UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari ended his mission to Burma on Tuesday, leaving the Burmese people still helpless before a ruthless regime determined to stamp out opposition no matter how much abhorrence it arouses in the international community.

What did he achieve? We’ll have to wait for a day or two more, probably until Friday, before knowing the answer to that question.

But already an answer is forming. Just look at the pictorial clues. The UN released a collection of official photographs that resemble a family snapshot album.

After an absence from the public scene of some weeks, the top generals line up for a photocell with their distinguished guest from New York. Than Shwe and the others-Maung Aye, Thura Shwe Mann and acting Prime Minister Thein Sein-seem almost smug in their freshly-laundered uniforms. Than Shwe has reason to be satisfied-he looks considerably younger than his advanced age, officially given as 74.

They all seem blissfully unaware of the carnage they have caused in the streets and monasteries of their country.

Newsreel footage of the photo call shows Gambari giving a slight bow as he firmly shakes hand with the generals. He smiles-but is there really anything to smile about? Did he have problems removing the stains left by the press of the generals’ blood-soaked palms?

Contrast this bizarre scene with the photographs of an unsmiling Aung San Suu Kyi meeting Gambari at a government guesthouse near her home, where she has spent nearly 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest. She certainly had nothing to smile about.

It’s deplorable that Gambari allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the regime, who had already humiliated him and the organization he represented by keeping him waiting two days before summoning him to a meeting. On the first day of Gambari’s “urgent” mission to Burma he was sent off on a sightseeing tour of remote areas of northern Burma, which included a visit to a rally of regime “supporters” paid or pressed to attend.

Again, the contrast is staggering-between these stage-managed photographs and the pictures of the bloody events in Rangoon.

Even as Gambari was meeting the generals, security forces in Rangoon, nearly 400 km to the south, were tightening their steel grip over the city, continuing their raids on city homes and reportedly sending arrested monks to detention camps far removed from the former capital.

At least 2,000 monks and protesters are being detained in detention centers and jails. No one knows their fate. Many could already have died from abuse, torture and from the wounds they received during their clash with troops and police. Secret military courts have sentenced an unknown number of monks to long terms of imprisonment.

It’s clear that Gambari was in no position, and possessed no real authority, to challenge the generals directly. He is just the latest in a line of UN special envoys who, between then, have achieved absolutely nothing.

By sending them on futile missions to Burma, the UN has only raised false hopes and has contributed to the generals’ grip on power.

On a previous visit to Burma, Gambari said the junta appeared ready to “turn a new page.” It must have been a blank page. Arousing false hope in this way only helps the generals survive.

The Burmese people are crushed by the junta and powerless to resist. But must this mean that the UN is to remain powerless to help them?

Betrayed by their own government, the Burmese people are now betrayed by the UN, from whom they can expect no help. Instead of being part of the solution to the Burmese crisis, the UN is in reality part of the problem.

But the Burmese people’s struggle is not yet over. More blood will inevitably flow. And Gambari, or whoever the UN sends on a next junket to Burma, will again be seen shaking the blood-soaked hands of the generals.