UN envoy returns home frustrated

Published on February 7, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – February 7, 2009

Just a day before he began his seventh visit to the military-ruled Burma, since his assignment as the U.N. secretary-general’s special advisor in 2006, I authored an analytical piece entitled “Go Gambari, But Don’t Expect Much” discussing the possible outcome of the mission.

As expected, the envoy was allowed to meet the National League for Democracy (NLD) general secretary Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) cabinet ministers, including the prime minister Thein Sein, among others.

The military chief Than Shwe refused to meet the visiting envoy again. Gambari met Aung San Suu Kyi but to listen to her frustration. Suu Kyi said, “she was ready and willing to meet anyone, but could not accept having meetings without achieving any outcome.”

Prior to his 4-day trip which began on 31 January, confirmed by the U.N. only a day earlier, Gambari outlined his objectives: to urge the junta to free political prisoners, discuss the country’s ailing economy and revive a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.

The fundamental demands from Suu Kyi and NLD were that: the government release all political prisoners, review the new constitution passed by a referendum in May 2007, and recognize the results of 1990 election that the NLD won by a landslide.

The basic demands of the U.N. and NLD fall on the same line. They both asked the military junta to release all political prisoners and start a serious dialogue with the opposition.

However, the U.N. appears to be shying away from some other key demands of the NLD, such as reviewing the military-drafted constitution and recognizing the 1990 general election results. In this regard, the U.N. seems to leave the matter to the Burmese themselves.

The NLD is not wrong at all on reiterating its consistent demands. If the international community were to let the military proceed with its seven-step “road map,” it will lead to a general election in 2010 which will eventually install a new military-dominated “disciplined democracy” leaving the 1990 election result a bygone history.

The special envoy’s visit was also a preliminary survey whether the U.N. chief should go himself. Ban Ki-moon asked his advisor “to continue his consultations with the government and other relevant parties and looks forward to meaningful discussions with all concerned on all the points raised during his last visit.”

The nature of Burma’s military regime is a one-man show. It is Than Shwe who steers the wheel. The U.N. must understand that Than Shwe will not be easily moved by visits and appeals. He worries three things to happen: popular uprising supported by elements in the military; a powerful binding resolution from the U.N. Security Council, and a unilateral military action from the big powers.

After a series of setbacks, the U.N. needs to equip itself with new strategies. Neither engagement nor sanctions alone will yield a democratic society in the Union of Burma. It needs a coordinated and collective international action that sends a clear message to the intransigent military generals.

A “carrot and stick” strategy should be used by working together with key international players – one similar to the North Korean six-party talks’ model. The office of the secretary-general should also push the Obama administration to confirm a special envoy for Burma, which the Bush administration initiated in 2008.

Gambari returns home frustrated, and with little progress to report. However even if Ban Ki-moon were to go today, he could not be much better yielding with the kind of support he has from the U.N. Security Council and the international community.

Hearing the voice of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s political stand was one notable development of the just concluded U.N. mission.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).