The UN’s Dangerous Detour
covering burma and southeast asia
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The UN’s Dangerous Detour


By KYAW ZWA MOE SEPTEMBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.9


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By allowing the junta to hijack its mandate, the United Nations risks destroying Burma’s only hope for real progress: dialogue

Kyaw Zwa Moe

YOU know that the United Nations’ efforts to broker reconciliation talks in Burma are failing miserably when all the visiting UN envoy wants to talk about is the ruling junta’s “road map” to a sham democracy.

Ibrahim Gambari’s latest trip to Burma was more than a disappointment: it was a disgrace. In the course of his nearly weeklong visit, the UN envoy held two brief consultations with members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and spent the rest of his time speaking with handpicked advocates of a political process that deliberately excludes anyone who questions the military’s right to rule.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi declined to meet with Gambari lest she further legitimize his failed mission, which is still being carried out under a mandate that he has evidently abandoned.

The objectives of Gambari’s mission are clear: to secure the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and to initiate a dialogue between leaders of the regime and the democratic opposition. He has failed on both accounts, and has now taken it upon himself to sell critics of the regime on the idea that an election slated for 2010 could be the way forward.

The 2010 election is the fourth step in the regime’s seven-step “road map” to a “disciplined democracy.” In his discussions with senior members of the NLD, Gambari said that the UN would do its utmost to ensure that polling is conducted in a “free and fair” manner.

It is difficult, however, to have much faith in the UN’s ability to guarantee anything in Burma. After all, it had no influence whatsoever on the regime’s decision to foist a phony   referendum on a country still reeling from the effects of Cyclone Nargis in early May. Indeed, it virtually had to beg to be allowed to assist victims of the deadly storm.

Strangely, the UN’s crucial role in the ongoing relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta appears to have given it no political leverage inside Burma. On the contrary, the world body seems to be going out of its way to avoid displeasing the ruling generals.

Perhaps this reflects a new humanitarian focus, one that obscures the political quagmire underlying the country’s seemingly endless suffering. Or maybe it is something more cynical—an attempt to take the path of least resistance, even if it means sidelining Suu Kyi and her party.

Either way, the UN is taking a dangerous gamble on the goodwill of the Burmese junta. And even if the regime honors any promises that it may have made—which is extremely unlikely, given its record—it is ludicrous to buy into its vision of a future where the military is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a true democracy, particularly when its starting point is the eradication of the democratic opposition.

The UN must realize that the “road map” is nothing more than an attempt to return Burma to the days before the NLD’s historic electoral victory in 1990. Unless it gets back on track and starts pushing seriously for genuine dialogue between the generals and Burma’s legitimate leaders, the UN will be justifiably accused of sacrificing the country’s interests to save face.

The United Nations and the rest of the international community must never make the mistake of believing that Suu Kyi or the principles she represents are irrelevant. Until genuine reconciliation is reached, Burma will remain a victim of the generals’ whims—and every apparent step forward will be followed by seven steps back.

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