15 July 2007

There seems to be a good chance to get some results out of Myanmar. That is, negotiations on the need to release prominent political prisoners and allow for a more open political process are, once again, taking a seriously positive turn. A decision by the Secretary General to assign his Special Adviser Ibrahim Gambari is clearly a practical step in the right direction. The former Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs is quite familiar with the issue. As a former Foreign Minister of Nigeria and a political science Professor during military rule, he is a perceptive observer of how to handle delicate matters. As a U.N.-based reporter said affectionately: "Gambari also speaks Junta."

During a recent visit to Washington, Ambassador Gambari was received by the U.S. First Lady Laura Bush who was keen on finding out more on how to help the people of that country. Democratic congressmen also sought indications on how best to advance the case. Their special interest in one particular captive, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is understandable. But limiting the focus to getting a headline or two would not be productive unless a basket of issues were raised -- how could the international community jointly demonstrate practical interest in assisting the country? What political support could be obtained from countries with influence on Yangon rulers to loosen their grip, free a number of political prisoners, not just one "star." And above all, how to maintain discreet, repeat discreet, pressure in order to obtain fruitful results. We stress discretion because immature media posturing last year preempted a very likely opportunity.

For a few days in May 2006, we were hopeful to witness a spring blossom in Yangon. 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. 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. The U.N. Myanmar country team on development held meetings highlighting agricultural potential to be evolved through a return of contribution. During a press briefing, Professor Gambari was very careful not to raise expectations and not to unduly provoke his hosts. "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. All seemed to be going well. A significant signal was read in a statement by the Chief of Police in Myanmar who announced that Aung San Suu Kyi was no more a threat to internal peace. A face-saving cover (and that is a very important Asian trait) 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. Out of nowhere came a Secretary General's 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 marked the end of a brief, slim -- however slim -- prospect.

An explanation leaked to the Financial Times claimed that the Secretary General had tried to phone the Myanmar General 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 had advised Mr. Annan to seize the moment. Since a positive move was expected soon, 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. 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. The U.N. advantage is always the most face-saving appropriate channel.

Now that contacts have picked up, it is crucial to resort first and foremost to discreet diplomacy. What matters is to obtain the release of an Asian freedom icon with other prisoners and the welfare of the people of Myanmar. Ibrahim Gambari has just been to Beijing for consultations with senior Chinese officials and continued to Tokyo and New Delhi for further meetings. Before that he was at the U.S. capital. His consultations are within the mandate of the Secretary General Good Offices.

Feedback from the Chinese capital indicates that they stand ready to help; they welcomed the fact that Gambari, who was not only a senior U.N. official but also a distinguished African, was helping to resolve an Asian issue. So did the Japanese and Indian senior officials. The U.S. positive interest is at the level of the First Lady and senior bipartisan congressmen. Obviously, any effort to promote positive change will require not only direct dialogue with the government and people of the country, but also to mobilize support by all other interested and potentially helpful countries.

So allow the efforts to evolve discreetly, realistically and effectively. There will always be time for public posturing if the venture fails. But as long as signals reflect some progress, it is important to consolidate these Good Offices with confidence building and concerted action.

We make the point once more because we care to transform that breakdown with Myanmar into a breakthrough for the people and country of a former Secretary General. We also sincerely long for an achievement which would rebuild the credibility of the U.N. and regain an effective role for its Secretary General.