Fri 29 Aug 2008
Filed under: News,Opinion,Other
UN special envoys to Burma have come and gone over the past 20 years, each time leaving the country empty-handed.
There have been eight of them, starting with Japanese diplomat Sadako Ogata, who was appointed in 1990 as an independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and ending now with the secretary-general’s personal envoy Ibrahim Gambari.
At least one, the Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, quit in sheer frustration over the problems of dealing with an uncooperative and obstructionist regime. Now there are calls for Gambari to give up his job after the total failure of his latest mission to Burma.
To be fair, the UN has done its best. But, as in life itself, sometimes â€œbestâ€ is not enough.
The UN envoys all met Burma’s political stakeholders-the regime’s decision makers and their supporters; opposition members and respected ethnic leaders. But to no avail.
Burma remains a diplomatic graveyard, which now maybe awaits its latest incumbent-Gambari.
Despite UN attempts to put a gloss on Gambari’s latest mission, the plain fact is that it was a complete waste of time and energy-not to mention the cost of such failed ventures that has accrued over the past 20 years.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Deputy Spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, denied the mission had failed. Gambari’s mission to Burma was a “process, not an event,” she said.
â€œProcessâ€ was the description used by Gambari in an interview with The Irrawaddy early this year.
There’s no denying that it is a process. But a process also demands progress and a discernable forward movement that inspires confidence and trust.
Gambari’s mission can, in no way, be described in those terms. It’s a failed process, which could lead to disaster.
Some observers found comfort in Gambari’s meetings with Prime Minister Thein Sein, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
But the Burmese people and the international community want to hear honest statements from the UN and Gambari, instead of attempts to defend a failed mission. Gambari and Ban Ki-moon need urgently to take action on Burma’s political deadlock.
Interestingly, detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to refuse a meeting with Gambari during his latest visit to Rangoon, the first time she has snubbed him. The reason isn’t known and observers are asking themselves whether the snub was a sign of frustration or a political maneuver.
There was even a suggestion that Suu Kyi could be on a hunger strike after her National League for Democracy colleagues said she had instructed them to stop deliveries of food and supplies to her home. This is a situation that must be monitored closely.
Suu Kyi is a prisoner of the regime, which has detained her in her own home for 13 of the past 19 years. Her detention was recently extended-unlawfully, according to her lawyer.
If the regime follows the letter of the law, it should lift restrictions on Suu Kyi’s movements if it sanctions a meeting with Gambari or whomever else at a government location, for a photo op or whatever other reason.
Gambari could ask for a meeting at Suu Kyi’s house, as Raszali Ismail accomplished. The meeting would then be in the nature of a prison visit, as undertaken by UN human rights investigators in Burma. A free and frank discussion could then be held with Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi’s apparent refusal to meet Gambari could, therefore, be the expression of a wish to meet him and other envoys, as well as opposition colleagues and family members, at her home.
Diplomats and visiting UN officials were allowed access to her home during previous periods of detention. US Congressman Bill Richardson paid a personal visit in 1993, for instance.
Gambari’s predecessor, Razali Ismail, always managed to meet Suu Kyi, other opposition politicians and ethnic representatives, after carefully doing his homework.
Unlike Gambari, Razali did not follow the regime’s schedule faithfully. Diplomats and Burma watchers say that whatever advice and guidelines they provided to Gambari have rarely been followed.
During his last visit, Gambari blundered by meeting several pro-regime political groups and leaving little time for the NLD and ethnic leaders, creating increased friction among the Burmese and distrust toward his mission.
The blunder has prompted observers within and outside Burma to charge that the Nigerian diplomat doesn’t do his homework and fails even to understand the basics of how to deal with Burma’s political complexity. Or were his actions deliberate?
In previous visits, Gambari was virtually a prisoner of the regime, which kept him isolated in Naypyidaw, subject to an official itinerary that even included attendance at a rally in Shan State denouncing last September’s pro-democracy uprising.
Rumors circulated for months about the true forces behind Gambari’s mission and the source of the ill advice he was receiving. Perhaps they warrant some investigative reporting that could result in an interesting expose.
Some dissidents and opposition members inside Burma are beginning to suspect that the UN and Gambari are pushing for the 2010 election with or without the participation of relevant political parties, including Suu Kyi’s NLD.
That won’t win the UN envoy the regime’s trust and confidence, however. The regime doesn’t listen to Gambari.
Early this year, after visiting China and meeting Chinese foreign ministry officials, Gambari said that the Burmese government’s proposal for a May referendum on a constitution written under military guidance and for general elections in 2010 was a significant step forward.
“This is a significant step as it marks the first time that we have an established time frame for the implementation of its political roadmap,” Gambari said.
He then called for the creation of “an atmosphere conducive to credible elections,” adding that this must include the release of political prisoners and relaxation of restrictions on Suu Kyi. The opposite has happened, however.
The regime forced the people to vote in the May referendum and tightened its reign of terror. There has been no relaxation of restrictions on Suu Kyi and the prisons admitted a new flow of political prisoners, including monks.
In my meeting with Gambari in Quebec, Canada, early this year, I discovered that he is sensitive to criticism and negative media coverage about his mission to Burma.
I also found out that he was quite clever at defending his mission, winning praise from some Canadian foreign ministry officials.
Despite these shows of diplomatic support for Gambari’s efforts, there’s no denying that his mission has lost steam and a new start is required.
The Burmese opposition and pro-democracy forces have virtually no more confidence in Gambari and the good offices of the UN, which have been snubbed and exploited at will by the regime.
Things have reached such a pass in Burma, in fact, that the name of the UN is in danger of falling into nearly as much disrepute as Than Shwe’s.