15 APRIL 2008

Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy to Burma, spoke of his frustration with the slow pace of the dialogue process, but maintained that his diplomatic role has yielded results. During his latest visit to the country, he was chastised by a junta spokesperson for his supposed bias towards the regime's critics; following the trip, democratic forces in exile called his mission a failure. But the senior diplomat refused to see these developments in a negative light. "Maybe if I am criticized from both sides, it means I am doing something right," he said.

Question: What were your achievements during your third trip to Burma last month?
Answer: Contrary to what the press has generally reported, there were some positive elements from this visit. The fact that it occurred at all [was an achievement]. You recall that I was invited [to visit Burma] after the 15th of April. But it was moved up. At least the authorities were sensitive to the need to engage earlier than their initial plan. Secondly, they also extended the stay by one day. That may not seem a lot, but the fact of the matter is that at least there is willingness on their part to change their minds and to try to accommodate us as much as possible.

Q: What was the message you conveyed to the military junta?
A: I would say that I conveyed to the highest authorities available to us the serious concerns of the international community on two issues: the steps they have taken regarding the referendum on the constitution [in May] and the elections [in 2010]. For us, the fact that we were pressing for a timeline on the seven-step road map and they finally gave it is at least something to work with. Our position, then, is to convey to them that the international community hopes that this process will be credible and also inclusive. I made specific recommendations along these lines.

Q: But you were unable to meet Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
A: Although I did not meet the senior-general, I met with eight ministers, four deputy ministers, the chairman of the constitution drafting committee, the chairman of the referendum convening committee [and] members of five political parties. I also met with Aung San Suu Kyi twice, with [members of] the international diplomatic community twice [and] with the UN country team at the UN House, also twice. Then finally, of course, I communicated with [Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein] in writing. He responded by sending a deputy minister to give their response to some of the issues that I had raised.

Q: So what were the results?
A: Engaging them was one. Second, conveying the message, and third, [I] played the role of the mediator by passing messages between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government. Though the dialogue that we inaugurated between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi is not going as well as we would like, the role of the United Nations is to try to facilitate-we also got an opportunity to do that.

Q: How optimistic are you that your recommendations will be accepted by the military junta?
A: First of all, at the formal meeting-I had one formal meeting-they had already positioned on a number of issues even before we had a chance to articulate our position. It did not go very well, and I had a formal rejection of some specific suggestions that included our offer of technical assistance to the commission that is organizing both the referendum and the subsequent election. [Our other recommendations included] the idea of independent monitors and a proposal regarding a national economic forum.

By the time we had a second meeting with those same ministers of the authoritative team [that was] empowered to speak on behalf of the government, chaired by the minister of information along with the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of culture, it was a different atmosphere. Though they had not changed their position, it was at least much more positive and much friendlier. So there is room [for dialogue].

Also, those who are running the referendum, the referendum convening committee, seem to be open to the idea of discussing further the need for technical assistance and even the offer of-idea of-an independent monitor.

Q: What did you tell them? What was their reaction?
A: Their initial reaction was, "We are a sovereign country. We have done these things before, without international help." But our position is that their situation has been the subject of international concern, so [there is a need] to enhance the credibility of the process, to meet the exercise of their sovereign right to ask for help...Technical assistance or even independent monitors need not come from the UN-it could be from international monitors or neighboring countries or from friendly countries. In the case of technical assistance, I told them that as many as 57 member countries have requested [such help from] the UN in the last two years and we responded to 50 of them. I know this because in my previous capacity as head of the Department of Political Affairs, I was the focal point of electoral assistance for the entire UN system.

Q: So do you think they will consider your offer of technical assistance and independent monitors before the referendum?
A: I sincerely hope so.

Q: What is the next step?
A: The next step is to continue our conversation, because our engagement with the authorities is not an event, it is a process. Sometimes you get a lot more out of a visit than at other times, but it is a process. It is an incremental process and we keep open the process of dialogue. The government wants it; so do the [National League for Democracy] and Aung San Suu Kyi. The [UN] secretary-general, of course, on whose behalf I act, [wants the process to continue] and so does the president of the General Assembly, who issued a statement after I briefed him about the continuation of the process. The Security Council also backed the continuation of the process. So we will continue the engagement, continue to impress upon [the government] the need to embrace some of these ideas in order to enhance the credibility of their own process, which they have chosen.

