(Editorial) Burma nears high noon and still the UN falters
Monday, February 23, 109
Over this weekend Burmese authorities began to free prisoners from Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison under a government amnesty for 6,313 inmates nationwide. No one is certain how many of the 2,000-plus political prisoners would be released but it is clear that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy Tin Oo, both of whom have been under house arrest since mid-2003, have been excluded from the amnesty.
Incidentally, Tin Oo’s prison term was extended by a year on the eve of the arrival of UN Rapporteur on Human Rights Tomas Ojea Quintana on February 14. A slap in the face to the UN would be an understatement.
The development came a day after UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari had just briefed the Security Council on his recent trip to Burma.
While the release of the political prisoners should be welcomed, one should not lose sight of the fact that things aren’t always what they seem in trouble plagued Burma.
Things move at snail’s pace and whatever development may have come out of the country must be received with a great deal of caution.
Like his last two trips to the military-run country, Gambari didn’t have much to say or offer to the UN Security Council. In fact, he was harshly criticised. France’s UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert called Gambari’s report “very, very thin and disappointing.”
He said the Security Council must not legitimise elections in Burma, scheduled for 2010, unless they are democratic and ensure that the opposition can fully participate.
It wasn’t that difficult to figure out because the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had sent him there empty-handed.
Before Ban there was Kofi Anan and his point man on Burma, Razali Ismail. Like the current bunch, Razali couldn’t make headway with the stubborn Burmese generals.
And yet, these men still keep coming and yet the world continues to use the same benchmark to determine if these visits are successful or not. Photo ops with Suu Kyi or a meeting with junta supremo General Than Shwe should not be the benchmarks for success.
Catch words like ‘national reconciliation’ and ‘democratisation’ make nice sound bytes for the international audience and community, but for the Burmese junta, they want to know what any of these issues mean for them in real terms.
To be fair to the UN, the world body has neither carrot nor stick to offer the generals. But the UN can generate ideas and in situations like this, ideas count a great deal.
For too long, the UN, and much of the international community, has been dealing with Burma without a clear objective and strategy.
We have to move beyond just telling the junta what we don’t like, and the UN must develop a more comprehensive plan of action for all stakeholders in Burma.
In other words, the Burmese generals need to know what awaits them – harsh jail terms or a Cabinet position under a civilian-led government.
For too long, regional countries and Asean members try, at times half-heartedly, to bring about changes in Burma. We use word like “Road Map” and “Constructive Engagement”, borrowing them from the Middle East and South Africa, respectively, without realising that for that in these cases, such words actually mean something.
The previous administration of Thaksin Shinawatra became a laughing stock when its Bangkok Process flopped. They were allowed to retreat quietly after the junta announced they have a roadmap for democratisation of their own. Burma’s general election is scheduled for next year and time could very well be running out for Asean and the world community if something is not done seriously.
US President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address made the world’s tyrants a proposition.
“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” Obama said.
Incidentally, it is becoming clear that Burma could be the first test case for this approach.
Since the late 1990s, the US has maintained economic sanctions against Burma. But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her recent visit to Indonesia, announced a review of US policy towards Burma. She did not rule out easing sanctions or other forms of diplomatic engagement.
“Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” Clinton said, adding that the policy of Burma’s neighbours of “reaching out and trying to engage them” has not produced desired results either.
The Bush Administration won a great deal of admiration for its tough position on Burma. But in real terms it didn’t do much in loosening the junta’s tight grip on its people or improving their livelihoods.
It’s Obama’s turn now. And by all means, Washington should conduct a policy review. But the US president must stick to what he said in his inaugural address: Relax your grip on your people and we just might extend a hand to you.