UN Chief Must Now Do His Best for Burma
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UN Chief Must Now Do His Best for Burma

By MIN ZIN Saturday, February 9, 2008


If leverage is the ticket to mediation, the United Nations’ effort to bring about political reconciliation in Burma has proved increasingly powerless in the past few months.

The military leaders in Naypyidaw remain defiant in the face of the UN's calls for introducing an inclusive national reconciliation process in Burma. Snr-Gen Then Shwe even rejected the UN suggestion to establish a poverty alleviation commission to address the country’s humanitarian crisis, clearly demonstrating the regime's criminal disregard for the people’s welfare.

The junta delayed a return visit by UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari until mid-April. China and India, through quiet diplomacy, are now trying to press the regime to agree to allow Gambari back this month.  The recalcitrant generals, however, appeared to set March as the earliest date for his return. 

Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedly warning that a return to the status quo existing before the September crisis is not sustainable, the situation is now going back to square one. Everyone realizes that the momentum of the UN's mediation efforts has been dying down, and needs to be critically strengthened.

"Failure of Gambari's mission strongly suggests that the mandate of the secretary-general falls far short," said Aung Din, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma. "The Burma mandate of Ban Ki-moon, which has now been given by the UN General Assembly, must be enhanced and strengthened by the UN Security Council."

According to diplomatic sources close to the UN, the possibility of such initiative so far seems to be slim, in the face of China’s position within the Security Council. Ban Ki-moon may not want to risk China’s rejection by making such a bold recommendation to the Council.

"Ultimately, it is not a question for Ban Ki-moon but for members of the UNSC," Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, told The Irrawaddy. "We continually update the Council through Gambari on what we have done on Burma. If they want to create a separate mandate, it would be for members of the Council to decide."

It seems that Ban Ki-moon is not ready to make such a proactive demand. If he pushed it within the UNSC, the Council could receive his recommendation as a procedural formality, but many observers believe that China would veto an actual decision and the initiative would then fail.

Aung Din disagrees, however —"No matter whether or not the UNSC will agree to develop a Burma mandate for Ban Ki-moon, it is his duty to ask for an effective mandate from the UNSC so that he can make a mediation effort in Burma possible," he said.

Another possible mechanism, apart from a direct UNSC mandate, is the "Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar," a group of 14 nations—Australia, Indonesia, Russia, the United States, China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, France, Norway, Thailand, India, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Ban Ki-moon convened the first meeting of the group on December 19 last year to assist him in his efforts to spur changes in Burma.

The Group is officially described as “a consultative forum for developing a shared approach in support of the implementation of the Secretary-General’s good offices mandate.” The group will meet informally as needed.

Many analysts wonder whether it could develop into possible multi-party talks on the North Korea model. Some Burma advocates in the US have suggested that Ban Ki-moon should convene the next meetings of the group in such Asian capitals as Jakarta or Beijing, thus making regional countries more committed and involved in UN-led mediation efforts.

Gambari recently expressed his frustration: "Everybody that I have spoken to have on record supported the role of the good offices of the secretary-general. But I am not satisfied with that. I want that general verbal expression of support to be translated into concrete action in support."

However, the possibility of such a large group as the "Group of Friends,” with diverse interests and views, offering the "concrete action in support" called for by Gambari remains a distant hope.

All in all, it is Ban Ki-moon who now needs to make a decisive move to strengthen his good offices role. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) called for the direct involvement of Ban Ki-moon, saying: "It would be useful for Ban Ki-moon to get more personally involved, particularly at times when negotiations may appear to be deadlocked." It even urged Ban Ki-moon to pay a personal visit to Naypyidaw in the near future.

Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy said it would like to see such a visit at the highest level take place.

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