Swansong visit for UN’s Myanmar envoy
Swansong visit for UN’s Myanmar envoy
By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK – The United Nations special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, has arrived in the country for the start of a four-day visit to discuss the military regime’s newly announced plans for political change, including a referendum on a new constitution later this year to be followed by democratic elections in 2010.
But while the senior envoy remains optimistic about his mission, his third trip to the country since last year’s brutal military crackdown on Buddhist monk-led mass demonstrations, the signs emerging from the military government are that Gambari’s visit could be a final courtesy call and mark the UN’s forced disengagement from the country’s political reform plans.
“I will continue to press the Myanmar government to engage with [jailed opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue in order to produce a positive outcome that will promote an all-inclusive and transparent process,” Gambari told Asia Times Online by telephone from Singapore in transit to Myanmar.
Yet the military government’s newly announced plans for political change appear to leave the envoy with little room for maneuver during his talks with junta leaders – though he is expected to continue to press for Suu Kyi’s release and her involvement in the political transition from military to some form of democratic rule.
Gambari is scheduled to depart after four days in the country, though he will reportedly bid to extend his stay, according to sources close to the envoy. “Gambari hopes to stay as long as necessary,” UN spokeswoman Michele Montas told a press briefing in New York this week. Diplomatic pressure from both Beijing and New Delhi opened doors to his visit, according to diplomats familiar with the situation. The junta had originally told the UN envoy that they were not available to host him until after mid-April.
“It’s easy for the junta to agree to Gambari’s visit now, as he really has nothing to talk about,” a Bangkok-based diplomat, close to the international mediation efforts with the Myanmar government, told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. “[Senior General] Than Shwe’s decision to set a timetable for the roadmap was a strategic move to block both Maung Aye – his deputy – from assuming power later and the international community, especially Gambari, from playing a role in the process,” he added. Gambari is not expected to meet with Than Shwe during his visit, according to sources familiar with his itinerary.
Gambari, for his part, at least publicly, remains upbeat. “I will continue my consultations in Myanmar and follow up on a number of recommendations I left with the government during my last trip in November 2007,” he told Asia Times Online by telephone. “These include immediate steps to address the human rights situation; progress on time-bound dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi; the forthcoming referendum and the electoral process; economic and humanitarian issues; as well as a more regularized process of engagement with the [UN] secretary general’s good offices,” the envoy added.
Deaf junta ears
When Gambari visited Myanmar last November, he took a three-pronged approach to his mediation effort, sources close to the envoy say. First he asked to be involved in a constitutional review process after the National Convention had completed drawing up its guidelines; second he wanted to encourage the regime to make the national reconciliation process more inclusive and involve Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy political party; third he recommended that the government set up a Poverty Alleviation Committee.
Now, with the political change agenda unilaterally set by the junta, some analysts contend that the most Gambari can hope for is a UN role in the junta’s economic reform program. “The junta will ask him to approve the new constitution that has just been finalized, and give it credibility in the hope of deflecting further international pressure,” a government source said. “That’s what they would see as his role in any constitutional review process.”
According to a UN insider, Gambari was urged by the Chinese government when he visited Beijing last month to accept the junta’s new charter and its democratic roadmap’s plan to hold general elections. The UN envoy will likely be presented the freshly completed charter, the details of which have so far remained a closely guarded junta secret. Diplomats and opposition politicians contacted by Asia Times Online this week said universally that they had been unable to obtain a copy of the charter.
Gambari, similar to previous UN envoys to Myanmar who in the end have been spurned by the junta, faces an uphill task. The recommendations he made in November have in general been ignored, including his proposed confidence-building measures with the political National League for Democracy (NLD)-led opposition. To be fair, the regime did appoint a liaison minister, Labor Minister Aung Kyi, to meet regularly with opposition leader Suu Kyi. But the envoy’s recommendation that there be weekly discussions between the two has been sidestepped as there have only been half-a-dozen meetings since he was appointed over five months ago.
Even more crucially, Gambari’s suggestion that if there is to be a genuine dialogue process it was essential for the detained Suu Kyi to meet other NLD members – especially the party’s central executive committee – fell on deaf junta ears. The opposition leader has only been allowed to meet NLD members twice since Gambari’s last visit, though she has been allowed to exchange daily messages with party leaders, according to senior party sources.
