Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mission Impossible

Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mission Impossible


To the Burmese generals, accepting international mediation has become just another means of conducting the conflict as opposed to an option for settling it. In other words, it is a tactical maneuver.

In the wake of the protests in September last year, the regime accepted the mediation efforts of the United Nations simply because rejecting them would cause greater harm in the international arena. More importantly, the junta might not have wanted to upset relations with its staunch regional supporters.

It is hardly surprising that the Burmese government is defying the UN's attempts at mediation—it feels confident that it is successfully bringing the country back under control. Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly warning that a return to the status quo that existed before the September crisis is not sustainable, the present situation is heading all the way back to square one.

Ban is trying to revive his Good Offices’ mediation efforts and to dispatch Ibrahim Gambari to China and India before the end of January "to continue further consultations with Burma's neighbors," according to UN officials. At the moment however, the Burmese authorities have not even approved Gambari’s itinerary for Burma.

"As for Myanmar (Burma) itself, we don't have an exact date for Mr Gambari to go back there, although he does have an open invitation to visit the country," said Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman. "The question is about developing the right arrangements. We are keeping in touch with the authorities in Myanmar (Burma) to discuss when Mr Gambari may be able to return."

Burmese opposition party National League for Democracy sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General recently, expressing a readiness to accept Gambari's mediation efforts toward political dialogue and national reconciliation. "Though we cannot ascertain if Mr Gambari will be able to visit Burma during his trip to Asia, we urge the [Burmese] government to accept his visit and the resumption of the stalled political dialogue," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the party.

However, some diplomatic sources within the UN spoke recently to The Irrawaddy and expressed doubts about the possibility of Gambari visiting Burma on this particular trip.

"He is more likely to come back to New York after visiting China and India," said a foreign diplomat at the UN who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Mr Gambari may not be able to give another Burma briefing at the UN Security Council after this trip, even though some council members will be expecting such a briefing in order to keep the Burma issue on board."

In fact, the UN envoy and other key international players realize that the momentum of the international mediation efforts toward Burma is now fading. They must try to reactivate the momentum and to prioritize a return visit by Gambari to Burma as soon as possible.

"The success of Mr Gambari's efforts largely depend on the readiness of China and India to use their leverage over the Burmese junta," said Dr Thaung Tun, UN representative of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma—effectively the Burmese government in exile. "China retreated when they really needed to apply pressure on Burma, even though they said they supported Gambari's mission."

After the September uprising and the subsequent military crackdowns, Gambari managed to garner regional consensus on Burma. Those who had kept saying that the Burmese issue was an internal matter—China, India and Asean—came to the consensus that the country really did have a problem, and that the ruling junta should cooperate with UN for the benefit of national reconciliation and democratization. "Mr Gambari has been dealing with a number of neighboring countries to see what contribution they can make in the process toward normalcy and democratization in Myanmar (Burma)," Haq told The Irrawaddy. "In his upcoming Asia trip, he will simply try to continue that process".

Of course, Gambari must hold China and India to their promise that they would ensure the Burmese regime’s full cooperation with the UN Envoy, especially given the situation that his access to the country is so uncertain. Otherwise, Gambari may face a similar fate to his predecessor, Razali Ismail, who ended his mission denied entry to Burma indefinitely.

The international community needs to be "more insistent with the junta that a special representative of the UN Secretary-General cannot be treated the way that the junta has treated Mr. Gambari,'' United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said late last month. "It's simply unacceptable," Rice added, referring to the way the Burmese authorities had undermined his entry to and movements around Burma last time round.

The outgoing US administration must surely realize its diplomatic constraints in pushing Burma at the Security Council in the face of harsh resistance from China. Contrary to a common misconception, Gambari's current mission is a non-binding mediation effort and he does not have any enforcement capacity. From the very beginning, the leverage he has wielded has largely lain at the mercy of military junta and, to a lesser extent, its key ally, China.

There is no other country in the region or within the Security Council that can initiate a credible alternative Burma policy to the current mechanism of the Good Offices’ role. Sadly, Chinese checkers is the only game in town.

The US Secretary of State recently said that Gambari's mission "needs more profile; it needs to have more vigor." However, she did not articulate how this could be done effectively. Unless the international community compels the Burmese junta to feel that the cost of rejecting the mission, the UN envoy will remain toothless.

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