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The UN envoy, the controversial aid plan, and Myanmar’s fast-changing war

‘I think at least the UN agencies should sit down and listen to what it is.’

header-myanmar-0 Composite image Guillaume Payen / SOPA Images/Sipa USA and Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
A composite photo of (on the left) a temporary refugee camp in Myanmar near the Thai border, and (on the right) of soldiers from one of Myanmar's many ethnic armed organisations, or EAOs, inspecting a house in nearby Myawaddy.

On 16 March 2023, Noeleen Heyzer, then-special envoy of the UN secretary-general on Myanmar addressed the UN General Assembly. She gave a grim but routine update on the country’s civil war, outlining rising humanitarian needs and calling for international action to prevent further bloodshed. Then Heyzer said something more unusual. 

“At the request of Myanmar actors, including key ethnic armed organisations, the [exiled government] NUG and humanitarian civil society organisations, I have supported their efforts to establish and convene an Inclusive Humanitarian Forum (IHF), which aims to open up operational space to deliver humanitarian aid through all available channels,” she told the Assembly. 

But over a year on from that speech, Heyzer is no longer in the job and the IHF project has ground to a halt, even as the resistance groups that invented it gain more territory – providing more aid delivery possibilities for the UN and others.

In a frank and wide-ranging interview, her first since leaving the special envoy role in June 2023, Heyzer describes how she was first approached for help with the IHF by resistance groups after they were rejected by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA; how she tried to drive it forward; and how the project eventually fell foul of UN territorialism.

The UN Myanmar country team is “orphaned… a structure that is left without overall direction and political cover”

After being vacant for 10 months, her special envoy position was finally filled a few weeks ago, on 5 April, by Julie Bishop, a former Australian foreign minister. But according to former UN assistant secretary general for Myanmar Charles Petrie, she joins a UN Myanmar team that has been “orphaned… a structure that is left without overall direction and political cover”. There is no in-country UN resident coordinator to lead the 20 UN organisations in Myanmar with various mandates. That role is shared among other staff. 

Big ideas for aid delivery to Myanmar are needed now more than ever. An estimated 2.8 million people displaced and 18.6 million overall are in need of help this year, according to UN estimates.

Existing conflicts were deepened by a February 2021 military coup that has pitted the junta – known as the State Administration Council (SAC) – against an alliance of resistance groups that have been winning substantial territory in recent months. While resistance supporters are pleased to see the junta losing ground, some experts fear an increasingly desperate regime could become even more violent, worsening the humanitarian crisis.

Helping the people caught up in the war has been riddled with complexity, as many of its victims are in areas controlled by the resistance. The big humanitarian actors – particularly the UN – work with the permission of the junta, mainly delivering aid only within the territory it controls.

Critics of this policy told The New Humanitarian the best way to help those worst affected is through the sprawling network of civil society groups and administrative wings of the ethnic armed groups controlling much of the country, across international borders – efforts the IHF aimed to support. The approach of the UN, meanwhile, has been heavily criticised by Myanmar-watchers as, at best ineffective, and at worst supine and exacerbating the suffering of those caught up in the conflict. 

Championing the IHF was Heyzer’s attempt to solve that riddle. 

So in an era of UN promises to put affected communities at the centre of humanitarian responses – how did the IHF go from an outsider idea, to being championed by the UN’s most senior official in Myanmar, and back again? What does its failure to be accepted say about the shortcomings of the UN in addressing one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises? And more pressingly, given the changing dynamics of the conflict, is it time to look again at the IHF, or at least at making aid more available to all parts of Myanmar? 

A controversial proposal

The IHF was proposed by the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Karen National Union, and the Chin National Front – all longstanding ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) – and by the NUG’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Other EAOs and civil society groups also supported the plan in a less official capacity and did not sign associated documentation, according to Heyzer. 

Read more: What was in the IHF plan?

Heyzer told The New Humanitarian the overall objective of the IHF was to serve as a “High-Level Political Mechanism” with two key purposes.

