Go Gambari, but Don’t Expect Much

Published on January 28, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Korea Times – January 29, 2009


The seventh visit of U.N. secretary general advisor Irbahim Gambari to Myanmar, which tentatively is scheduled for January 31, is yet another attempt to help resolve the political crisis in the Southeast Asian country. This is a standing invitation Gambari has received from the military junta.

Gambari’s last visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in August 2008 was considered a failure, mainly for two reasons: First, he could not meet the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Chairman Than Shwe and the National League for Democracy General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi; second, he could not convince the military generals to start serious dialogue with the opposition.

The success of his upcoming visit will also be measured primarily in the same way. Although it is difficult to predict how the military leadership will respond, it appears unlikely that the military leader Than Shwe will see the visiting envoy. Prime Minister Thein Sein or other Cabinet ministers are expected to meet him.

Due to the continued arrest and sentencing of political dissidents, coupled by other pressing demands in the run up to the 2010 general elections, there is more probability that Aung San Suu Kyi might meet Gambari this time.

In his previous visits, the U.N. special envoy was armed with a gun without ammunition. The international community, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, expressed their support for the role of the good offices of the secretary general, but with little commitment.

Other than releasing presidential statements and formally discussing the situation of Myanmar at the U.N. Security Council, the highest world body has not taken any concrete steps. Resolutions at the General Assembly were also symbolic and not legally binding.

Anytime a binding resolution was proposed at the Security Council, China and Russia shot it down, which contributed to a strengthened relationship between the military regime and the two permanent powers. The council’s unequivocal support and backing is what Gambari and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon need to be armed with.

In the absence of a firm and resolute commitment from the Security Council, Gambari needs to find alternative strategies. Regardless of what the international community says, the SPDC is determined to go forward with the scheduled 2010 elections. Unlike the 1990 elections, the military is well prepared this time.

The new constitution guarantees a win-win situation for the military junta. Even if Gambari is successful in convincing the military to let in international election observers, though still unlikely, the 25 percent of seats reserved for the military in parliament is enough to block any attempt to amend the constitution.

It is no doubt that different political parties, if allowed to contest, will participate in the upcoming elections. The military regime learnt a lesson from its humiliating defeat in the 1990 elections, so much that it will not let that happen again ― and the international community must understand this.

In light of all these realistic challenges, Gambari needs to equip himself with alternative strategies and carry a new message to the military leaders when he visits Myanmar.

It would be naive to expect the United Nations to consider any form of military intervention. Even if Gambari and Ban would consider it, no country will be willing to accept such a request at this time. The office of the secretary general could recommend tougher action by the Security Council, including a binding resolution, but it will again be rejected by China and Russia.

If the United Nations decides to leave the Myanmarese people to resolve their country’s problems themselves, the crisis will drag on for many more years under the military leadership with little reform. Any popular uprising, unless the military splits its rank and file, will again be brutally crushed.

What Gambari and Ban should now do is to emphasize the mission of the “Group of Friends of the Secretary General on Myanmar” by bringing together the conflicting Eastern engagement group and the Western sanction group to engage in an effective and coordinated international approach.

One other pragmatic strategy will be pushing the Barack Obama administration to pursue a Congress-created special envoy post for Myanmar. Sanctions hurt but they alone are not effective in resolving Myanmar’s political problems, especially when there is engagement on the other end.

While sanctions are in place, the new envoy should start initiating a “carrot and stick” policy by working together with key international players ― one similar to the North Korean six-party talks model should be given emphasis.

It was not only the stick that worked but also the carrot. The United States offered energy and food assistance to the North Korean leadership. A similar initiative should be taken by both the United States and the United Nations in order to deal with the Myanmarese military generals.

The Myanmar talks, also a six-party negotiation, involving the United States, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, India, and Myanmar, should be initiated.

In the beginning, the junta and some countries might resist the proposal, but we need to remember that the North Korean talks were also initially not supported by all parties.

The international community must understand that Myanmar’s problem is ethno-political, and not just political. The present Union of Burma was formed by different independent nationalities at the Panglong agreement in 1947. Any democracy, without addressing the country’s multiethnic problems, will lead to another crisis.

As much as the military regime is the root of the problem, it is also an indispensable part of the solution.

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).