Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Myanmar, UN Visits As Possible Leverage, China and India Want Ground Cover, Some Friends Say

Amb. Natalegawa, at right, with UK Amb. Sawers, all among Friends, ASSK not shown

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, September 12 -- In a meeting in the UN basement barely covered by the press, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Group of Friends for Myanmar met for two hours on Friday, to review Ban's envoy Ibrahim Gambari's recent visit and try to agree on steps to move forward. The Group carries with it the same split as within the Security Council's Permanent Five members -- the U.S., France and UK against China and these days more than ever Russia -- and also has India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, Norway, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union presidency, represented Friday by EU envoy Piero Fassino. Indonesia has been described as the bring, between Myanmar's Eastern neighbors and Westerners who speak of freeing Burma. So after Friday's meeting, Inner City Press asked Indonesia's Ambassador Marty Natalegawa what consensus if any was reached.

Amb. Natalegawa said that some "are always trying to oversimplify and caricature where we are, either exuberantly positive or extremely negative." The reality, he said, is somewhere in between. Another ASEAN diplomat stopped and told Inner City Press that by his count, the Government of Myanmar had responded positively to two of the five goals Gambari had been sent with, and had acknowledged but not given ground on three of them. "Four years ago, this visit would have been described as successful," the ASEAN Ambassador said.

On deeper background, out of the view of the Ambassadors streaming out from the meeting room into the rainy streets, a senior diplomat who has spend "many years working on the Myanmar file" but demanded anonymity said that Myanmar's government is reclusive and is ready to go it alone. He said the UN's leverage is to withhold the visits of Gambari and certainly Ban Ki-moon.

But if they are prepared to go it alone, do they care? The diplomat countered that China and India, which both do business in Myanmar, like to have Gambari visiting. It allows them to say that there is a process, that things are on track. So to imply that Gambari won't visit unless Myanmar gives Ban and the UN something of a victory -- for example "the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi" -- just might work, the diplomat said.

Under this analysis, the criticism of Gambari's trip as a failure helps the UN, which can say to Myanmar, we are under pressure, you have to give us something for us to keep visiting. So perhaps the stonewalling for 19 days after Gambari's visit, with Ban Ki-moon having no comment at all, was planned. Perhaps. But following this logic, the UN should make public some of its dissatisfaction and the threat of delay by Gambari. On September 11, however, Ban Ki-moon said don't call the visit a failure. Is this the right diplomatic move?

Footnote: the Group of Friends meeting was slated to run from 3:30 to 4:30. But it continued on, with two staffers coming out from time to time. At 5:10 UK Ambassador John Sawers left; at 5:15 France's Jean-Maurice Ripert followed suit. Only at 5:30 did Ban's flotilla, with Kim Won-soo and Vijay Nambiar, come out without speaking. Might a visit be withheld? We'll see.

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