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UN Missions on Burma Draw Derision

August 1, 2008

From The Irrawaddy
By Marwaan Macan-Marker

In their hour of despair, Burma’s beleaguered people continue to find comfort in humor. New jokes reflect new frustrations. The latest target is Ibrahim Gambari, United Nations special envoy for Burma.

One revolves around the nickname that has been coined by local comedians for the Nigerian diplomat. He is labeled as “Kyauk yu pyan” (pronounced chow-u-peean), which in Burmese refers to a man who receives precious stones from the government as a bribe. (Burma is renowned for its gems.)

Other nicknames are harsher, like “Gan pha lar” (pronounced gun-pa-la), a play on the envoy’s name, which is the word for the receptacle that Burmese use to wash themselves after going to the toilet.

The jokes are a slice of a growing mood within the Southeast Asian country that reveal a contempt for Gambari’s mission to secure concessions from Burma’s military regime—chiefly an open and inclusive, free and fair political process to usher in a democratic culture.

A letter sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday mirrors the lack of faith that victims of the junta in Burma have in UN political missions. It comes on the eve of twin events: the Security Council taking up Burma, or Myanmar, for discussion later this month, and Gambari’s next visit to the country in mid-August.

“We fully understand that the people of Burma/Myanmar are solely responsible for bringing about change in our country. However, when we are faced with the military regime which has never been reluctant to crush any political activity by brutal and excessive force, we expect the United Nations would be able to change the murderous behavior of the (junta) by diplomacy and pressure,” wrote a select group of opposition political figures in the country.

“At the very least, we don’t want the United Nations siding with the dictators and forcing the people of Burma/Myanmar into an untenable position,” added the letter by these leaders who were elected to parliament in a 1990 general election that the junta refused to recognize. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a thumping mandate at that annulled poll. Suu Kyi has since spent over 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest.

“The elected politicians in the opposition parties are disappointed by Mr. Gambari’s performance during his previous visits. The NLD told him to push the military junta to have a referendum that was inclusive,” says Zin Linn, a former member of the NLD and former political prisoner, currently living in exile.

The impression he has given is that he is “indirectly following the military regime’s line,” added Zin Linn during an IPS interview. “His visits have not given the people any hope for change. He has only helped the junta to gain more legitimacy for its politics and that will oppress the people more.”

Gambari’s failure to produce even a whiff of change was confirmed on May 10, when the junta forced people to vote at a referendum to approve a new constitution that was drafted by a junta-appointed committee. The plebiscite, which was rife with fraud, was held as the country was getting over the shock of the powerful Cyclone Nargis that crashed through the Irrawaddy Delta a week before, killing tens of thousands and affecting millions.

That the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the regime is officially known, was determined to stay the course was confirmed in mid-March, following Gambari’s last visit to Burma. It told the envoy that it would not accommodate requests by the U.N. to amend the draft constitution, making it more inclusive for legitimate political participation by the opposition, including Suu Kyi.

That was Gambari’s third visit to the country that came after the junta used brutal force to crackdown on peaceful street protests, led by thousands of Buddhist monks, last September. The protests grew out of anger about growing economic hardship and mushroomed into a cry for greater freedom and democracy. International outrage followed the September repression.

The SPDC’s rebuff of Gambari in March, including by Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, was a reversal of the pledges of political compromise the junta had made to Gambari in the wake of the international fury after the assault on the protestors. Kyaw San warned that Gambari’s neutral role as an ‘’adviser’’ would be challenged.

The SPDC, which is the successor of military regimes that have ruled Burma with an iron grip since a 1962 coup, have treated a growing list of other UN envoys since the early 1990s in a similar manner. Even Ban, the UN chief, has not been spared. The promises the SPDC made to him soon after Nargis struck—for “international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance”— was broken within days.

The May referendum is part of a seven-point “roadmap” to democracy that the junta unveiled to demonstrate its commitment towards political reform. Drafting a constitution was among them. Holding a general election in 2010 is part of this package that the SPDC uses to hold up in the face of criticism that the military is reluctant to give up its oppressive rule.

“The Burmese military is going ahead with its own plans and it has no space for Gambari in this agenda,” says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “This is why there are so many jokes about Gambari’s mission to Burma; its lack of any meaningful progress.”

“The people inside Burma have come to realize that the UN has no teeth in trying to bring about change,” he told IPS. “They have realized that the UN can do little to help solve Burma’s political problems.”

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