Q: Should we expect your next visit before the referendum?
A: It is not likely that I will go back to Myanmar (Burma) before the referendum. Of course, surprises could come, but there are other opportunities to engage. We could meet with the regime in a third country. There are many alternatives, but the important point is to keep the process of dialogue open.

Q: When you were in Burma, the official Burmese media were very critical of you.
A: Right.

Q: Since your return, pro-democracy groups and independent observers have also been very critical of you.
A: Maybe if I am criticized from both sides, it means I am doing something right. I think these comments come out of some frustration.

Q: Could you explain? There are some who say that your mission has failed.
A: The government is frustrated by the fact that the sanctions are still on them, despite what they consider to be the significant steps they have taken. They think they are not getting any credit for it from the international community. On the contrary, some countries have actually increased their sanctions or threatened to do so. Secondly, they feel that each time I return from a visit and they cooperate, I brief the Security Council and the Security Council makes a statement criticizing them. So they feel frustrated. I explained to them, the antidote to all these criticisms by the Security Council or sanctions is more cooperation and not less with the good offices role of the secretary-general, so we can show tangible results. So this is [the source of] frustration on the part of the government.

On the part of the pro-democracy groups, of course, they want change to be faster. The pro-democracy forces are particularly mindful of the result of the last elections in 1990, where the NLD won 80 to 85 percent of the seats, and they would like to see that situation restored. So there is frustration that things are not moving fast enough.

Aung San Suu Kyi is still under detention, a number of political prisoners have not been released and there are doubts that the military would actually quit in 2010 as they have said. I think [pro-democracy groups] have these frustrations, as things are not moving as fast as one would have liked. But what is the alternative? What are the tools available to the secretary-general? Because it is not about me-it is about the role of the secretary-general, the good offices role. It is about the role of the General Assembly and it is about the Security Council support and the support of the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries and some neighboring countries such as India and China. So if I have failed, which some people may have that opinion-I think the mission is continuing and it is too early to draw conclusions-it would have been a failure not of Gambari, but of the secretary-general, Asean, India, China, Japan, the General Assembly and the Security Council.

Q: The government of Burma says that you are taking the side of the pro-democracy movement and the pro-democracy groups say that your mission is a failure. How do you respond to these statements?
A: First of all, it is unfortunate that the government would see it that way, because I have tried my best to be unbiased. If you are a mediator, you have to be impartial. At times, you have to convey messages to both sides that are not always pleasant. So I can see because of the frustrations-the basis of which I have explained-they draw those kinds of conclusion. But I think, with time, they will see the value of mediation, the value of a third-party role, the value of the United Nations and of the secretary-general.

I think, similarly, that the pro-democracy forces should also recognize that we have very limited tools. We are only as effective as the support we get from the member states. This is what they should realize. The target should be the member states that have influence over the government. The pro-democracy forces should try to encourage them to support the good offices role of the secretary-general in more concrete ways and also send the right signals to the authorities in Myanmar to co-operate more with us so that we can achieve our objectives.

Q: Do you also feel frustrated sometimes that things are not moving as expected?
A: Oh, yes! Occasionally, as a human being.

Q: When and why? What frustrates you?
A: For example, I would like very much that restrictions around Aung San Suu Kyi be lifted and that she be freed. I genuinely believe that if she is to be the partner in dialogue-and I do not see an alternative to dialogue-you can't continue to subject your partner to the same restrictions as before. To me, I see very clearly that she is part of the solution. As long as she continues to be detained, then that would be part of the problem for the authorities.

Secondly, I would like to see the release of more political prisoners, if not all of them. I would like to see the dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government move to a substantive level, because right now, it is still talks about talks-even that is stalled.

So those are my frustrations. At the same time, I also recognize that the good offices role is a process, so we just have to keep at it. We have to keep pressing with persistence and patience, but also continue to demand tangible results from the process because otherwise it would be waste of my time [and that] of the secretary-general, of the General Assembly and, frankly speaking, of the authorities in Myanmar.

