Can New UN Envoy Avoid Past Mediation Failures In Myanmar? – Analysis


By Nicola Williams

Australia’s former foreign minister Julie Bishop takes on a challenging role as the recently appointed UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar. To avoid joining the high-level graveyard of UN envoys, diplomats and ASEAN leaders who have tried and failed to negotiate with the junta, she must remember the lessons learnt from over a decade of international peacebuilding and failed mediation efforts.  

Bishop should avoid advocating for high-level track-one negotiations to solve Myanmar’s civil war. There is no bargaining range for talks between the junta and the broad resistance, as both sides seek decisive military outcomes and have entirely different visions for the country. Considering Myanmar’s experience with multi-stakeholder peace negotiations with the junta involved, this approach is unviable, even in more ‘ripe’ times for bargains. Track-one negotiations are generally only feasible at the tail end of many track-two peace processes across multiple years and different issues or, potentially, for a victor’s peace when the military is significantly weakened.

Focussing on the subnational conflicts within Myanmar’s national conflict and ethnic relationships within the broad federal democracy movement embedded within the resistance will be more effective. This could involve looking at contests over territory and identities in the hotly contested Shan State and workshopping what the federalism puzzle could look like in one of Myanmar’s most complex ethnic landscapes. The approach may also tackle challenges among political stakeholders with legitimacy claims and ‘turf’ contests. In any strategy, it is wise to go bottom-up rather than top-down.  

Another lesson Bishop should keep in mind is the importance of sequencing initial meetings to build trust and multiple stakeholder engagement strategies. Learning from recent efforts by ASEAN leaders, it is crucial that the UN Special Envoy does not rush to meet the junta in Myanmar. First, she should meet with leading Myanmar and regional stakeholders outside the country. This includes the exiled National Unity Government, Myanmar civil society and political leaders, ASEAN leaders, Western counterparts, the Chinese and Japanese Special Envoys and refugees. There is also a suggestion to avoid pictures with all parties to the conflict, but particularly the junta, to prevent  being used in propaganda campaigns. Setting up flexible back channels will also be key for managing relationships and the risks of disinformation around the UN Special Envoy’s office.

Bishop should also work behind the scenes to improve Myanmar’s humanitarian response system, including through local non-government aid delivery. The conflict is not ending anytime soon and may only worsen as strategic sites are fought over, as was the case with the Myawaddy border town capture and recapture in April 2024. Addressing the bureaucratic challenges and politics surrounding the UN’s humanitarian role requires decisive senior leadership and new approaches to reaching conflict-affected communities through local aid providers, including elements of the resistance and ethnic armed groups that provide services where the government no longer holds territory.

The UN’s new envoy should work in concert with ASEAN while pursuing a separate approach that goes beyond standing on the sidelines to offer mediation to the junta. It is also vital that the UN Special Envoy provides something different to China’s illiberal peace efforts, which narrowly targets stability along the China–Myanmar border through opaque ceasefires with limited peace dividends. Convincing ASEAN and Chinese partners that Myanmar’s junta offers no path towards stability is critical for building better region-wide strategies that involve the federal democracy movement and move beyond crisis mitigation.

The Special Envoy must not blow any oxygen into the junta’s pretence that the previous peace process between Myanmar’s centre and its ethnic armed organisations (known as EAOs) is still progressing. This process is dead. Even before the 2021 military coup, it spent years on life support. Nothing could be more symbolic of the death of a peace process than the military ousting one of the parties to the peace negotiations — the democratically-elected government — and then jailing, exiling or executing elected officials. There is simply no junta-led peace process to continue building on and assuming otherwise is a strategic pitfall and will likely lead to political backlash. 

Bishop should not push all conflict parties toward a multilateral ceasefire agreement as a pathway to initiate dialogue. This approach has not worked given the recent failed attempts at a nationwide ceasefire and scores of broken bilateral ceasefires. It is important to get a handle on Myanmar’s long history of ceasefires and how the junta has historically used and abused these instruments. Beyond temporary subnational pauses negotiated since the 2021 coup, discussing a substantive ceasefire instrument among conflict parties is likely best placed if and when the military is significantly weakened and once there is political agreement for a transition.

Finally, the new Special Envoy should ambitiously and cautiously carve out a new role as a third-party actor in Myanmar’s civil war, distinct from regional leaders and even former UN Special Envoys on Myanmar. Powerholders within the federal democracy movement and the military have previously struggled to effectively use external support, managing their issues with limited and cherry-picked interventions. But the war and multiple crises since the coup, including the Rohingya genocide, have spilled into the region and are far beyond internal management.

A new approach is needed that learns from years of failed peacebuilding and mediation interventions and works diligently in the interests of the Myanmar people, the significant majority of whom crave a bright future without brutal military rule.

  • About the author: Nicola S Williams is PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy and Board Member at the Myanmar Research Centre, The Australian National University. Nicola is an international development professional with experience in conflict resolution and governance. 
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *