Monday, September 22, 2008
The Irrawaddy recently spoke with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari about his meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, his disappointments and his hopes for the future of Burma.
Question: Several UN special envoys to Burma have come and gone over the past 20 years, each time leaving the country empty-handed. What is your take on that?
Answer: Well, I can only speak for my own role. I took on this assignment in May 2006 as Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, but I was not designated as special advisor on Myanmar [Burma] until May last year. So my own engagement is rather more recent.
It has had its ups and downs. But I think—if one wants to be fair—one has to see that before I came, for two and half years, no special envoy of the UN was even allowed in the country.
I am probably the only foreigner to be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, which I have done on seven occasions. I think it is also fair to say that we have therefore opened a high-level engagement between the UN and the authorities in Myanmar.
They can’t claim that they are not hearing the message of the international community, because we have been saying this directly and indirectly. Directly to them and through my reporting to them through the General Assembly President, the Group of Friends and the Security Council at their request.
It is also fair to say that in the aftermath of the crisis in September and October we managed to establish the commencement of dialogue, between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is regrettable that that high promise has not been realized.
Q: So what went wrong between then and now?
A: I believe from my last conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi in March that she posed a number of questions through the minister [Aung Kyi] to the authorities and did not get answers.
Sometimes, she didn’t get the answer fast enough because, she believes, the level of the interlocutor was not high enough.
We the United Nations, the Good Offices Role of the Secretary-General supports the request that this dialogue should be resumed and should not be broken up even when there are disagreements, and that the government should consider raising the level of the interlocutor on their side so that there would be prompt responses to her questions.
Q: When you went to Burma last time, Suu Kyi refused to meet you. Why?
A: To be honest with you, I do not know.
What I can say for sure [is that] I have met her seven times now since May 2006 and each time she always emphasized this: the central role the UN is promoting dialogue between her and the government and is bridging an all-inclusive process of national reconciliation.
Secondly, she has often expressed disappointment on the couple of occasions I have been in Myanmar that I have not been received at the highest level of the government. So it was quite a surprise to me and a disappointment, frankly, because each time I have met her, I am able to report her views to the UN.
Since so many things had happened since I last met her in March: the referendum, the cyclone, the constitution, I would have very much liked to hear her views on all these issues and report them faithfully to those who are interested.
And, I do often pass on her views to the authorities and her position to engage in time-bound substantive dialogue.
Q: What is your sense on why she did it?
A: There are all kinds of speculation. One is that she is frustrated. She wanted to show her frustration with her continued detention and her frustration with the slow pace of the political process.
I think she may have had a point.
Q: During your last visit, was the military junta the only channel of communication between you and Suu Kyi?
A: Yes. I tell the government beforehand who I would like to see and they make the arrangements. Often I do not get what I request, unfortunately.
Q: You are very often accused of becoming a prisoner of the government when you go there. You spend most of your time meeting officials and people who support the government, and not the opposition leaders.
A: Well, that is not entirely fair. For example, the last time I met with the NLD central executive committee twice. The second meeting was more than an hour. It was very substantive, very productive. And the statement that came out of the NLD was that they were pleased with the meeting.
I also met with the minister in charge of relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and had a good discussion on how to resume dialogue. I wanted to find out what is really responsible for this break in dialogue, and how it can be revived.
I met, of course, with other representatives of civil society, the Red Cross and the Chamber of Commerce, but it is true that most of the people I met were pro-government.
Q: After your last visit, a number of Burmese people and observers said that your mission has failed, your mission had lost steam. Do you think that’s fair?
A: The [UN] Secretary-General, on whose behalf I act, has come out to say that he does not regard the mission as a failure, that it is a process of consultation, of mediation.
But it is also very clear that we are frustrated that no tangible results are coming out of the process. That is what the people of Myanmar want and that is what the international community expects.
I left five issues in the hands of the government:
First: The release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Second: The commencement, without delay, of a substantive time-bound dialogue between the government, Aung San Suu Kyi and others.
Third: to create a climate and enhance the credibility of the process [so that] any future election in the country would be more likely be accepted by the people of Myanmar and the international community.
[Fourth] Then we had the issues of a more broad-based social economic discussion in the country through the creation of a national economic forum.
Fifth: how to regularize the engagement of the Good Offices role of the [UN] Secretary-General and the government. It should be regular and routine, including the possibility of stationing a staff or two of mine in Rangoon to prepare for visits and be liaison persons in between visits.
So, we are waiting for the government [to react] to these points on the table.
Incidentally, when I discussed these points with the central executive committee members of the NLD, they appeared to support all except the election.
I must use this opportunity to say one very important point: people criticize the Good Offices role as, in effect, blessing the government’s “Road Map.”
I want to clarify that the road map is the government’s road map. The opposition has reservations and the international community has its own views.
