Friday, August 22, 2008

End of the road for empty-handed UN envoy


End of the road for empty-handed UN envoy


As the United Nations' special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari's current mission to help break the political deadlock between the military junta and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have been a complete failure.

His efforts to establish a dialogue between the two sides has collapsed and he is leaving Burma empty-handed. Even Daw Suu Kyi _ the charismatic, leader of the National League for Democracy or NLD _ has refused to see him so far during this trip, although he met her on all his previous visits.

He also failed to meet any senior members of the country's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). His failure to accomplish anything at all during this visit now raises serious doubts about his future role, and the UN's mediation efforts in Burma as a whole.

He is currently en route to Jakarta to see Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and Asean's Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, to see if there is anything he and the UN can now resurrect from the mission to encourage the Burmese junta to make their transition to democratic rule more credible.

Mr Gambari was kept busy on his latest visit, meeting many groups nominated by the regime to brief him, almost all of them pro-junta. But he was unable to meet any senior representatives of the regime. Instead he has been left kicking his heels in Rangoon.

The senior leaders, including the strongman, Senior General Than Shwe _ who are all ensconced in their new capital Naypyidaw some 400km north of the old capital _ have kept him at arm's length, and insisted he could meet everyone he needed to in Rangoon. The key meeting he wanted _ with the opposition icon, Aung San Suu Kyi _ also did not take place.

The UN envoy originally planned to meet her at the State Guesthouse on Wednesday, but she did not show up, according to NLD sources in Rangoon _ although UN officials in Burma contacted by the Bangkok Post declined to confirm a meeting had in fact been scheduled. ''Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is refusing to see the UN envoy before he sees a senior representative of the SPDC,'' an opposition source close to the detained leader said on condition of anonymity.

She feels there is no point in meeting Mr Gambari at the moment, as he has nothing from the generals to report or offer, he said. ''She definitely won't see him if he does not meet a top member of the regime,'' he said.

Many members of the pro-democracy movement in Burma no longer trust the UN envoy and feel it is no longer in their interests to cooperate with the process.

For many Asian diplomats, though, Daw Suu Kyi's actions are an affront. ''It's un-Asian to let the envoy wait in vain for her to show up,'' said a Japanese diplomat. ''It seems unusually rude, to the extent that it gives the impression of being insensitive.'' It will only serve to further undermine Mr Gambari's credibility and strengthen the regime's belief that she is ill-tempered and uncompromising, the diplomat added.

This is the former Nigerian foreign minister's fourth trip to Burma since the brutal crackdown on the massive Buddhist monk-led protests last year and sixth visit to Burma since he replaced the previous envoy, Ismail Razali, more than three years ago.

In November last year, he smuggled out and made public a letter from the opposition leader which appealed to the country's military leaders to put aside their differences with her and to work together on national reconciliation for the sake of the whole country. This infuriated the regime, which denounced her claims in the state media for weeks afterwards.

The international community, especially China, has exerted substantial pressure on the junta behind the scenes to allow the UN envoy to visit the country. He originally wanted to return to Burma before the referendum that was held in May, despite the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis to Rangoon and the fertile and densely populated Irrawaddy delta to the west of the city. ''The regime's only interest in allowing Gambari back is to try to get him to endorse their roadmap,'' said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai. ''They have forced the new constitution through a sham referendum, and now they are planning elections that are likely to be less than free and fair. They're not interested in anything else. They have no intentions of changing their minds or making concessions to the international community _ let alone starting a genuine political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic or ethnic forces.''

Mr Gambari's priorities on this mission were to try to kick-start talks between the two sides, press for the release of all political prisoners and discuss the junta's roadmap and the planned elections in 2010. The UN envoy did, in fact, raise all these issues with the government during his meeting with Information Minister Kyaw Hsan earlier this week, but no response has yet been forthcoming. At least he did not get a ticking off this time, as he did when he met the government's spokesman last time. General Kyaw Hsan accused him of being ignorant, insensitive and irrelevant to Burma's future. And the envoy's offer to provide international observers for the referendum on a new constitution was also roundly rebuffed.

Although Mr Gambari may have avoided a dressing down this time, the regime obviously has no less contempt for him than previously. But this time the strategy seems to be to try to educate him so that he will accept the regime's roadmap to ''disciplined democracy''. On Thursday, the regime pressed on with its efforts to convince him with a long meeting with the chairman of the referendum commission. But the junta is unlikely to get any joy from Mr Gambari on this score.

''Individual governments are free to endorse or reject the roadmap,'' Mr Gambari said in an exclusive interview prior to his last trip to Burma in March.

''The UN's responsibility is to uphold international norms and standards, which countries apply in very different ways from one situation to another. It is not for the UN to take a position on the issue, beyond reporting objectively the views and concerns of all parties, which I have done and will continue to do,'' he added.

This time, though, Mr Gambari is also reportedly trying to prepare the ground for the forthcoming visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later this year. He has passed a letter to Snr Gen Than Shwe from the UN chief, according to diplomats in Rangoon.

The planned visit, pencilled in for December, according to senior UN officials in New York, remains tentative.

''The SG has also indicated his intention to return to Burma, when conditions are right, to continue his dialogue with the Burmese leadership,'' senior UN spokesperson Marie Okabe told journalists earlier this week. That means Mr Gambari being able to continue his role in providing a channel of communication between the junta leaders and the pro-democracy opposition.

But for this visit _ with no meetings with either Aung San Suu Kyi or Than Shwe _ Mr Gambari has been left wondering what the next move can be.

For many analysts the ball is back in Asia's court, as they are the only ones the top general may listen to.

Indonesia in recent months has been active behind the scenes trying to get an international consensus on Burma, especially at several high-level informal meetings at the UN in New York. Now a member of the UN Security Council and an important state in Asean, the Indonesians have been taking a leading role in trying to find new ways of exerting international influence on Burma. They are working closely with China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and India to convince the junta that they must make their roadmap credible to the international community.

Mr Gambari's failure will certainly increase international concern over the Burmese generals' intransigence. There will also be renewed pressure for Burma to be brought before the Security Council. Burma's Asian allies are also likely to be snapped into more concerted action.''Burma claims to have a new constitution and these elections [planned for 2010] will be multi-party elections, but what is important for us at Asean is to ensure that a more credible process is taking place,'' Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told journalists in Jakarta earlier this week.

Having taken over as the chair of the regional bloc for the next 18 months, Bangkok too is looking for ways to nudge the junta. Thailand's new Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag leaves for a two-day visit to Burma tomorrow. There is no doubt the roadmap will feature prominently during his talks with the regime.

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