15 September 2007

Very few adapted to the new name. Most people remember Myanmar as Burma. That's what it was called when its distinguished citizen U Thant was U.N. Secretary General. When a military junta took over, Master Thant refused to return under their autocratic rule. Only as a dead body, his casket returned by a plane which stopped overnight in the Beirut airport. A grateful former aide, the Director of the U.N. Information Centre there, stood in solitary vigil on that windy January dawn.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been U Thant's student -- almost a daughter. Her detention for so many years -- together with other political prisoners -- is unjust, unacceptable, and criminal. She is by now a symbol of freedom and democracy. Further detention is certainly not in Myanmar's national interest -- to the contrary -- every day that passes with her detained draws further condemnation of the oppressive junta. Last year a breakthrough seemed in sight when a senior U.N. official, Under-Secretary General Ibrahim Gambari visited Yangoon as well as neighbouring countries with potential impact. A carefully timed statement by an Interior Minister official that Suu Kyi no more represented a threat to national security was read as a face-saving prelude to letting her go. Media posturing by other U.N. officials led to shutting that door nervously and swiftly.

A fresh effort is underway. Ambassador Gambari is once more on the trail, representing Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Since taking over earlier this year, the Secretary General stated that he will make every effort to promote national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy, and the respect for human rights in Myanmar. That includes, of course, the immediate release of Daw Aung San Sui Kyi and all political prisoners in an all-inclusive national reconciliation process.

Recent repressive mishandling of demonstrations is a cause of great concern. It called into question the government's stated commitment to reform. It also reinforces the need for the international community to intensify efforts to address the many challenges in Myanmar. While publicly expressing concern is expected, a wider role for the U.N. is to pursue diplomatic and political contacts. Without giving up hope, it should continue approaching key officials in that country and senior decision-makers in nearby capitals who had promised to exert influence.

It just so happens -- on the positive side -- that Ambassador Gambari is the only international player who has maintained face to face dialogue with Myanmar's leaders. His mission has been followed closely even from unexpected quarters like U.S. First Lady Laura Bush.

It is time to step up engagement with the ruling officers in Yangoon to obtain results soon. While they should hear outright condemnation by the press, they should also be discouraged -- directly and vividly -- from actions that undermine national reconciliation and urged, on behalf of the international community, to deliver on the needs and expectations of their people. While public posturing may reflect public anger, effective diplomacy should be allowed to take its course. Express your feelings. But let Mr. Gambari do his job. He may surprise you.