The first was “to negotiate greater access and protection… de-escalate the violence and prevent attacks against civilians”. The second was to “identify blockages and seek new solutions and action to allow operational actors to have greater access to implement unimpeded humanitarian aid delivery”.

Its recommendations on aid delivery were to “strengthen engagement” on providing humanitarian relief “with local administrative and governance channels” and civil society organisations in areas controlled by the EAOs or the NUG, and to encourage cross-border assistance, according to Heyzer.

As well as the IHF’s technical aspects, it aimed to serve as a first example of formal international mediation in a process led by democratic and resistance actors, according to the former adviser to the IHF, who was not authorised to speak to the media about the project.

The adviser said the IHF’s founding organisations hoped this could provide a foundation for international backing of an eventual post-junta transition led by the democratic leaders.

The IHF emerged from the great frustration felt by the NUG and the EAOs at the approach of powerful humanitarian actors, in particular OCHA and AHA Centre, the relief wing of the regional diplomatic bloc.

“We are distraught that our pleas have been unanswered by much of the international community,” said a 30 May 2022 joint statement from the EAOs and the NUG, released following an ASEAN meeting in Cambodia on 6 May 2022.

The resistance groups voiced their objection to the humanitarian plans discussed at that meeting, which they said would “solely channel” aid to the junta, legitimising them and allowing them to “weaponise” relief and prevent it from going to people most in need.

The NUG and the EAOs requested increased support for “low-profile” civil society groups, resourcing them to “expand their activities using existing informal humanitarian channels”. Their proposals were the basis for the IHF, and the groups went to Heyzer for support, which she gave. But she wasn’t their first choice. “Even before they approached… me, they approached OCHA to help them,” Heyzer recalled.

Heyzer’s strong advocacy for the IHF came during a difficult tenure as special envoy, as she sought to navigate Myanmar’s complex politics with little support from UN headquarters.

After a controversial meeting with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on 17 August 2022, she decided trying to help negotiate an end to the conflict was not the best use of her time, and instead “went full blast on the IHF, to at least mediate this for people”, she said. But Heyzer was unable to pursue the IHF further after leaving her post in June 2023.

Born out of a frustration these groups had with the approach taken by the big humanitarian actors, particularly OCHA and ASEAN – the regional bloc tasked with leading diplomatic efforts – the IHF planned to put aid directly in the hands of the EAOs, and simultaneously heighten their political clout against the junta. 

Many Myanmar observers saw the IHF as an imperfect but pragmatic step towards improving the humanitarian response. “It was basically the only game in town even trying to push a new direction on access or create a forum where [the] NUG had any real role,” said a well-placed source who requested anonymity to protect their career and contacts. 

“I think at least the UN agencies should sit down and listen to what it is, and to understand what the… [resistance] groups are wanting to say,” said Dr Thinn Thinn Hlaing, Myanmar country director at the Tropical Health and Education Trust, an NGO. “I don't think it has even gone on to that listening mode because they think that it's an obstructive attempt to counter AHA Centre (ASEAN’s humanitarian arm) proposals. In fact, it's not like that at all…. It is meant to be complementing.” 

Some ASEAN officials felt the IHF was being positioned as a competitor to their own process under the bloc's plan for Myanmar, known as the Five Point Consensus, according to a former adviser to the IHF, who was not authorised to speak to the media. This meant the bloc did not provide the “game-changing” support it could have, they added. The fourth point of the Consensus says ASEAN “shall provide humanitarian assistance through the AHA Centre”, which works with the junta. 

“It was basically the only game in town even trying to push a new direction on access or create a forum where [the] NUG had any real role.” 

Despite Heyzer’s high-level advocacy and claims to include civil society, the IHF could not find universal support among campaigners. 

For instance, Khin Ohmar, founder of the Progressive Voice civil society group, was critical of Heyzer and called the IHF a “misguided proposal”. In written responses to The New Humanitarian in February, Ohmar said the IHF did not recognise the junta as the root cause of violence, that the junta was included in the project's set-up, and that it “left out and neglected the participation and role of Myanmar's frontline humanitarian responders” in its development.