It was made very clear that we want an all-inclusive national reconciliation process; a dialogue that [would address] the real concerns of the people; the discussion of social economic issues; and how to achieve a democratic, peaceful united and prosperous Myanmar with full respect for the human rights of its people.
Q: Now there seems to be a deadlock. How do you plan to address it?
A: I prefer to use the word “challenges.” one is how to get the government to respond positively to the five points that we raised during our last visit.
The second is how to get Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD back to the political process fully;
The third challenge is how to bridge the gap between some key members of the international community.
Q: How do you propose to address those challenges?
A: First, the [UN] secretary-general convened a meeting of his “Group of Friends on Myanmar” and he chaired the meeting for two hours last Friday. He plans to have another meeting of the Group of Friends at a ministerial level.
The UN can only be effective and strong if the members want it. So, we need the help of those who have influence on all sides, so that these gaps that are mentioned, these three challenges, can be met.
Also, the [UN] secretary-general has indicated that we have to take a deep breath and rethink, reprioritize our strategy and our point of engagement with the authorities. We can’t abandon the people of Myanmar.
Third, the [UN] secretary-general has encouraged Indonesia’s initiative to have a small group of some countries who are closest neighbors to Myanmar and who have some [experience] of transition from a military to a democratic regime, and to whom the [Burmese] authorities are more likely to listen to, including China and, we hope, India.
Q: Is that going to be at a Head of the State level?
A: No, I don’t think so; but hopefully at a ministerial level. I think it is up to the Indonesians to announce that.
Q: So now, you would like to pause for a couple of months?
A: Not necessarily. A deep breath, as I said.
Q: When are you next going back to Burma?
A: An invitation has been issued to return. The important thing is not to visit for the sake of it. We need to prepare carefully this time, so that some positive response, a tangible response to those issues which we left on the table [is forthcoming].
Q: But the [UN] secretary-general is planning to go there in December?
A: He has said very clearly that he went to Myanmar twice under exceptional special circumstances.
It was a very successful mission. The authorities relaxed some of the restrictions and they saw the value of the international cooperation.
One of the positive outcomes of that cooperation was that the tripartite core group mechanism, Burma, Asean and the UN, is working well in the case of Cyclone Nargis.
That showed the authorities in Myanmar that the international community brings positive results and shows how the spirit of cooperation with Asean and the UN could be extended to political matters.
But the [UN] secretary-general has made it very clear that he would go to Myanmar provided that tangible results come out through the Good Offices role, including through my activities.
Q: So there are a few pre-conditions for his visit?
A: I do not want to make it a pre-condition. But, as I said, this is what we would like to see.
Q: Including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi?
A: Including responding positively to all the five issues which I have put on their table.
Q: The French ambassador said outside the Security Council that the [UN] secretary-general needs to put more pressure on Burma. Do you agree with that?
A: We want all those who have influence to exercise this influence in tangible ways on the authorities in Myanmar so that this dialogue will resume without any further delay.
Q: Do you think there is any conflict of interest because you are on the board of the U Thant Institute and, as you know, there is not a good chemistry between the U Thant circle and the Aung San dynasty in Burma?
A: First of all, I was not aware of those dynamics when I joined the U Thant board.
The U Thant Institute is an NGO. I joined the international advisory board of this NGO when I was a special advisor to the [UN] secretary-general on Africa. The role U Thant played as UN secretary-general in Africa is not often clearly understood.
That was my motivation for joining the U Thant Foundation and it remains valid. I do not see any conflict of interest. If I did, I would reassess my membership of the NGO.
Q: What is your own view on the 2010 elections?
A: My own view, which is not that of the [UN] secretary-general is that [although] we are mandated under the Good Offices role to extend technical assistance to countries that request them, [we should not wait] until 2010 to create the conditions that would enhance the credibility of the elections.
We want to act now to prevent disunity and divisions later. It is possible therefore that action can be taken, an all-inclusive process, a transparent process, a process that is free and fair and can be implemented between now and 2010.
Q: After your last visit and so much criticism and calls for your resignation, at any point did you think that you would submit your resignation?
A: As a human being, of course you feel discouraged, particularly when somebody’s criticism is based on an erroneous report on my position, in this case the road map and the elections.
But it comes with the territory. For example, I have been characterized as too close to the regime.
Well, there was a time when the regime thought I was too close to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
As long as I have the confidence of both sides, and as long as the [UN] secretary-general has confidence in me, I am prepared to continue and engage the challenge. But we need help, it is not a personal thing.
Q: Last question. When you go to Burma, what do you eat Burmese food or something else?
A: only Burmese food. The people of Myanmar are very good people. They are endowed with very good mineral resources. They used to be a leading country in Asia, their educational system, rice production, agricultural production.
The country produced the first Asian secretary-general. A country like that deserves to move in a direction, which we all want a peaceful democratic, united country with full respect for the human rights of its people.