From the Archive

Myanmar: Diplomatic Graveyard

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 18 June 2017

With the recent news of the coming departure of UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien, The Irrawaddy revisits its analysis from November 2007 of the UN’s trail of failed missions in the country.

No UN envoys to Burma have turned into superman. Instead, all six previous diplomats buried their mission under a tomb stone marked “Democracy” and “Human Rights.” Burma is now a diplomatic graveyard.

The six UN special envoys—starting with Japanese diplomat Sadako Ogata who was appointed in 1990 as an independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights to the Malaysian businessman Razali Ismail, the UN secretary-general’s second special envoy to the country—quit their job in deep frustration.

Their missions to Burma were routinely rebuffed by the junta and, at least one of the diplomats, the UN’s second special rapporteur, Mauritian Rajsoomer Lallah, wasn’t even allowed to step on Burmese soil due to his sharp criticism of the regime.

“We are faced with a country which is at war with its own people,” said Lallah, who was appointed in 1996. His annual reports to the UN General Assembly were rejected by the regime as biased on the grounds that they were based on information provided by opposition groups. In 2000, he quit amid reports of inadequate support from the UN and his own frustration with the junta’s leaders.

The seventh and last envoy, Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, is in Burma now to try to create a dialogue between junta chief Than Shwe and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Like his failed predecessors, the question is whether Gambari can move the junta forward even a little bit. This is Gambari’s fourth trip to Burma since May 2006. His predecessor Razali Ismail, who served from 2000 to 2006, made twelve visits but failed to bring tangible results. The Malaysian diplomat told The Irrawaddy when he quit, “It is best to conclude that I have failed.”

However, it isn’t fair to say their failure was their fault. The heart of the problem is the ruling junta. For the generals, dealing with a UN envoy is just another political card to manipulate diplomacy and world opinion.

With each envoy, the junta has cleverly played a game, always pushing things back to square one. On the eve of Gambari’s arrival in Burma on Saturday, the military regime announced it wants to expel the UN resident coordinator Charles Petrie due to his criticism of the junta’s failure to improve economic and humanitarian conditions.

The statement in question, issued on October 18, declared that the concerns of the Burmese people had been “clearly expressed through the recent peaceful demonstrations, and it is beholden on all to listen.”

His expulsion clearly shows the mentality of the generals—and their political will.

The junta thinks nothing of abusing normal diplomatic protocol. A room where UN special human rights rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was conducting an interview in 2003 with a political prisoner in Insein Prison in Rangoon was bugged. Pinheiro cut his visit short as a result.

Part of the UN’s problem in Burma is its traditional lack of muscle, especially in dealing with such a repressive country. The UN Security Council itself also has differing views on how to deal with Burma. Also, the UN envoys themselves sometimes have varying degrees of personal interest.

Because of a lack of concrete results, the Burmese people are growing frustrated with the UN and its envoys. Some Burmese call Gambari “kyauk yu pyan,” which means “one who takes gems and then leaves,”according to The Associated Press.

Rumors circulate that some UN envoys have taken “boxes of presents” from the generals. The former envoy Razali Ismail had a business deal between the military government and a Malaysian company that he heads, the IRIS Corp, which sold high-tech passports to the regime. Such entanglements taint public perceptions.

Many Burmese people now believe that the only way to create change is to take matters in their own hands. On October 31, about 100 monks marched again in Pakokku in central Burma. They are many monks in the sangha who are determined to sacrifice themselves to bring freedom to Burma.

Like them, the UN also needs to be determined to bring change to Burma.

But in fact, the UN seems to be more determined to play a negotiating role between the junta and the opposition parties, even after the military regime brutally put down peaceful demonstrations in September.

The world, including the US, the EU, Asean, and even China and India—who are both close allies of the military regime—have supported the UN’s latest diplomatic effort.

Unfortunately, diplomacy alone will—again—probably prove to be insufficient. The UN needs more muscle, otherwise its envoy and its efforts at mediation seem destined to end up like all the rest—in the Burmese diplomatic graveyard.