The former adviser, however, said the perception that the IHF collaborated with the SAC was a misunderstanding stemming from clauses in some of the proposals that envisioned two tracks of aid for Myanmar: the IHF and, separately, the junta-approved UN operations.

Ohmar also said the IHF aimed “to use humanitarian assistance to induce political results”, putting lives at risk “for the sake of a potential dialogue” by calling for humanitarian pauses that could be exploited militarily by the junta. This ignored “do no harm” principles of humanitarian aid, she added. 

But the former adviser said the IHF suffered from not being widely understood, and that most observers didn’t realise it was a “genuinely localised initiative, developed and proposed by EROs (ethnic resistance organisations), NUG, and CSOs (civil society organisations)”.

“Some audiences misinterpreted it as a pet project of Heyzer and assumed that local actors were being organised to cooperate from the top down,” the former adviser added, defending it as a “rare example of a local request being taken by the special envoy to the UNSC, UNGA, secretariat and powerful states in the region” – actions “really valued by local actors as no other senior diplomats have been willing to do so”.

UN opposition

But even as the communications and coordination of the IHF was said by the former adviser to have been improving, Heyzer’s perceived ownership of it was causing tension with other arms of the UN.

OCHA – an agency that has made grand promises around prioritising the wishes of affected communities – is viewed as having been particularly hostile to the plan, and four sources flagged the suspicion that the agency had pushed for her dismissal.

“No one was going to run with [the IHF] once she was gone, which was the intention of her going,” said the well-placed source above who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The UN secretary-general’s office has denied any interference from OCHA. “The appointment of the special envoy is handled by the Office of the Secretary-General. It is not an issue in which OCHA is involved,” Guterres’ spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told The New Humanitarian in response to written questions. “Furthermore, in no way did OCHA work against or try to undermine Ms. Heyzer.” 

Heyzer refused to name a specific agency but did say: “People were very turf conscious – [saying], ‘if she’s not doing her mediation on the national scale and then she takes on these things… does it mean she is moving into our territory?’”

Pressed further, Heyzer said: “There was fear I was moving into an operational space. I will stop there.” But she insisted this fear was not justified. “We were so small – there was no way in which I could be operational,” she told The New Humanitarian.

‘The bigger picture’

Whatever the cause of Heyzer leaving her position, it points, for some, to larger problems surrounding the UN’s Myanmar operations. 

“There’s a broader picture of an invidious position that she was in, that the mandate itself wasn’t working, and clearly it was an indication she didn't have support from the Secretary-General’s office – that's the bigger picture,” said David Mathieson, a Myanmar analyst based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

That Heyzer was not allowed “a certain latitude to try to figure some things out” as special envoy was indicative of “systemic dysfunction at a high level” in Guterres’s office, Mathieson said, adding: “It’s the natural product of empire-building within the UN, which should come absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s been involved in international humanitarian and development issues over the years.”

Heyzer said she “needed the UN to be behind me”. Asked if the institution was not supporting her, she replied: “It's hard, because the UN has so many conflicts… the secretary-general’s attention, the UN’s attention, is not focused on Myanmar, especially since ASEAN is asked to take the main role. That’s why... when I was doing… other initiatives, I found was that the UN couldn’t think out of the box.” 

The UN disputes this narrative. “The secretary-general did provide full support to the former special envoy. He is grateful to Ms. Heyzer for her dedicated service to the United Nations and her tireless efforts to advance a peaceful and sustainable solution for the people of Myanmar,” said Dujarric. 

Looking more broadly, The New Humanitarian’s interviews with over a dozen Myanmar analysts and aid workers suggest the UN has undergone a major crisis of confidence in Myanmar. Many sources blamed a lack of attention from Guterres, who, prior to Bishop’s appointment as the new envoy, was said to have outsourced diplomacy to ASEAN. 

