Thursday, December 27, 2007

Can the "Group of Friends" help Gambari?

Dr. Sein Myint
Mizzima News (

December 23, 2007 - Last Wednesday, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon formed a "Group of Friends" of Burma to aide his special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari. Gambari is in close consultation with both the military generals and pro-democracy leaders in an effort to encourage democracy and human rights in Burma.

The group is comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Britain, China, Russia and France); four ASEAN members (Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam); the EU representative (currently Portugal); plus three major regional players (India, Japan and Australia); and Norway.

To strengthen this noble cause it is worthwhile to analyze how this "Group of Friends" can help Mr. Gambari's mission to Burma.

On the surface, there is no reason to doubt each country's friendship and sincerity towards Burma as Burma has maintained her long standing foreign policy of non-alignment since 1955, when the late Burmese Premier U Nu was one of founding signatories of the first Non-Aligned Movement Conference at Bandung, Indonesia.

However, if we dig deeper and carefully scrutinize the "Group of Friends," each member's "Friendliness" toward the current Burmese military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), falls into one of the two camps.

The first camp, the "political and/or economic friends" of the SPDC camp, is led by two permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia, and includes regional giants Japan and India as well as the four ASEAN countries.

The second camp, the "political friends" of the Burmese democratic opposition camp, is led by the US, Britain, and France, all three of whom are permanent members of the UN Security Council, and includes the EU, Norway, and Australia.

The "Group of Friends" is an informal group hoping to assist Mr. Gambari's mediation work in Burma, specifically in helping to find ways and means to persuade the recalcitrant junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and his hard-line loyalists, to release detained opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and commence a meaningful dialogue.

Many countries in the first camp, led by China, have publicly stated their view on the matter of releasing Aung San Suu Kyi as an internal affair of Burma that only the Burmese can solve themselves. This camp wishes to leave the generals alone to decide Burma's fate without outside interference.

But the second camp, led by the US, believes that the international community cannot leave the SPDC's gross human rights abuses as an internal affair since the United Nations has a responsibility to protect the millions of people living under harsh military rule and arbitrary laws.

While the US and her group push for a tougher position in dealing with the junta, China and her group resist applying pressure, preferring instead to use gentle persuasion.

So far, the junta has survived sanctions by the US and the EU as they have had little direct impact on the government, and the SPDC has also brushed aside the gentle "constructive engagement" initiated by ASEAN neighbors.

With such diametrical views from the two camps, getting a consensus on how to persuade and pressure the junta to maintain direct talks with Aung San Suu Kyi will demand a high level of diplomatic skill by both the Secretary General and his special envoy.

A senior EU diplomat has said "at least these diplomats have a place to meet and a format to work together". The Japanese Ambassador has also given a somewhat positive note about the usefulness of the group, adding that the group is not against Burma, though perhaps he means it is not against the SPDC.

With such diverse opinions and views amongst group members, one cannot help but wonder, how will the "Friends" of the junta find common ground with the "Friends" of the democratic opposition and provide a magic formula for Mr. Gambari?

In the end, if this magic formula fails to materialize, perhaps it is time for the "Friends" of the democratic opposition to start contemplating a more effective approach.

[Dr. Sein Myint serves as Director for Policy Development with Justice for Human Rights in Burma (JHB).]

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