April 13, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

United Nations brokered Dialogue and its mission in Burma

After the Burmese military junta’s recent bloody crackdown on the peaceful protesters in Burma in September 2007, both the international community and the Burmese people alike are watching closely whether this tragic event will eventually lead to a democratic reform and

national reconciliation in a military-ruled Burma. The United Nations, more than any other entity, is charged with the authority and responsibility of preventing conflict between nations, promoting peace, and encouraging democratic reform around the world. Everyone looks up to the organization to see whether it can deliver tangible results to help the Burmese people obtain their dreams of freedom, human rights, and democracy.

Since his appointment as the third UN special envoy to Burma, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian diplomat, has been in the process brokering peace and national reconciliation in Burma. As the international community stands behind Mr. Gambari, Burma watchers believe that his mission might generate positive outcomes that would eventually restore democracy to Burma , unlike the efforts of his predecessors . However, the real question is how far he can push the Burmese junta toward ensuring that irreversible democratic reforms are made through time-bound and regular dialogue with the democratic opposition. Given the intransigence of the military government, and evidenced by the UN’s failed mission to the national reconciliation process since 1997, one cannot help but remain doubtful that the ongoing UN work in Burma will result in success.  

The missions of former UN special envoys to Burma

In 1994, the UN General Assembly reached a landmark resolution calling on the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to resolve longstanding political stalemate through a tripartite dialogue. The dialogue involves the military government, the winner of 1990 general election – National League for Democracy (NLD) led by a noble peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic nationality groups representing over 40 percent of the country’s 53 million population. Since then, both the UNGA and Human Rights council adopted various resolutions criticizing the military government for its rampant rights abuses and calling on the SPDC to take the necessary steps to restore democracy, cease human rights abuses, and bring an end to the widespread uses of forced labour, among other things.

To carry out the UN mission in Burma , former Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed three special envoys to Burma , including the current envoy, Mr. Gambari. The first special envoy was Mr. Alvaro de Soto of Peru (1997-1999), UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. During his term as UN special envoy to Burma , he met both government leaders and democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but achieved no significant results toward restoring democracy that the people of Burma hope for.

Likewise, his successor, Mr. Razali Ismail, the former Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, continued the attempt to broker a political dialogue. While there were a number of unproductive visits from 2000 to 2004, there was a bilateral talk “the so-called confidence building process” between SPDC leadership and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi which took place during his tenure, giving Razali hope that there would be a clear road-map for democracy in 2002. But this hope was dashed when the process ended with no tangible results. The government hardened their stance, continuing their so-called “seven step road-map to democracy” by placing Daw Suu under house arrest and restricting the movement and actions of political parties and activists. Mr. Razali not only failed to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, but was banned from entering Burma . Following the collapse of the bilateral talk, the military government also ousted General Khin Ngunt in 2004. Many believed that General Ngunt,  the then Prime Minister and head of Intelligence, was ousted because he favoured talks with the democratic opposition, spearheading bilateral talks with Daw Suu.  

What steps have the Burmese military government  taken so far?

Since the recent violent crackdown on protesters by the government forces that sparked worldwide condemnation of the Burmese military junta, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari has undertaken a tireless facilitation role, meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and other key military government officials including the head of SPDC, Senior General Than Shwe. During his two visits since September, he was told by the Burmese military junta that the imposed curfew had been lifted; that detained protesters have been freed; and that normalcy has been restored to the country – implying that there would be no more protests against the military government.  

On the recommendation of Mr. Gambari, the military junta appointed U Aung Kyi, minister of Labour, as a liaison officer to be the go-between government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. While this was meant to demonstrate a willingness toward political dialogue, the junta have always taken such minor steps to derail international pressure. They have released small numbers of prisoners just as they keep arresting people thought to be government foes; and they have allowed the UN envoy to visit to Burma while simultaneously trying to perpetuate their military rule by working on an orchestrated national convention. Regardless of these small steps, it is clear that Junta will again simply ‘buy time’ to stay in power by pretending to take action that eases and derails international pressure. It is crucial that this UN envoy not be forced to dance to the junta’s tune like his predecessors.

How would we measure the success of UN mission and sincerity of the SPDC?

Whether the ongoing UN mission in Burma is successful or not will be measured by the following grounds: first, all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be released from prison and all restrictive measures constraining the free movement of civilians must be removed.   Secondly, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari must have unhindered access to any leader or group deemed appropriate in order to conduct the wide-ranging consultations that would enable him to carry out his mission successfully. And these measures must be granted to more than just the UN special envoy. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the special rapporteur of the Human rights council must also be allowed unfettered access to prisoners or vulnerable groups.
Third, there needs to be a time-bound political dialogue involving the military junta, leaders of democratic opposition led by Daw Suu, and representatives of the ethnic nationalities. This tripartite dialogue has been called for by the United Nations since 1994. This political dialogue must be conducted with clear agendas and a proper timeframe, with the ultimate goal of restoring civilian rule. The Junta must not dictate the whole process of political negotiation and anticipated political dialogue and must not force their dialogue partners to play within their own sets of political rules. Without any real agenda on the negotiating table, the so-called “trust building talk” that we have heard about in the past – that between the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi – cannot be accepted. Fourth, all restrictions against free movement and association must be removed. Political parties and organizations need to have freedom (without any restrictions) to conduct normal political activities.

Until and unless the concrete steps mentioned above are taken explicitly, one should not trust the military regime at all. So far, despite the mounting pressure against the government, the Burmese junta hardens their stance, continuing their own political road-map that excludes mainstream and legitimate political parties like National League for Democracy (NLD), and other ethnic-based political parties. They not only refuse to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, they continue arresting those students, Monks, and civilians who joined the recent peaceful demonstration against military rule. Mr. Gambari was not even allowed to meet Than Shwe in his second visit. In addition, SPDC shows no sign of moving towards a genuine time-bound dialogue which will lead to a real transition to democracy and national reconciliation. Though time will definitely speak, it is crucial that we do not fall into the SPDC trap. 

The reason why the situation has calmed, as the government says, is not because people are content with the government’s response, but purely because people are terrorized by and scared of the government forces that have inhumanely tortured, assaulted, and even executed the peaceful protesters who resisted the government’s order. One should not expect that unarmed civilians, in the absence of protection from bloody shooting and tortures by the military forces, would dare to continue resisting those vicious gunmen.

As one of the Global College of the University of Winnipeg interns 2007, Salai Za Ceu Lian was in the Thai-Burma border area last July and August, 2007 working with Burma ‘s democratic oppositions.

By Salai Za Ceu Lian
Chinland Guardian
November 21, 2007

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