15 June 2006

For a few days in May we were hopeful to witness a spring blossom in Yangoun. One of the world's most resilient fighters for democracy, free speech and human dignity Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet Senior U.N. Special Political Affairs Chief Ibrahim Gambari.

Positive steps seemed to be going in the right direction. Advanced contact paved the way. Key members of the Security Council, including those with some impact in Myanmar were discreetly involved. Meeting with national officials was done in a sensitive and professional way, including the U.N. country team on development, highlighting agricultural potential to be evolved through practical contribution. During a press briefing, Professor Gambari was very careful not to raise expectations and not to unduly provoke his recent hosts. An experienced diplomat who had dealt practically with varied forms of governments, he had made a pitch. "We have to see" he repeatedly responded to insistent reporters in New York. The door was at least partially open. The U.N. was ready with a comprehensive approach and practical country program. The word "pressure" was avoided, stressing instead concerted regional and international willingness to "steeling up" a democratic participatory process.

A significant positive signal was read in a subsequent statement by the Chief of Police in Myanmar. ASSK was no more a threat to internal peace. A face-saving (and that is a very important Asian trait) cover was to claim that she no more has adequate following to create trouble. In practical terms, that meant that the main pretext for her detention was no more essential. The government was reviewing her status within 24 hours.

It was then that someone must have whispered in Kofi Annan's ear while in nearby Bangkok that it was about time for him to get into the picture. Did he resort to public pressure prematurely rather than pursuing discreet diplomacy? What was the purpose of a public statement to the local, regional and international press as well as through a spokesman and a communique in New York? Addressing the country's military strongman he said: "I am relying on you, General Than Shwe, to do the right thing."

That was the end of that brief, slim -- however slim -- prospect.

Why would Mr. Annan, who is normally very careful in dealing with governments force the issue so quickly and so publicly? An explanation was leaked to the Financial Times that our Secretary General had tried to phone the Myanmar General throughout the day unsuccessfully, so he had to resort to a public appeal before it was too late. Another, more cynical explanation was that someone with an eye on the media advised Mr. Annan to seize the moment -- as a release seemed to be most likely imminent, a publicly perceived appeal would give him full and exclusive credit for the release of Asia's most prominent prisoner and Nobel Laureate.

Regrettably it did not work out that way. Regrettably, those familiar with the workings of military governments will tell you that such media pressure, while discreet contacts are going on, could be counter-productive. The General will never wish to appear giving in to outside pressure. If anything, he would rather be making a deal with Washington and Beijing, if not ASEAN. However, the U.N. is always the most face-saving appropriate channel.

It is not unusual for the U.N. to maintain discreet diplomacy, even if others took credit. What matters is the release of an Asian freedom icon. Painstaking steps were being taken over months of careful discreet preparation. Some more time was worth a little more patience; for whatever reason, media pressure did not help. We make the point because we care for a breakthrough in a tormented country -- the home of a former Secretary General -- and we care for a real achievement to really build up the credibility of the U.N. and the effective role of its current Secretary General.

Let's hope the efforts continue.