speaking at a seminar in Singapore organized by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Southeast Asian studies research center, Heyzer described her assignment as part of “broader efforts by the United Nations to urgently support an effective and peaceful Myanmar-led political pathway to return to civilian rule based on the will and the needs of the people.”
Heyzer has been accused by both the military government and its opponents of engaging too much with the other side. She emphasized her ”mandate as an impartial actor to engage with all stakeholders in Myanmar, the region and globally, consistent with the principles of the United Nations.” Suu Kyi, a key figure in Myanmar’s politics for four decades, even during 15 previous years of house arrest, has not been seen in public since the army takeover.
The only people with access to her have been her captors, one or two personal assistants and her lawyers. She was transferred last month from house arrest at a secret location believed to have been a military base in the capital, Naypyitaw, to a specially built facility at the city’s prison.
So far Suu Kyi, 77, has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, including a three-year term with hard labor imposed last week for alleged election fraud. The army attempted to justify its takeover by claiming that a November 2020 general election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won by a landslide, was rife with irregularities, an allegation strongly challenged by election observers.
Last month, Heyzer made her first visit to Myanmar since her appointment in October 2021, and in a meeting with the country’s leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, asked that Suu Kyi be allowed to return to her own home and that Heyzer be allowed to visit her.
The government has repeatedly said that it cannot allow Suu Kyi any visitors while legal proceedings are underway against her.
“In response to my request to meet State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the senior general indicated the possibility of a meeting eventually. I am now very concerned about her health and well-being, and condemn her sentencing to hard labor,” Heyzer said Monday.
“If I ever visit Myanmar again, it will only be if I can meet with Daw Aung San Suu,” she said. “Daw” is an honorific used for older women.
Heyzer said she will focus on the possibility of providing “unhindered and safe delivery of humanitarian aid through all available channels” in a cooperative effort between the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member.
The U.N. estimates that 14.4 million people, one-fourth of Myanmar’s population — many of them displaced from their homes by warfare — require humanitarian assistance.
ASEAN is also seeking to play a peacemaking role in Myanmar, though the military government has given minimal cooperation in implementing a five-point consensus ASEAN reached on Myanmar last year that calls for dialogue among all concerned parties, provision of humanitarian assistance and an immediate cessation of violence, among other things.
Critics say the military government blocks assistance to areas where it is engaged in armed combat with ethnic minority groups which have been battling for decades for greater autonomy, and pro-democracy forces opposed to military rule which have made alliances with some of those groups.
Heyzer said current realities, including the military government’s lack of control over many frontier areas, mean that ways must be found to provide assistance directly to those living there. The military government says it is capable of providing necessary assistance and denies blocking aid.
“I have repeatedly called for the immediate cessation of aerial bombings and a humanitarian pause in targeted areas to allow for effective and safe access, and the urgent delivery of assistance through all existing channels to address the multiple humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities,” Heyzer said.
Monday’s talk by Heyzer was held under rules prohibiting the attribution of comments to any specific speaker, though her office specified that some of her remarks could be quoted directly.