In Conversation with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer

Since assuming her current duties, Dr Noeleen Heyzer has engaged stakeholders in Myanmar to understand the challenges and aspirations for a home-grown solution to the country’s crisis and for a just, inclusive and peaceful future. Though the UN General Assembly initially established the Special Envoy’s mandate to address the Rohingya crisis, the challenges facing the Myanmar people have grown in both scope and urgency. Dr Heyzer is now working to facilitate greater political support, internationally and regionally, to address the multiple needs and vulnerabilities in Myanmar that have worsened since the coup in 2021.


5 September 2022, Monday – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s Myanmar Studies Programme organised a seminar titled “In Conversation with the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer”, as a hybrid event on 5 September 2022. The seminar attracted the interest of close to 200 attendees on the virtual platform and in person at the Institute’s seminar room. Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, introduced Dr Heyzer and moderated the conversation.

Mr Choi Shing Kwok (moderator) with speaker Dr Noeleen Heyzer. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Special Envoy Heyzer gave a comprehensive update of her work over the nine months since she first assumed responsibilities as the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar. This update included recent visits in August 2022 to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Her comprehensive update and the discussion that followed touched on the following points of note.

Current mandate

  • Established by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017 in response to the Rohingya crisis, the Special Envoy’s mandate, which is renewed each year, required expansion after the military takeover in 2021 to address the multiplicity of issues.
  • The UNGA has requested the Special Envoy to engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders in Myanmar towards reconciliation and to identify options for humanitarian assistance. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has expressed continued support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to promote an inclusive approach towards a peaceful resolution. 
  • The UNSC has emphasised ASEAN’s regional responsibility in responding to the Myanmar crisis in close coordination with the UN Special Envoy. The Special Envoy has sought to underpin complementarity between the UN and ASEAN on her inclusive engagement, focusing on support for a Myanmar-led process and amplification of the voices. In doing so, the Special Envoy has sought to align regional and international efforts with the will of the people of Myanmar and complement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus accordingly and with the norms and values of the United Nations.
  • In this respect, over the past nine months, Special Envoy Heyzer has strengthened cooperation with ASEAN through close and regular consultations, including with the present ASEAN Chair and Special Envoy.

Inclusive consultations

  • The Special Envoy’s mandate also calls for extensive consultations and active engagement with key stakeholders in Myanmar, the region, and the international community.
  • Special Envoy Heyzer has held extensive and regular consultations with Myanmar’s key stakeholders, including the National League for Democracy, and the top leadership of the National Unity Government (NUG) and key Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs). She has also engaged with elected parliamentarians in the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, as well as diverse civil society organisations, humanitarian organisations, representatives of refugees including the Rohingya and diverse ethnic groups, and youth.
  • Special Envoy Heyzer has also engaged with foreign ministers of the nine ASEAN member states and with several of the ASEAN Heads of State/Government.

Current situation in Myanmar

  • Distrust among stakeholders in Myanmar has deepened, with “zero-sum” calculations. There is little space to advocate for the de-escalation of violence or to engage in “talks about talks” to address the political and multidimensional crises.
  • Armed resistance has proliferated. The military’s disproportionate use of force continues, including the use of militias and aerial bombings. Civilian buildings and villages have been destroyed by fire and internally displaced populations have been attacked.
  • Special Envoy Heyzer has repeatedly called for the immediate cessation of aerial bombings and a humanitarian pause in targeted areas, protection of civilians and urgent delivery of assistance through all existing channels to address the multiple humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities.
  • Reflective of increasing unity forming across ethnic and democratic lines, the EAOs and the NUG have appealed to the Special Envoy to establish an “ASEAN PLUS” inclusive platform for engagement and problem solving, focusing initially on the emergency humanitarian situation that is a direct result of the political crisis. 

Myanmar and Bangladesh visits

  • Special Envoy Heyzer’s Myanmar visit in August 2022, to meet with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his senior advisers, was 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, and highlighting the Special Envoy’s mandate as an impartial actor.
  • Special Envoy Heyzer will continue to monitor the implementation of the points she raised with the Senior General during her visit, including the possibility of an eventual meeting with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Special Envoy Heyzer has expressed her desire to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her next visit to Myanmar.
  • Immediately after the Myanmar visit, Special Envoy Heyzer continued on to Bangladesh for consultations with Prime Minister H.E. Sheikh Hasina and other senior Government officials, and to visit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar where she saw firsthand the resilience and determination of the Rohingya.

Regional implications and support for refugees

  • Special Envoy Heyzer visited Malaysia in July 2022, during which she discussed with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob the plight of Rohingya refugees and other displaced persons from Myanmar. The Government of Malaysia now officially considers refugees as a ‘vulnerable group’. During her Malaysia trip, the Special Envoy also met with representatives of several refugee communities from Myanmar.
  • Special Envoy Heyzer will continue to call for greater urgency and responsibility-sharing by the international community, including scaling up humanitarian assistance and durable solutions for refugees from Myanmar, as well as urge ASEAN Member States to develop a regional framework for refugee protection as part of this responsibility-sharing.


  • Special Envoy Heyzer recognized that there is no clear path out of the crisis and no easy solutions.
  • There are clear limitations of the United Nations and the international community, and continued differences in positioning among UN Member States.
  • Recognising that political solutions cannot be imposed externally, the Special Envoy reiterated her commitment to continue to appeal to governments, regional organisations and other stakeholders. She also expressed her concern that the cost of inaction would result in a multidimensional catastrophe emerging “in the heart of ASEAN”.

Questions posed to Special Envoy Heyzer covered:

  • the scope of and considerations for the Special Envoy’s expanded mandate and deliverables, and future plans for her work, including continued consultations with the NUG and EAOs
  • involving the private/business sector in future consultations
  • whether sanctions and other strategies for external pressure could bring about change in Myanmar
  • role of state and non-state actors in supporting the ongoing efforts by the NUG and NUCC to build a federal democracy in Myanmar.

Download the attributable key highlights of Special Envoy Heyzer’s talk at ISEAS – Yusof Institute on 5 September 2022 here.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)