Don’t Blame Gambari!

Published on March 15, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Irrawaddy – March 14, 2008


Ibrahim Gambari, a seasoned Nigerian diplomat who has been tasked with coordinating the United Nations’ efforts to end the political impasse in Burma, wrapped up his latest visit to the country on March 10. The outcome of his mission, which ended without any improvement in the situation, was about as good as could be expected.


In the absence of a mandate from the UN Security Council, there was little chance that the special envoy could achieve anything concrete. When the Security Council refused to pass a resolution on Burma on January 12, it effectively ensured that Gambari’s efforts would become an exercise in futility.


Prior to his visit to Burma, the UN special envoy headed to neighboring countries to build some sort of consensus. As anticipated by many, including Burmese opposition groups and members of the United Nations, nothing has come of Gambari’s travels around the region.

Gambari was reportedly encouraged when the countries he visited paid lip service to the need for real improvement in
Burma. But in the end, all he received were words without concrete commitments. China remains as determined as ever to expand its influence in the country for its own purposes, while India is still primarily concerned with countering Beijing ’s growing clout.

The game being played by
China and India is not about national security or ideology; they are not interested in spreading communism or democracy. The driving force behind the Burma policies of the two countries is economic interest. 

Despite the shortcomings of UN efforts to date, however, we should acknowledge, with reservations, the good offices of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his efforts to bring about some resolution of
Burma’s longstanding conflicts. Although substantive results have yet to be borne, the first meeting of the 14-nation “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar” was convened on December 19, 2007.

There are two possible ways to end
Burma’s current situation: through international intervention or by a popular uprising (supported by disgruntled military personnel). Although it may be naïve to even consider it, the swiftest way to bring change would be by military intervention, either by the United States or by the United Nations.

So far, the regime has easily withstood pressure from the international community, which has yet to make a truly concerted effort to address the situation in
Burma. Change from within the country is also unlikely to emerge without the support of elements within the military that has run the country since 1962.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to push a constitution that is deeply flawed and clearly undemocratic. Under the military-drafted constitution, 25% seats will be reserved for the military, which will also reserve the right to declare “emergency rule” at will.


Gambari has become more of a negotiator than a mediator. A suggestion he put forward during his latest visit – allowing independent observers to monitor and provide technical assistance during the May referendum on the constitution – was rejected outright by the regime. This indicates that the military is not prepared to accept the role of the United Nations.

The generals in
Burma may one day regret that they did not listen to Gambari when they had a chance. If the regime had accepted his proposal, it would have muted criticism of the referendum and given greater legitimacy to the entire road map process.

On the other hand, international acceptance of the regime’s political process would lead to the marginalization of opposition groups. The result of the 1990 general elections would be officially nullified, and the military’s draft constitution would be accepted as legitimate.


But if a free and fair countrywide referendum were held in Burma today, it would in no uncertain terms reject the constitution. If the regime does succeed in forcing its constitution on an unwilling public, it will only mean that the country will be destined to repeat its unhappy history.

Gambari gave it his best shot, but he was never given any bullets. Even if the UN secretary-general himself personally visited
Burma, as many observers have said he should, it would not likely make a significant difference. The Burmese military has guns and resources, but Gambari and Ban Ki-moon only have rhetoric and no enforcement power from the UN Security Council to back it up.

Don’t blame Gambari for not achieving much. Blame
China and Russia for exercising their veto powers to block a resolution on Burma!

Nehginpao Kipgen is the general secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He is also the editor of