The perception of Myanmar as a low priority for Gutterres has been heightened by the absence of a resident coordinator. “The secretary-general doesn’t want an incoming resident coordinator to present credentials to [junta capital] Naypyidaw because the optics wouldn't be good,” said one aid worker at an NGO working near the Myanmar border. 

Dujarric said an official was appointed as resident coordinator in 2023 but had not been deployed to Myanmar, and country team officials were doing the job “on a rotating basis”. 

But without leadership, the country team is “lost on how to engage on what is an intrinsically complicated political environment”, said Petrie. Fixing the UN’s structures in Myanmar, starting with the “essential” appointment of the resident coordinator, is critical, he added.

Dujarric said Guterres “continues to focus on the situation in Myanmar” and “draws attention to the severe humanitarian, socio-economic, and human rights crisis”. The UN has “undertaken initiatives focused on improving visibility and fundraising efforts to relieve suffering in Myanmar”, including responding to civilian protection concerns and facilitating the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, he said.

“The UN response in Myanmar is well coordinated and guided by senior level leadership,” added Dujarric. “Furthermore, the close cooperation between the UN Country Team in Myanmar and the Office of the Special Envoy helps to contextualise operational considerations in line with ground realities, geopolitical sensitivities, and regional dynamics.”

Time for another look at the IHF idea?

If the IHF itself is dead, the idea that gave it life still has much support. 

As the war is turning against the junta and the NUG and EAOs control more territory, Myanmar campaigners say the UN has less reason not to engage with the resistance groups for humanitarian purposes – the reason the IHF was launched in the first place. 

Aid to Myanmar requires a “completely different approach” from the international community, said Petrie. “The UN can do it under a humanitarian mandate, [which] provides the cover to engage with all groups,” he said, adding that an asserted campaign to gain more understanding of “how civil society and different actors are dealing with the challenges in SAC and non-SAC areas, and [finding] modalities to provide support to the most vulnerable in all of these areas” could go a long way to restoring the UN’s relevance in the country. 

To counter the “military’s manipulation” of the relief efforts, “we have been working for the establishment of a supplementary parallel mechanism to ensure the effective delivery of humanitarian aid through safe passages”, the NUG’s top humanitarian official, Dr Win Myat Aye, told The New Humanitarian. “The approach and ideas and the concept is the same” as the IHF, he added. 

In public at least, the UN doesn’t appear to disagree.

“A mixture of response approaches by humanitarian organisations is required to expand reach,” said Dujarric. “No single entity can reach every part of the country due to the different areas of control and varying access constraints, and so there is a complex mosaic of different approaches by different actors in different areas of control and access.” 

The IHF is not the only controversial aid initiative being proposed for Myanmar. 

In late March, Thailand began deliveries under its own ASEAN-supported humanitarian corridor scheme, sending aid from Thailand to the Myanmar Red Cross.

Critics, including Tom Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, say these efforts are being controlled and manipulated by the junta.

“We know that the junta takes these resources, including humanitarian, and weaponises them – uses them for their own military strategic advantage,” Andrews told AP.

Thailand’s project “smacks of desperation”, and because of its alleged associations with the junta will likely struggle to attract funding beyond ASEAN, making it “hard to sustain”, Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian.

If the IHF is used to rebrand these efforts, “then it’s not worth the paper it's written on,” Robertson added. “However, on the other hand, if the Forum becomes a way to support humanitarian assistance cross-border from Thailand and India via local communities and organisations who have been active on the borders for years, then the whole concept becomes more interesting and important.”

It remains to be seen what changes, if any, the newly installed Bishop intends to pursue, but observers say a major push will be needed if Heyser’s vision of broadening aid access in Myanmar to rebel held areas is to become a reality.

As Robertson put it: “Without a UN special envoy to work on this, and help sort out the differing visions, players, and plans, the Forum will remain a moribund concept.”

Edited by Andrew Gully and Irwin Loy.

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