A Failed Mission
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 15, 2024

A Failed Mission

By AUNG ZAW Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Snr-Gen Than Shwe didn’t even pretend to be sick this time. He simply relayed the message that he was too busy to meet the UN Special Envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari, a man who had come to the country to advocate political reconciliation.

Instead, Than Shwe passed his time in Naypyidaw meeting and accepting credentials from the newly appointed Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian ambassadors.

In fact, it was a politically astute move on the junta leader’s part to snub Gambari.

Than Shwe doesn’t need to fret about what the UN envoy thinks. Nor does he try to create a good impression. He can roll out any number of military clones to meet and greet visiting envoys and VIPs. Gambari may well go home pleased, in fact, that he was able to press flesh with so many cabinet ministers on this visit. He will probably sleep well in the belief that he had done his bit for Burma.

It was Than Shwe’s henchman, Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein, who took over the reigns of the negotiations this week during the seventh round of diplomatic visits by the special envoy. He bluntly told Gambari that if the UN wants to see stability in Burma, then it should see to it that sanctions on the country are lifted. Gambari reportedly asked Thein Sein to release more political prisoners, to consider a dialogue with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and to make the military-guided political process inclusive for all. In fact, he all but read out the same message he had delivered in the past.

“If the UN wants to see economic development and political stability, the UN should first try to remove economic sanctions and visa bans,” was how state television reported the Burmese prime minister's response.

In an apparently dry attempt at role reversal, Thein Sein told the envoy that economic sanctions amounted to human rights violations, affecting health, the economy and social conditions.

It was like a meeting between hostage takers and a negotiator. Gambari must have felt he was being presented with a list of demands and, if they weren’t met, Thein Sein would happily start chopping off the hostages’ fingers until they were.

Still, the UN envoy could congratulate himself on being granted a visit with the hostages’ representative, Suu Kyi. Able to verify that there was “proof of life” in Burma, Gambari retired from the kidnappers’ lair refusing to admit his mission was a failure.

The UN envoy’s meeting with Suu Kyi focused on political prisoners and the rule of law. Suu Kyi told him there is no rule of law as such in Burma; she pointed to the recent arrests and detention of activists, and the detention of their defense lawyers.

She expressed disappointment with the UN’'s failure to persuade the ruling junta to give up its monopoly on power—hollow words that seemed to echo from the past.

She reiterated that she is willing to meet anyone at any time from the military regime. She repeated her request for dialogue.

However, it would be foolish to believe that the junta leaders are interested in dialogue unless Suu Kyi comes up with a proposal that kowtows to their power. More than likely, they expected Suu Kyi to rattle her saber and call for the West to drop the sanctions on Burma.

Whatever Suu Kyi does, the generals won’t talk to her. Political dialogue and compromise do not exist in the regime’s dictionary.

Throughout Burmese history, military leaders have only entered into peace talks and dialogue when they were under intense pressure or they needed to buy time. When they regain their foothold they invariable strike back at the enemy. 

If Suu Kyi is waiting for Than Shwe to talk to her, she is misguided. It won’t happen. She has met him a few times before and was forced to sit through his lengthy political lectures and boasts of how many bridges he had built and how many schools and hospitals he had opened. You learn not to expect political sophistication and wisdom from this arrogant autocrat.

Than Shwe has an agenda—he seeks to implement his seven-step “Road Map” and somehow win the general election in 2010. And he doesn’t want Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition to get in his way.

In the run-up to the election, he will continue locking up voices of dissent while Suu Kyi watches from the sidelines.

At least Than Shwe’s message to the UN envoy is clear: the sanctions must be lifted before he considers playing ball with the international community.

In December, the influential Washington Post reported: “In the months ahead, the UN leadership will press the Obama administration to relax US policy on Burma and to open the door to a return of international financial institutions, including the World Bank.”

This may or may not work.

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