The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Thoughts of Former UN Envoy
By RAZALI ISMAIL [2005] Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Irrawaddy speaks to outgoing UN Special Envoy to Burma Razali Ismail regarding his decision not to renew his contract and therefore leave the post on January 4. Ismail spent nearly five years in the role, enjoying early success in managing to bring the National League for Democracy and the military government together for talks, while making nearly a dozen trips to Rangoon. However, the last two years of Ismail’s mandate were marred by the junta’s unwillingness to allow him into the country.

Q: You were credited with bringing the NLD and the government together for talks shortly after taking up the post of special envoy. What else do you feel you achieved in the role?

A: That is not exactly accurate. The NLD and the government, they didn’t have the talks that I expected that they would have. It was not done at the level of the prime minister and [Aung San] Suu Kyi—it was done at a lower level.

I really don’t know that I should make the evaluation myself of what I achieved, what I did not achieve. That’s up to you guys…in fact it is best to conclude that I have failed. I mean, you look down the road after nearly five years, I have failed because I could not deal with the circumstances…the exit of [former prime minister Gen] Khin Nyunt and all his group. After that, I couldn’t deal with it [the Burmese government] anymore. Up to that point in time, fine…after that he wouldn’t see me anymore as much as I tried and therefore no success means failure.

Q: Just how frustrating was it for you?

A: No, it’s not frustrating. It was never really frustrating. Frustration is for personal stuff. These are big issues. Why should you be frustrated? You are a facilitator. If you start being frustrated, you can’t do your business. You have so many aspects to cater to, all the positions that have been taken by the government, and they see themselves as the custodians of the state and all the things they have done and sacrificed. Suu Kyi standing up for the things that should be different…new. At one time, she thought it could be changed, it could be done, but finally accepting there should be a compromise for the sake of the people, and she was willing to work with Khin Nyunt. So, there are so many factors it is not easy to capture this thing.

Q: You have recently suggested in the press that your replacement be more “palatable” to the regime. You yourself were previously a civil servant working for a fellow Asean government. How much more palatable can your successor be without suffering a lack of credibility?

A: If the Senior General [Than Shwe] has a personal dislike for me—which is not impossible—then another fellow perhaps can be found within Asean or within the region of Asia that would be more palatable to him.

Q: It seems unlikely that Snr-Gen Than Shwe disliked you before you took up the post. Wouldn’t any special envoy be in the same position as you found yourself in that regard?

A. If you have to ask those questions, especially questions relating to Aung San Suu Kyi… of course he [Snr-Gen Than Shwe] is going to dislike hearing these questions being asked. So we should take a step backwards. Would he allow anyone to go in—man or woman—to do the things that I was allowed to do before, in absence of…Khin Nyunt? I think that is very important.

We went quite a long way. I spent hours talking to Aung San Suu Kyi alone, something like three hours. If there were bugs or whatever, I don’t know, but… we were allowed to discuss things and there was no attempt to tell us it was taking too much time, nothing. And I give credit to the government. I was allowed at least two meetings with Suu Kyi every time I went in. And then I met the other political parties, and there were several other people that I met and even I met a few people that were on their own but had an influence in the politics of Myanmar [Burma]. So… I am not sure the senior general would want the UN to be as engaged as that. The UN must ask itself the question whether, in that event, you would want to do it, because if it does it for anything less, it is opening itself up to a lot of questions.

If the Senior General [Than Shwe] has a personal dislike for me…then another fellow perhaps can be found…that would be more palatable to him.

The UN has to represent other things also. There are serious humanitarian problems that can come up…even more serious in the future. So it is not as if the UN can close the door. The UN must find a way to bring funds to Myanmar [Burma] and it’s hard dealing with Myanmar [Burma] without dealing with the government. So that’s the other aspect of it.

Q: There has been an extended period of paralysis as far as you and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Sergio Pinheiro are concerned. Is there a chance the UN envoy system will be overhauled in Burma’s case?

A: I am a creature of the [UN] General Assembly on that last paragraph of the resolution…to work for the offices of the secretary general. Pinheiro is totally a human rights creature. At this moment, he has not been there [Burma] longer than me, so I don’t know what he wants to do, and I am sure if the Human Rights Commission is overhauled they would look at what the human rights special envoy would have to do. I feel overall it would mean bringing the Security Council to be more involved in the Human Rights Council.

Q: Could the UN tie failure to meet basic expectations of progress by the government—including the granting of visas to special envoys—to UN Security Council action?

A: [Laughs] Well, define action. I don’t know, but I think the Asean countries would be frantically opposed to that and so would, of course, obviously China, India…I think if things don’t change and things get really bad, then it may go in that direction. I don’t know.

Q: Isn’t there a way, though, that the UN can apply more pressure to get the special envoys into the country?

A: Allowed into the country? I mean if the next person comes in… he is not allowed to see the government—that’s not going to help. I mean, the foreign minister of Malaysia, he’s not going to Myanmar [Burma] unless he is allowed to see people like I was allowed to see.

Q: Do we know who your successor is likely to be?

A: No, no.

Q: When will the decision be made?

A: I don’t know, I really don’t know.

Q: Are you involved at all in the decision as to who will be appointed?

A: Let’s leave it to the [UN] secretary general and his assistants.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to the incoming special envoy?

A: [Laughs]. Some quick advice. I mean…it’s such a complicated country. Sometimes, it’s a country that pulls you in. There are some things that are difficult to deal with, but there are some wonderful things about Myanmar [Burma], with wonderful people and wonderful scenery, and they have the ability to go forward, given the chance. And, what quick advice can I give?

Well, if he is appointed and if he contacts me, I would definitely spend a lot of time to help him, familiarize him with the terrain and perhaps [he would] not make the mistakes I made.

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