Q: Did you also see this frustration when you met Aung San Suu Kyi?
A: You know something, she is a remarkable woman and she is looking well. Her health is good. She looked better than previous times, certainly better than the first two times I met her. In May 2006 and November [2007], she was not looking good, her health was not good. I raised this issue with the government. They responded by making access to a medical doctor much more regular. She wants me to tell the world that she is in very good spirits. She has not given up. She is hopeful that change will come; she wishes that it would be faster. She is absolutely convinced that change will come.

Q: What was her view when she learned that she wouldn't be allowed to contest elections?
A: She says that her own personal political situation is not the issue-[the issue] is change for the betterment of Myanmar. She wants a government that reflects the wishes of the people, a government that addresses the real concerns of the people, particularly on the social and economic front. Do not forget that in 1990 she was similarly barred from contesting elections, but that did not prevent her party from winning 85 percent of the seats. So the important thing is her party. She wants to continue to lead her party. She wants her party to participate in a true process of democracy. And she sees herself not just as a leader of her party, but also as representing the forces of change in the country, including change for the betterment of ethnic minorities and nationalities.

Q: Is she willing to let her party participate in the election process even if she is barred from contesting the election?
A: Well, you know, the first step is the referendum. She has not told me certainly and I have not seen evidence that either she or her party wants to boycott the election process. This is very important, because some of the pro-democracy activists-I respect their opinion-regard the referendum as a sham. She herself and her party have not decided to boycott, which means that they appear to be considering participating. They may vote yes or no to the draft constitution in the referendum, but so far it appears that she and her party may want to participate. (Editor's note: The day after this interview was held, the NLD announced its opposition to the constitution.)

Q: Would you recommend that the pro-democracy groups participate or not participate? A: That will have to be their decision.

Q: What do you think would be in the best interests of Burma?
A: Well, I would say the best interest of Burma is really the opportunity for the people to express their views freely and fairly-in other words, to create a climate that is conducive to freedom of expression, freedom of association and therefore freedom of choice. That is what the UN is about-promoting a climate conducive to free and fair elections in the country.

Also very important is the credibility of the process. The more credible the process, the more inclusive the process, the better. It is up to the political parties and individuals to decide how they actually want to vote. So our concern in the UN is really the credibility and inclusiveness of the process.

Q: Do you think the environment is there for a free and fair election-or, in your words, a credible and inclusive election?
A: Not yet, but there is still time between now and May. First of all, it is important to decriminalize the opposition for the referendum. Two, we believe that all political prisoners should be released so that everybody can participate. We believe that the condition of detention of Aung San Suu Kyi should be eased. We believe that the constitution should be widely disseminated. We believe that there should be debate on the pros and cons of the constitution. These are the kinds of things we feel would enhance the credibility of the process and show the world that the outcome, whatever it is, is free and fair. We at the UN are ready if our help is needed with technical assistance. Once again, I call on the government to consider using independent monitors because that will enhance the credibility of the process.

Q: Do you think this could be done before the referendum? Do we have enough time left?
A: If the will is there, it could be done. The date of the referendum has not been announced, but they have said it would be in May. This is just the beginning of April. So conditions could be created. Decisions can be taken which will enhance the credibility of the process.

Q: Do you think there has been any improvement in the role of neighboring countries in the last couple of months?
A: They have recognized that they have to play a much more pro-active role. First, they are neighbors, they are Asean. What happens in Myanmar, if it is positive, it would impact positively on them. If it is negative, it would impact dramatically and negatively on them. So they have the duty, they have a responsibility and we have been encouraging them in this regard. I myself have been to China three times and India three times in the past year. I have been to Thailand at least two times, Indonesia three times and Singapore countless times-just cajoling, arguing, pressing and encouraging them to play a more pro-active role. It looks like some of them are doing so. We would like those who are doing so to do even more, and those who have not yet done [anything] to start. In the case of Indonesia, we feel that there is an opportunity for Indonesia to play a more pro-active role, because they have a story to tell. They have an experience which they can share with the authorities in Myanmar, general to general, and [assure them] that there is life after military rule and that a transition from a military rule to full democracy is possible provided there is political will. And to do it in a way that enjoys the credibility of the international community.