UN Burma Envoy Nambiar Finishes Term, Future of Role Unclear

By Seamus Martov 16 January 2017

Vijay Nambiar, a veteran Indian diplomat who served as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Burma, left the position at the end of December, a move that coincided with the end of Ban Ki Moon’s term as the head of the UN. Nambiar, who previously served as Ban Ki Moon’s chief of staff, had been the Secretary General’s special envoy to Burma since 2010 when he succeeded Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari in the role.

In his position as special envoy, Nambiar traveled frequently to Burma and repeatedly visited a number of the country’s hot spots—most notably Arakan and Kachin states. He also made regular briefings to the UN Security Council about the situation in Burma, mostly recently having done so on November 17.

In recent years, Nambiar had focused much of his time on the ongoing peace process, and was a frequent attendee of the series of high-level meetings that have been ongoing since 2012. He traveled to the Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) de-facto capital Laiza in 2013 to attend a summit of armed groups, and also attended a similar meeting of ethnic armed groups held in Karen National Union territory at Law Khee Lar in 2015.

It was at Law Khee Lar, during a speech delivered to an audience that consisted of the senior leadership of most of Burma’s major ethnic armed groups, that the veteran diplomat strongly urged the armed groups to move forward with the peace process and sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement.

“It is critical that we get such a process started as soon as possible,” he said, before adding, “For this to happen you will require to make some concessions.”

The advice was not universally welcomed by all the armed groups in attendance, particularly those who continue to be on receiving end of repeated attacks by government forces.

Nambiar most recently traveled to KIO territory to attend another meeting of ethnic armed groups in Mai Ja Yang in July 2016. In contrast, Yanghee Lee, the UN special envoy for human rights in Burma, was denied permission by the government to visit the KIO area in 2016 and again on Jan. 9 this year.

In a Dec. 16 interview in New York that appears to have been his last before leaving his position as Burma envoy, Nambiar spoke at length about the ongoing crisis in Arakan State, another issue that was a key focus during his tenure in the role. Nambiar told Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency that the recent attacks in Arakan State, while condemnable, exposed “a deep-seated malaise in the place itself.”

“For almost three years, there hasn’t been any major outbreak of violence in Rakhine, even though the 2012 events were a pointer,” a reference to the violence which led thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee from their homes and also displaced a number of Arakanese Buddhists.

“We had been bringing this to the notice of the government and telling them that unless some action was taken to address some of the root causes, it was likely that this would erupt once again,” said Nambiar.

In another interview conducted with the Bangladeshi daily Prothom Alo last week, after he had left office, Nambiar expanded on the Rohingya issue and their statelessness. According to Nambiar, “the government has to address the root cause, the issue of citizenship. I understand the majority of the Rohingyas have in the past been recognized [as citizens]. That process of reassurance must start soon. There has to be a sense of assurance among the Rohingyas that the government recognizes them as citizens, and the minority would be given their due place in the country.”

Ban Ki Moon’s successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, has yet to name a replacement for Nambiar and it remains unclear whether he will do so. The Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General responded to questions from The Irrawaddy about whether a successor would be appointed by saying that the matter is still being discussed.

Nambiar is the fourth UN special envoy to Burma the first was Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto, who beginning in 1995 was dispatched by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to meet with the junta, which then called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). After several years of mostly fruitless effort to open up a dialogue with the regime, de Soto was replaced by the Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail in April 2000. Razali, was, for much of his stint as envoy, dogged by controversy stemming from his 30 percent stake in a Malaysian firm that had a contract with the Burmese government to make electronic passports. He made numerous visits to Burma until the October 2004 purge of intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, after which point Razali was longer welcome in the country.

Razali, who had previously been Malaysia’s permanent representative to the UN, was later replaced by the Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari in 2005. Nambiar took over from Gambari in 2010.