How the New UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Should Approach Her Impossible Mission

How the New UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Should Approach Her Impossible Mission

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop faces an unenviable task in attempting to bring peace to the country.
Julie Bishop speaking at the UN. Julie Bishop, then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session. Photo Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak.

This commentary was originally published by The Diplomat.

New United Nations Special Envoy for Myanmar Julie Bishop faces what seems to be an impossible mission. Even setting aside the long history of failed U.N. envoys to the country, the current situation is not at all welcoming to a would-be foreign peacemaker. The Myanmar military, in addition to being xenophobic, misogynistic, dishonest, and brutal, is by nature uncompromising and absolutely committed to maintaining political power. This is true even in the face of significant resistance gains, a worsening economy, and a severe humanitarian crisis.

For its part, the broad resistance – and arguably the population at large – is dead-set on removing the military from power and unlikely to accept anything short of that. In addition, despite improved inter-group communication and broad unity on the goal of ousting the military, its various elements represent a host of different interests, and there is no one person who can speak for all or even most of those interests.

There is no foolproof path to success for Bishop, but past experience and an analysis of the current Myanmar situation suggest an approach that includes the following elements.

First, recognize that – at least for now – there is virtually zero chance that any envoy will be able to (a) persuade the military to reduce violence or (b) bring the parties to the table for serious dialogue on a potential compromise deal. Myanmar now is a zero-sum situation; there is no compromise to be had and pushing one will do little more than alienate everyone involved. The best hope for an environment that would allow for genuine dialogue/negotiations would be for the military to be weakened to the point that it seriously begins to seek an exit strategy. That has not yet happened.

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Second, Bishop should use the interim period to put herself in the best possible situation to be helpful should that inflection point be reached. That would involve first talking at length with credible experts on Myanmar, most of whom should be Myanmar people. The next step would be to very carefully begin to develop relationships with key players – in the military, the resistance, and among other political and civil society players.  The emphasis here is on “very carefully” because the junta will use any visits/meetings as photo ops to confer legitimacy, which will undermine the envoy’s standing with the resistance and the broad Myanmar population.

Bishop should insist that any meetings not be photographed. If that proves impossible, any meetings/photos with the generals need to be matched in a timely way with similar events with the National Unity Government and other resistance officials. Bishop’s public appearances and media engagements should be limited and restrained, though she likely will need to “clarify” any meeting readouts from the junta.

Third, as Morten Pedersen noted in a recent article for the Lowy Institute, Bishop can use her discussions with the broad resistance to encourage further coordination and development of a shared vision, along with work toward a more detailed blueprint for any future transition. There is less to do with the generals, frankly, though encouraging them to think of a realistic exit strategy might have some limited value (mostly among officers other than the top one or two generals).

Fourth, Bishop can use her position to push the United Nations as well as Myanmar’s neighbors and other interested parties to review and rethink their approach on humanitarian assistance. To date, the U.N. and the neighbors have largely played by the junta’s rules, and in doing so have both conferred legitimacy on it and ensured that most of the assistance does not reach those who truly need it. Bishop will have the standing and the clout to insist on a more creative approach. Key will be her discussions with the Thais, who have generally backed the generals but under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin seem to be more open to new ideas than in the past.

Finally, Bishop would do well to coordinate and exchange ideas with key regional players, including current Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Special Envoy Alounkeo Kittikhoun, including before any visits to Myanmar. These players have had limited influence to date but could play important roles if and when the situation changes and there is a genuine need for regional and international support for negotiations and a potential “deal” to end the crisis. Again, such a deal is very unlikely – or if it somehow happened would not be durable – until and unless the military is desperate enough to make massive concessions, which means patience will be a necessity.

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