The Failed UN Mission in Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 16 June 2017

This week we saw two news headlines related to a failed UN mission in Myanmar.

The first read that Renata Lok-Dessallien, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, would be leaving her post prematurely, before the end of the typical five-year term.

Internal UN documents prepared for the new UN Secretary-General described the Myanmar office as “glaringly dysfunctional” with “strong tensions” between different parts of the UN system, BBC News reported earlier this week.

Reliable news sources reported that Lok-Dessallien had been criticized for not doing enough regarding human rights abuses in Myanmar. In fact, this is not the only issue. It is just tip of the iceberg.

The UN in Myanmar is not only dysfunctional. It also faces structural problems and lacks a core strategy or a coherent policy for how to counter the challenges that Myanmar faces.

Yangon-based diplomatic sources also say the chain of command between the UN office in Myanmar and the UN headquarters is unclear.

If the UN cannot fix these existing issues and reposition itself to engage in Myanmar, there is a huge risk that it will become more and more irrelevant in the country, which needs outside assistance. Watching this saga play out, some have said it is time to ‘shake the coconut trees.’

The other UN news story was in regards to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Sweden and her comments that a UN probe into alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya people last year would inflame ethnic tensions. The State Counselor said she would only accept recommendations from a separate commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan.

There has been international pressure to look into abuses in Rakhine State, but why does the UN not also send a fact-finding mission to the areas of conflict in northern Myanmar? To be effective, it must be sensitive to local issues and take them into account.

This is not the first time we have encountered uneasy relations between the UN and Myanmar. The former repressive regimes had many issues with the UN body.

In the past, several UN human rights special rapporteurs and special envoys were appointed to visit Myanmar but later denied visas to enter the country.

Appointed UN special envoys such as Razali Ismail and Ibrahim Gambari faced heavy criticism and media exposure regarding alleged biases and business involvements as they had tried in vain to negotiate between ruling generals and then opposition party leaders led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They landed in rough waters.

Special envoy Razali Ismail, for instance, was dogged by controversy stemming from his 30 percent stake in a Malaysian firm that had a contract with the regime to make electronic passports.

He left the job unfinished and Gambari took over.

The former Nigerian diplomat replaced Razali as special envoy but he was no more successful than his predecessor. He was ridiculed for taking part in a government-organized rally and activists and opposition members accused him of accepting lavish gifts from generals – an allegation that could not be confirmed but nonetheless, damaged his credibility early on.

His role as an “impartial adviser” was called into question by both sides, and Western influence was prevalent at the time. Indeed, the US was more important than the UN, as Washington threw its support behind the opposition, pressuring the regime and calling for the country to open.

The UN’s lack of success in the past can be seen in the statements they issued at the time, rife with platitudes such as: “It is a source of disappointment that these visits did not yield tangible outcomes.”

Similarly criticized was UN special envoy Vijay Nambiar who was appointed under Ban Ki-moon.

Embedded with former President Thein Sein and his peace team, Vijay Nambiar was seen in conferences but left many wondering what his purpose was. What were his mandates? What was the UN mission?

Not surprisingly, Nambiar’s final departure did not end well.

In December last year, Vijay Nambiar said State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should listen to her “inner voice” and ask the people of Myanmar “to rise above their ethnic, religious and other differences and to advance human dignity, harmony and mutual cooperation between all communities.” This followed well-organized militant attacks on security forces on Oct. 9, 2016.

Nambiar appealed to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where the majority of the Rohingya Muslim population lives.

The Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson fired back, saying his statement ignored what had happened on the ground – the killing of nine policemen and looted ammunition.

The spokesman said that urging a country’s leader to do something was an act of interference. Nambiar left, but diplomatic sources believed that the appointment of Nambiar and his contribution in Myanmar were nearly catastrophic (to put it mildly).

Asking Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit the strife-torn area was insensitive and Nambiar showed how out of touch he was despite five years spent going in and out of the country.

Myanmar’s troubled relations with the UN are ironic considering that the country produced a top UN diplomat in the 1960-70s, when U Thant was the first non-European to serve as UN Secretary-General. He played a part in helping to resolve several international issues including the Cuban missile crisis and the war in the Congo.

Myanmar is going through a critical and fragile political transition. But capable and knowledgeable people with institutional memory are not being appointed to the country.

Myanmar faces not only challenging political issues and crises but also humanitarian crises where the UN has failed. Today, many Myanmar people view the UN as irrelevant and hardly capable of addressing the country’s existing issues.

As the US under President Trump loses its focus on Asia and Myanmar (one of Obama’s foreign policy success stories), it is time for the UN to do some soul searching and look to Myanmar with a fresh perspective and new energy, if the political will is there.

There is no question that Myanmar has both potential and challenges, and it is time for the UN to engage with a more comprehensive Myanmar policy.

There are many areas the UN can help with including raising economic, social, cultural and human rights standards, as well as increasing access to health, education and political rights. Furthermore, the UN can engage in issues such as climate change, peace building and sustainable development.

Myanmar could be a UN success story if the organization appointed an effective coordinator – with extensive knowledge of the country; experience dealing with a powerful army, ethnic leaders, government officials and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; and an understanding of the nuanced and complex situation on the ground.

It is time to shake up the coconut trees.