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Let's hope the UN gets it right this time

Bo Kyi

Jul 16, 2008 (DVB), The basic strategy of the United Nations special envoy so far appears to have been to yield to the regime. How far will aspirations and demands slip in his future dealings with the Burmese military? The envoy’s next visit to the country will be a test.

Mr Ibrahim Gambari, UN special envoy to Burma, has been invited to return to Burma in mid-August to continue his mediation efforts. The question is: what will his mission be this time?

Many sources close to the UN told me that the envoy is likely to continue pinning his hopes on the regime’s seven-step road map, which the UN once viewed as a potential process for democratization in Burma.

In late 2007, Mr Gambari also said, "[The UN] Secretary-General did not reject the seven-step Road Map and what he would like to suggest were inclusiveness and a time frame."

Many key opposition groups, especially the election-winning National League for Democracy and ethnic political parties, might come to agree with the UN that the junta’s seven-step road map could still be a viable option for Burma’s transition if it was modified to become inclusive and time-bound.

In August 2001, 92 elected members of parliament from inside Burma called for this change in the road map in their public statement. They demanded that the regime modify the road map. The elected MPs said that if the regime made it inclusive, they would like to cooperate and find a political solution within the road map framework.

On 12 November last year, in the wake of September's Saffron Revolution, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said that "a return to the status quo that existed before the crisis is not sustainable," and that he "encourages the government and all relevant parties to redouble their efforts towards achieving national reconciliation, democracy and full respect for human rights".

The UN made two proposals to the junta, namely that Burma should set up a broad-based constitutional revision commission in order to ensure an inclusive political process and that a poverty alleviation commission should be established. The regime’s supreme leader Than Shwe rejected them and finalized the constitution draft. Then the UN suggested that the junta invite international observers to the referendum. That suggestion fell on deaf ears too.

The regime has now declared that they have completed four of the seven steps of the road map. Step one, the National Convention process, took more than 14 years to finish and excluded legitimate political parties such as the NLD, whose leaders are imprisoned.

Instead the military's handpicked delegations took part in the convention and drew up a draft constitution which simply provides for the continuation and consolidation of military rule. The impunity for members of the State Peace and Development Council and its predecessor the State Law and Order Restoration Council enshrined in the constitution paves the way for further human rights violations against Burma's people.

In May the junta held a national referendum to approve the draft constitution, despite Ban Ki-moon and the international community's calls for them to postpone the referendum in order to focus on the massive cyclone relief operation. Moreover, the referendum took place in a climate of harassment, intimidation and fraud to secure the result the junta wanted, much like the run-off presidential election in Zimbabwe. At the time, people in Burma were in mourning because of Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 140,000 and left 2.4 million people suffering. The UN and the international community witnessed the junta's callous attitude towards its own citizens. The regime shamelessly claimed that their proposed constitution was approved by 92.4 percent of the population.

Now, it is blindingly obvious that the substance of the constitution is undemocratic and, more importantly, that the whole process of implementing the road map has been lacking inclusiveness and transparency.

Special envoy Gambari once encouraged political parties in Burma to participate within the framework of the seven-step road map set out by the junta. All key opposition groups accepted his request and acted accordingly. But the regime has rejected the envoy's proposals.

So now what?

According to some UN sources I know, the danger now is that the UN is exhausting its persuasive capacity and is shifting towards a yielding approach.

In his press briefing on May 27, Ban Ki-moon said that he "urged them [Than Shwe and the generals] that the seven-point democratization programme should be put into implementation as soon as possible" during his meeting with Than Shwe in Naypyidaw.

The seven-point democratization programme? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Is Ban confusing speed with substance?

Since Than Shwe shot down all the UN's proposals, the secretary-general must know that this road map is not headed in the right direction.

Now Burmese democracy activists fear that the UN envoy will encourage the NLD party to participate in the 2010 election. Since the unilateral implementation of the road map is unacceptable, the party has already rejected the referendum results and the upcoming election as a sham. Aye Thar Aung, an ethnic leader in Burma, hit the nail on the head when he recently said, "the real necessary step is to develop national reconciliation to bring a true democratic system to our country". He is right. In order to take that necessary step, the UN good offices should not imagine that the "softly, softly" yielding approach will work with the regime.

The message for the UN envoy is simple:

Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon should instruct Gambari to reiterate that the regime must adapt its seven-step road map so that it ensures a peaceful transition to democracy, including the redrafting of the constitution by means of a transparent, participatory process. That process must involve representatives of political parties like the NLD and Burma's ethnic nationalities. Gambari must also call for the release of all political prisoners.

If the seven-step road map truly represented the way forward for a peaceful transition to democracy, then activists and opposition groups might be prepared to rethink their participation within its framework.

If Gambari cannot persuade the regime to take these essential steps, then the secretary-general must declare that the regime's roadmap is no longer relevant. He must strongly encourage the UN Security Council to use an enforcement mechanism to bring about progress on democratic transition in Burma. If not, the UN will fail again and Burmese activists may reluctantly conclude that the UN is in fact complicit with the regime.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and currently works as a joint secretary for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

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