Myanmar’s impasse: Gambari and UN the only hope?

Updated On: Oct 23, 2007

Last week saw UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari began his 6-nation tour of Asia to drum up regional support for UN action on Myanmar.

However, the question remains if anybody can really do anything to compel the junta to change. Already a defiant junta has revoked the curfew and ban on assembly in Yangon on Saturday (20 October) because the security situation has apparently “improved”.

The Associated Press reported that this is “the latest sign the military rulers are confident they have fully crushed the largest demonstrations in two decades”. Used to high-handed and brutal techniques, the junta would not relax its grip unless it was sure of maintaining its power. No clarification has been given as to the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and ban on gatherings of more than five people have also been lifted inMandalay, another major city where major uprisings also occurred. Internet access has also been restored the ban on “foreign media like the BBC and Voice of America, as well as news outlets run by exiled dissidents” continues.

Another sign of consolidating power is the junta’s announcement that the next step in its “roadmap to democracy” has been taken in the establishment of a 54-member Constitution Drafting Commission. Meant to be a framework leading to democratic elections, this “roadmap” process has been delayed umpteen times and guidelines for the new constitution were only completed last month after 14 years in the pipelines. The guidelines for a new constitution call for the military to maintain a prominent role in politics and its terms would bar Aung San Suu Kyi from holding elected office. True to form, the government has not announced when the committee would start drafting the constitution. In addition, head of the junta, Senior General Than Shwe, is not backing off from his demand that a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi will only be possible if she withdrew her support for “confrontation, utter devastation, economic sanctions on Myanmar and other sanctions”.

As the junta gears up to “be back in business”, Gambari is fast running out of time. While the ASEAN states profess support for the UN, they are also unwilling to step up effective action the way Gambari proposes. Michael Vatikiotis, regional director for Asia of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, has advocated a mechanism comprising ASEAN, JapanChina and India to be anchored in the region. He believes that “if ASEAN can agree to support a peaceful transition, with appropriate measures of carrots and sticks, there is no question that major powers like IndiaChina and Japan, upon which theMyanmar authorities depend for vital trade and aid, will have to follow”. The tricky bit is how ASEAN can be motivated into real action.

For now, ASEAN seems to be only willing to provide consultative dialogue and handle its recalcitrant member with kid-gloves. The latest plan unveiled by Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo will see ASEAN using its “moral authority” to bring about a “genuine dialogue in Myanmar among all parties –the government, the NLD’s Aung San Su Kyi, the minority groups –so that national reconciliation can be achieved”. George Yeo stressed that this would be “a genuine dialogue, and not just for show”. He also said that the Myanmar issue will be discussed at the East Asia Summit, of which China and India are also members, at the end of November.

Meanwhile, it is expected that China –the strongest backers of the junta –are unlikely to do much beyond support for Gambari’s visit to Myanmar. Gambari said in Indonesia last week that while China has been “very helpful” and a UN ally, and hope that China could also hasten the junta to adopt reform.

China is getting touchy over all the slurs it has been getting on supporting “rogue” regimes that persist in human rights violations in Sudan and Myanmar. A telephone call between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday night discussed tensions in the two countries. However, details of the conversation were not revealed by the Foreign Ministry. This revelation comes after the vice president of Beijing's organising committee for the Olympics, Liu Jingmin’s, criticism last Friday of the unwonted politicization of the international sports meet. Liu said, “The attempt to take this issue as an excuse to boycott the Olympics is inappropriate and unpopular. All the political issues which don't have anything to do with the Olympics should not be brought in connection with the games inBeijing.”

It may well be that Gambari’s tour efforts are all for nothing as it is expected that India will also not exert any influence over Myanmar. India’s foreign policy seeks to tap on Myanmar’s gas reserves and balance China’s regional power. Reuters reported that India sent its oil minister to Myanmar during the September uprising and following the bloody crackdown, announced the continuation of the port development plans on Myanmar's northwestern coast. Independent security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar put it pragmatically, “It is not as though [Gambari’s] coming to have a chat is going to make much of a difference to India's policy. I don't think we have the luxury of deciding who we will engage with in this region by the yardstick of democracy. The only thing that India might like to say more emphatically is that engagement is not necessarily endorsement.”

There is also probably nothing much Japan could do despite being Myanmar’s largest aid donor. And in response to the killing of a Japanese photo-journalist in Yangon during the 26-27 September military crackdown on the protest, Japan is cancelling a $4.7 million for a business education centre for the Yangon University campus.

In addition, United States President George Bush has, for the second time within the month, expanded the country’s sanctions against Myanmar last Friday (19 October). This includes “adding more of [junta] to a list already facing sanctions” and the tightening of U.S. export controls to Myanmar. Bush has also urged ChinaIndia and other Asian countries to step up action while demanding that the International Committee of the Red Cross be given access to political prisoners and that Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained leaders be allowed to communicate with each other. Bush warned that further sanctions would be unleashed if Myanmar did not comply satisfactorily. What the US wants to see, according to Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, is that Myanmar has a “serious intent to move toward a democratic transition”.

However, it is questionable if such sanctions are useful at this juncture. 

In response to questions at the parliament, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo warned that imposing sanctions or “suspending” Myanmar’s ASEAN membership may be “emotionally satisfying” but will actually make the reconciliation goal in Myanmar more complicated and harder to achieve.  He emphasized that it is in Singapore’s and ASEAN’s interest to keep Myanmar within the family.  Noting that there is no quick and easy solution, he believed that the efforts by UN envoy Gambari offers the best hope as both the military chiefs and the opposition appeared to be willing to listen to him, and hence ASEAN’s priority is to give full support to Gambari’s efforts. 

Now that Myanmar has agreed to visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro before the ASEAN Summit, US has urged all nations in the UN Security Council to do all they can to get Mr Gambari back to Myanmar as soon as possible.  (23 October 2007)


Myanmar agrees to visit by UN official (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

Better to keep Myanmar within Asean family (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

East Asia Summit to discuss Myanmar situation: George Yeo (Channel News Asia, 22 October 2007)

OPINION: Time for ASEAN, China to act on Myanmar (New Straits Times, 22 October 2007)

U.N. envoy to ask India for tougher line on Myanmar (Reuters, 22 October 2007)

Several firms on US Myanmar blacklist linked to Singapore (AFP, 21 October 2007)

Myanmar still in fear as curfew lifted (AFP, 21 October 2007)

Myanmar lifts curfew and ban on assembly in Yangon (AP, 21 October 2007)

China, UN Talk of SudanMyanmar (Reuters, 21 October 2007)

ASEAN to use moral authority to get Myanmar parties to talk: George Yeo (Channel News Asia, 20 October 2007)

Bush Sets New Sanctions against Burmese Military Junta (Washington Post, 20 October 2007)

UN envoy says China is helpful in dealing with Burma crisis (Nation, 20 October 2007)

China resists calls to boycott Olympics over Burma (Nation, 20 October 2007)

Bush expands sanctions against Myanmar rulers (Reuters, 19 October 2007)

UN Envoy Suggests Incentives for Myanmar (AP, 19 October 2007)

Myanmar junta forms committee to draft new constitution (Star, 19 October 2007)

Japan Cancels Myanmar Aid in Protest (AP, 16 October 2007)