During Gambari’s two trips to Myanmar last year, Suu Kyi asked the envoy to try to persuade the regime to allow her regular contact with a liaison officer representing the UN and international community. This was very successful the last time Suu Kyi was under house arrest and she held secret reconciliation talks with the regime in 2003, which were under the supervision of former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt.
According to UN sources, Gambari had asked for this communication channel to be restored, as well as permission for him to set up his own office in Yangon. To date there has been no progress on that request, though Gambari told Asia Times Online it would be among the issues he raises with the regime during his trip. However, Gambari is not expected to make much headway on these confidence-building measures, let alone on the more substantive issue of Suu Kyi’s and the NLD’s participation in the junta’s plan to hold multi-party elections in 2010.
“We have been very consistent in saying that the recent announcement by the authorities of the referendum on the government constitution in May, and elections that will lead to a multi-party democracy in 2010, are a potentially significant step,” Gambari told journalists in Jakarta recently. “But all the same, this process has to be credible and has to be all-inclusive,” he said.
Central to that objective is Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. In previous discussions between Gambari’s UN predecessor, Razali Ismail, the then-prime minister and military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt had agreed that she would be freed after the new constitution was ratified, according to sources close to Razali at the time.
Diplomats monitoring the situation now, however, anticipate the earliest the junta might release her is after the 2010 elections have been held. “The junta do not plan to release her in the near future and are almost certain to detain her until after the elections. Only then do they see a role for her in helping with economic reform,” an Asian diplomat who has regular contact with the regime leaders said.
Gambari is expected to push for a renewed commitment from the junta for her release after the constitutional referendum in May. Gambari told Asia Times Online he would certainly raise the issue of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader’s continued detention and her participation in the proposed elections in 2010.
However he will likely be pushing his points on lower-ranking junta officials – and notably not junta leader Than Shwe. “Than Shwe is still furious at Gambari because he smuggled out a letter from Aung San Suu Kyi [which he made public in Singapore on his way back to New York to report to the UN secretary general] last time,” claims the Chiang Mai-based Myanmar academic Win Min.
According to Asian diplomats in contact with Myanmar government officials, junta leaders felt the release of the letter broke with diplomatic protocols. The crux of the matter, though, is that junta leaders remain convinced that Gambari is too close to the United States, a view many regional diplomats endorse. “He is constantly consulting [US First Lady] Laura Bush. She seems to be running policy, not the UN – or that’s how it appears to Than Shwe,” said an Asian diplomat.
Myanmar’s leaders are also reportedly disappointed with the envoy because they feel he has not produced anything in return for their reluctant engagement with the international community. Instead, from the junta’s perspective, the US and European Union proceeded to impose new financial sanctions against the regime in response to its armed crackdown on last year’s street demonstrations.
The junta has since hinted in various ways that the UN envoy’s mediating mission has hit a dead end. Government censors have in recent weeks spiked stories in the local press that mentioned Gambari by name or alluded to UN mediation efforts in other global hot spots.
That included a proposed article in the local Myanmar Times which reported that Prime Minister Thein Sein and Gambari were both coincidentally in Cambodia last December, according to Western diplomats close to the paper’s editors. Last month when UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan mediated Kenya’s political crisis, a foreign news agency article on the subject in the Myanmar Times was also banned by state censors.
Closer to home, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which unlike the US and the European Union has in recent years bid to diplomatically engage the junta, during a retreat for foreign ministers earlier this month stressed that the 2010 elections must be free and fair. “[Myanmar Foreign Minister] Nyan Win was told in no uncertain terms that while the referendum was considered a domestic matter – it was essential that is was a credible process,” according to a Southeast Asian diplomat who was in attendance at the meeting.
Yet Gambari will likely find delivering even this broad brushstroke message hard-going. “Sometimes, I myself am frustrated that the tangible results are not faster or we have not achieved more,” Gambari told Asia Times Online. “But we have to build on what we have and continue to press for more results … For me, failure is not an option.”
If only Myanmar’s junta concurred.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.