UN envoy to test waters in Burma’s political quagmire

by Larry Jagan
Friday, 23 January 2009 14:58

Bangkok (Mizzima) – The United Nation’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari will make another visit to Burma at the end of the month on what may be his final effort to broker talks between the military regime and the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The trip to Burma will start on January 31 and is scheduled to end on the February 3, Mr. Gambari told Mizzma.

But he declined to give any further details. “We are still working on the modalities of the visit,” he said.

During this trip he expects to meet senior members of the military government, opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s who is currently under house-arrest in Rangoon, and representatives of the country’s ethnic minorities, according to senior UN officials who declined to be identified.

“Although it’s only a four-day working trip, he will extend his stay if it seems progress can be made on his top priorities,” a UN official close to Mr. Gambari said.

“Meeting Aung San Suu Kyi and hearing her views is obviously a crucial part of this visit,” he added. On his last trip, the envoy made two unsuccessful attempts to see the pro-democracy leader.

The Nigerian envoy will tour the region after his talks with the Burmese military leaders, according to UN sources in New York. While all the stops have yet to be finalised, he is certainly expected to visit Bangkok, Beijing, Jakarta, Singapore and Tokyo for discussions on how best to proceed. But he is expected to return to New York to brief the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

This visit signals the UN’s renewed efforts to directly engage the hard-line Burmese military government after months of debate about how best to encourage the junta to introduce genuine democratic reforms and include all the country’s political players, especially detained Aung San Suu Kyi. A planned visit by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon in late December was cancelled because the UN boss felt his visit would not produce any concrete results.

Some countries, notably the United Kingdom, pressed hard for the visit go ahead, even though it was not likely to achieve any real break-through in Burma’s political deadlock. The UN chief though has been very active behind the scenes since, holding a series of senior level meetings with the countries most concerned about Burma and the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Mr. Gambari’s latest visit – his first in five months, and his seventh since he took up the job in early 2006 – is something of a stock-taking mission, according to diplomats based in Rangoon. The regime has been sending mixed messages about their attitude to international mediation. Whereas they eventually welcomed international cooperation to tackle the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, they persist on resisting international pressure in the political arena.

“Mr. Gambari will be testing the waters – seeing where the regime might be willing to, at least tolerate, international support and assistance, while at the same time reiterating the international community’s message: national reconciliation must be genuine and truly inclusive,” said a western Rangoon-based diplomat. But most analysts remain pessimistic that Mr. Gambari will be able to achieve much.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi is hopeful that the visit will at least break the ice, and may lead to renewed contact between them and the junta, and the possible start of tentative talks – at least at a lower level within the regime.

“I believe the special envoy’s visit this time will be beneficial as the envoy and the NLD share the same principles on achieving political reform in the country,” the NLD spokesman Nyan Win, told Mizzima.

But many analysts are cautious about raising expectations for this visit – as this has led to massive resentment inside Burma when Mr. Gambari’s efforts failed miserably to produce results. “Don’t expect anything,” a western diplomat who has been close to the international mediation efforts told Mizzima. “The visit has very low objectives and expectations,” he said.

The envoy is expected to meet the opposition leader on this trip, although she refused to see him last time even though she had on his previous visits.

The real test of whether the envoy’s forthcoming trip is going to be more successful than usual will be whether he is able to meet the junta supremo, Than Shwe. The Senior General had refused to meet him on his last few visits.

“He is likely only to be allowed to meet the largely ceremonial Prime Minister Thein Sein,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic, based at Chiang Mai in Thailand. “The top general obviously has no regard for him and believes it isn’t necessary to talk directly to him.”

The UN visit also comes in the wake of a massive crackdown on dissidents. In the past few months the government has handed down harsh prison sentences to more than a hundred pro-democracy activists.

The NLD told Mizzima they would be discussing the arrests and sentencing of more than 300 NLD members and other political prisoners with Mr. Gambari during his stay in Rangoon.

While the UN envoy will certainly repeat the international community’s main concern – the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, there is very little likelihood that the regime will budge. The opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the last 20 years. Her detention order runs out in late May. But it is expected to be renewed for a further year at that time.

The junta for its part is anxious to show that it is not them who are blocking the visit of the UN chief, Ban Ki-moon. Some diplomats believe that Mr. Gambari’s top objective, is to sound out the situation in readiness for a rescheduled visit by the UN boss.

Ban Ki-moon maybe planning visit Burma in the first part of this year, either after the ASEAN Summit next month, or more likely the ASEAN-UN summit scheduled to be held in Thailand in April. http://www.mizzima.com/

One thought on “UN envoy to test waters in Burma’s political quagmire

  1. Pingback: Gambari to test Burma’s political waters « democracy for burma

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