Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time’s up, Gambari

Irrawaddy Online, Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time’s up, Gambari!


The United Nation's mediation efforts in Burma have become snared in a trap. The special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is now caught between an unsuccessful mediation and his reluctance to admit failure.

Frustration abounds. Gambari appears to have become the target of mounting disappointments. Most Burmese opposition groups would say he deserves it.

During his briefing on Burma with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on March 18, Gambari seemed anxious to prove how important his role as special envoy really was. Though he admitted his efforts had yielded “no immediate tangible outcome,” he insisted the efforts of the UN good offices were “relevant” to both sides—the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military regime. Gambari even said in his briefing that he had reason to believe that the Burmese government attaches importance to his mission and "continues to value the Secretary-General's good offices as the best prospect for further cooperation through mutual trust and confidence, and constructive suggestions."

Unfortunately, the facts do not allow the special envoy grounds for such optimism. According to highly publicized state media reports, Burmese Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan urged him to support the junta’s “Seven-step Road map” and stop pursuing alternatives suggested by Western democracies.

The regime's information czar added that if Gambari tried to force the country to meet Western calls for reform, “We would be concerned that your task of offering impartial advice may be undermined.” As a clear indication of the regime's lack of cooperation, military chief Than Shwe, the only true decision-maker in Burma, shunned Gambari on his last two visits.

In fact, the junta has already rejected the UN's key proposals. It turned down suggestions that Burma should set up a broad-based constitutional revising commission in order to ensure an inclusive political process, and establish a poverty alleviation commission. After the two proposals were rejected, Gambari, on his last trip to the country, put forward one more suggestion to the junta—that Burma invite international observers to the upcoming referendum.

Reportedly, the junta's information minister responded with a blunt “no.”

Additionally, senior Burmese military officials announced that the new constitution would bar Aung San Suu Kyi from running in future elections because she was previously married to a foreigner, a British scholar, who died of cancer nine years ago.

Gambari's failure has become so severe that he could not even manage to persuade the Security Council members to release a much-anticipated Presidential Statement after his briefing. However, the Council may release a Presidential Statement on Burma next week, thanks to the hard work of US-led Western democracies. Council members are now negotiating the language of the statement. However, no one should expect a strong statement from the UNSC, a diplomat warned. "It will be a statement with a very mild tone," said a source close to the UN.The faith of Burmese dissident groups in Gambari's mission is about to hit rock bottom.

"We hoped he (Gambari) would ask the Council to strengthen the mandate of the Secretary-General in pressuring the junta for an all party-inclusive, transparent and democratic process of national reconciliation in our country. However, to our surprise and sadness, he misled the Council," read a joint statement issued by the All Burma Monks Alliance and the 88 Generation Students group on March 26.

In fact, there may be a valid reason to consider broader factors for his ineffectiveness and do justice to Gambari.

"Mr Gambari's efforts should be understood in a larger context, instead of over-focusing on his diplomatic skill. The success of Gambari's mission depends on the readiness of key international players 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. "At the same time, we also need to review how Gambari engages the junta; whether or not he adheres to the line of principled engagement."

UN officials maintain that "the role of the good offices is still very intact" and "very much a work in progress."

"I do understand there is the expression of frustration, but you can't expect miracles to happen to a situation that has been going years and years," said Choi Soung-ah, a UN spokeswoman. "Mr Gambari currently is the world's only tie into the government of Myanmar [Burma]. From the UN perspective, it is very important not to take drastic action immediately because we don't want to shut down the only channel."

This channel, however, can prompt disservice to genuine international mediation efforts on Burma. According to senior diplomats in Europe, the argument prevailing among Asian countries—including China and even some European nations—is that they support the UN special envoy's mediation. So long as Gambari says his mission is relevant and can yield positive results, they will not undermine him. They will support him—and wait and see.

"In fact, they justify their handoff policy by hiding behind Gambari's mission," a senior diplomat from the EU told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. "Unless Gambari admits that he can't do anything with the present mandate, he is unwittingly dragging the mediation effort into the swamp. No better alternative will be found."

Aung Din, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, agrees."Burma is now being hijacked by Gambari," said Aung Din. "His effort has failed miserably again and again and again. Unless the mission is enhanced and strengthened by the UN Security Council, nothing positive can be expected. But instead of admitting that, he is still acting like he remains relevant and can do magic. It is a high disservice to international mediation efforts. For the people of Burma, we feel betrayed."

In fact, Gambari has already exhausted his capacity for persuasion, the principal source of leverage that a mediator wields. Instead of drowning himself further in quagmire, he may want to use another source of leverage—his own termination. As a mediator, he can say "I withdraw now. I can't make any progress with the current mandate. I need stronger Security Council support to deal with the Burmese generals."

Of course, his withdrawal will not have a direct impact on the military junta—the generals in Naypyidaw are not so sensitive to such threats. But it will make China and Asean feel more pressured to cooperate with Western democracies to resolve Burma's crisis.

At least, it will be easier for US-led Western democracies to compel China and Asean (especially two current Council members: Indonesia and Vietnam) to approve a stronger Council mandate for the UN special envoy. All in all, if Gambari uses the threat of withdrawal skillfully it could yield a greater opportunity to raise the Burma issue in the UN Security Council.

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