Thant Myint-U: ‘Burma is a Test of How Well the UN Can Do Any of the Things it Says it Was Meant to Do’

By The Irrawaddy 30 August 2016

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend Burma’s Union Peace Conference, a five-day conference starting this Wednesday in Naypyidaw that seeks to end decades of armed conflict within the country.

 The Irrawaddy speaks with U Thant Myint-U—a historian and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust who has also held numerous United Nations (UN) positions and served as an advisor to the Myanmar Peace Center and to former President Thein Sein—about the role that the UN should play during Burma’s transition period and beyond.

We have seen a breathtaking political transition in Burma since 2012. Before then, several external actors, including the UN, played a role in urging the regime towards genuine political transformation, ending civil war, and creating space for public participation in a democratization process. Additionally, in the past, there were UN resolutions regarding Burma and periodically the Burma issue was discussed at the UN Security Council. Now, for the first time in decades, Burma is under an elected government. What role do you think the UN might, or should, continue to play in the country?

The UN has had a strange relationship with Burma since 1991 when the General Assembly passed its first country-specific resolution. Nowhere else in the world has the UN been as involved for so long in an attempted democratic transition. A resolution has been passed every year since then, and as a result of these resolutions successive secretaries-general have appointed senior officials to head their ‘good offices’ in Burma. There have been annual resolutions of the Human Rights Commission and UN human rights envoys since 1990. And UN humanitarian and development assistance were severely curtailed for many years because of Western sanctions.

There will likely not be an annual resolution this year, although that’s not certain.  Western sanctions have been largely lifted.  We will also have a new secretary-general in January.  We have a relatively new government and the country is receiving increasing amounts of assistance, including from international financial institutions.  It’s a new strategic environment for Burma and one that requires new thinking regarding the role of the UN.

There is absolutely no reason why Burma cannot be friends with all countries and all major powers now.  It’s time to move away from traditional policies of non-alignment and towards a more dynamic policy of multi-alignment, where Burma has strong and special relationships with countries around the world. These bilateral relationships will be extremely important.  But the right partnership with the United Nations is also critical.

There are many options, but I think engaging public opinion will be key. The country is at a critical moment in its transition. Opinions are being shaped.  People—especially young people—are incredibly interested in learning new things. I think the UN could play a significant role in helping people better understand the choices the country is facing and the international standards that need to be met. These include human rights standards, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as political rights.

Burma’s political transition in incomplete, and the country needs help and assistance in many areas. Some think that momentum and interest are being lost among UN agencies as well as at the UN headquarters. What is your view?

In many ways, Burma is the perfect country for the UN.  It is facing all of the challenges that the UN talks endlessly about, from climate change and the spread of infectious diseases to peace building, human rights and sustainable development. It’s a country with tremendous potential that needs help—but not necessarily much aid—from the outside world. All of the big powers would like Burma to succeed. If the UN cannot make a difference in Burma, I don’t know where it can. Burma is, in my view, a test of how well the UN can actually do any of the things it says it was meant to do.

I think one problem is the absence of shared analysis within the UN system that could tie together all the various political, economic and other strands around a clear UN strategy. It’s critical to look at Burma’s problems, from armed conflict to environmental protection, in a connected and multidimensional way. I hope when the secretary-general visits this week he won’t just mention a list of issues or say the obvious things about peace and development but really explore the ways in which these things are intertwined and suggest practical as well as principled ways forward.

What role can Burma-based UN agencies play to improve the lives of the millions of ordinary Burmese people, while minding the oft-repeated criticism of the role of the UN in some other developing countries involving failed missions, ineffectiveness and a lack of coordination among UN bodies?

I’m sure many UN agencies, funds and programs are doing a very good job.  We should not be surprised if there are coordination challenges; this is true of the UN around the world.  One of my last jobs at the UN was to work on UN reform, back in the mid-2000s, and I left the UN and came to Burma partly because I thought reform in Burma would be easier.

What’s critical is fully appreciating the context in Burma and then tailoring UN assistance.  Burma is a poor country but one whose economy—with the right policies—will be able to grow by double digits and become a medium income country within a matter of years.  It urgently needs to reform its financial sector and to rethink land usage and land tenure. It’s a country that requires over US$100 billion dollars in infrastructure investment, including tens of billions from overseas.  It is in the midst of a telecoms revolution.  Its tourism sector could increase by millions of visitors each year. UN agencies, funds and programs have to clarify what they can offer in that context, working in tandem with the private sector as well as the government and civil society organizations. I have no doubt that this is possible.

Building peace and ending civil war is a priority under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Clearly China is a key player in this issue. As for the UN, we have learned that Ban Ki-moon will attend the Panglong Peace Conference.  The UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Burma Vijay Nambiar is also involved in the peace process but we don’t hear much about him. What is his role and strategy, in your understanding? Or do you have any criticism of the UN’s role in the peace process?

The UN has lots of experience on issues related to peace building and many offices and mechanisms in New York, like the Peacebuilding Fund and the Mediation Support Unit, geared to helping in situations like Burma’s.  It’s understandable that the UN has chosen to play a very limited and low profile role so far. Depending on how the peace process evolves over the coming months, perhaps the UN could provide a list of options for how it could best help going forward.

The key to the peace process is thinking not in terms of traditional diplomacy but as part of a much broader and complex transition. The conflict area, primarily in the northeastern part of the country, is an area the size of Great Britain shaped by decades of discrimination, violence, displacement, land seizure, illicit trade and environmental destruction.  Armed fighting and ceasefires is only one dimension of a multidimensional problem.  The UN should help Burma think outside of the box, reframe issues and suggest how peace building, human rights, and sustainable development agendas could and should be linked.

What role do you want to see the UN play under the NLD government in this transition process?

I hope the UN can be a key partner of the government, helping to shape public dialogue in imaginative ways, informed by experiences elsewhere.

I also hope that Burma will begin to punch above its weight and take on a much more active role in UN debates and UN activities around the world.  Burma shouldn’t just be a small country between India and China; it should take a leading role on issues like climate change and seek to contribute on the global stage.

It was recently announced that former UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan would lead a new nine-member advisory commission on Arakan State. Many have welcomed the move, but criticism has also been heard from Arakanese quarters. Can you share your view on this new development?

This is an advisory body and I have little doubt that the commission will be able to deliver useful recommendations over the coming year. But the commission will be navigating a minefield of sensitivities.  And as an advisory body it should not be seen as a substitute for the national and local discussions and dialogues that will be necessary to move things forward in a sustainable way.

It’s also important that the commission have a clear view not only of the human rights issues involved, but also the contested histories and economic potential of the region.  Arakan—now Rakhine State—was not only one of the richest areas of Burma, but it was once one of the richest places in Asia, with Akyab—now Sittwe—an international city on par with Penang or Kuala Lumpur.  There were direct flights to London and Melbourne.  The well-off sent their kids to Oxford and Cambridge. The people of Arakan State have seen their fortunes decline, decade by decade for nearly 70 years.  There is, on the other hand, fabulous economic potential.  Economic development is not the answer, but it’s impossible to see how things could be better without a new economic vision and sustainable development strategy that begins quickly in order to deliver results across communities.