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POLITICS: U.N. Faces Hurdles As It Seeks Mediator’s Role in Burma

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 2 2010 (IPS) - Barely a week after a ranking United Nations official visited military-ruled Burma, the country’s strongman has sharply reminded the global body about the challenges that await any envoy who refuses to march in step with the junta.

On Wednesday, Senior Gen Than Shwe declared that the Nov. 7 general election was “free and fair” and that the South-east Asian nation was heading towards handing “over state power to the public.”

The reclusive military leader’s views of the country’s first general election in two decades — made during a speech to mark the anniversary of a 1920 student strike against British colonialism – could not have been more blunt.

They ran counter to those expressed by Vijay Nambiar, U.N. special envoy to Burma.

Only days before, Nambiar told reporters at the end of his trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar, that he had informed the military government about the many concerns expressed about the Nov. 7 poll.

The questions about the elections – which many western governments described as having been rigged to ensure victory for a junta-backed party – need to be taken up “as transparently as possible,” Nambiar informed journalists at the end of his weekend visit.

“This is important for laying the foundation of a credible transition” to democratic rule, he was quoted as having said, according to the Associated Press news agency.

But Than Shwe’s snub is not the only challenge Nambiar faces as the United Nations mounts its third attempt in a decade to meet its declared political mission for Burma: to use the office of the U.N. secretary-general “to facilitate the process of national reconciliation and democratisation through his special advisor for Myanmar.”

Nambiar, who is also chief of staff for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has to grapple with the new political equation in Burma following the release from house arrest of the widely popular democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since her release in mid-November, the 65-year-old Nobel Peace laureate has been treading a cautious, yet determined path to breathe life into the besieged democracy movement, which she has been the icon of since late 1988.

On Wednesday, Suu Kyi, who has been shut away for over 15 of the past 21 years as a prisoner in her home, appealed to a broad slice of the country – including soldiers and civil servants — to unite under the banner of national reconciliation.

“I have worked to fulfil national reconciliation, and I will keep trying to promote national reconciliation,” said Suu Kyi during a speech in Rangoon, the former capital, to mark Burma’s National Day, as the anniversary to celebrate the 1920 student strike against British colonial rule is called.

Suu Kyi is open to the United Nations playing a role to bridge the wide political gulf between the military, the pro-democracy movement and Burma’s ethnic minorities. “She wants the U.N. to play a role, but how and what form is not clear,” said a European diplomat who visits Burma frequently.

But the military government harbours other ideas. “They are not receptive to an explicit U.N. political presence on the ground, which is what Suu Kyi wants,” the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “The government does not see a role for the U.N.”

Little wonder why analysts concede that Nambiar’s mission should force the United Nations to examine its political relevance in Burma. “I don’t think the U.N. has much clout to bring the parties together under the current circumstances,” Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile, told IPS. “The military feels it is in a position of power and economically strong so it does not need to listen to the U.N. on national reconciliation.”

In fact, the junta’s rejection of U.N. mediation efforts has been a familiar feature of its political exchanges with the world body over the past 10 years. At times, these have even exploded into open disagreement between ranking government officials and a visiting envoy or the junta doing an about-turn on promises made.

Suu Kyi, too, has snubbed the world body during her last seven-year period as a political prisoner.

Nambiar’s predecessor, Ibrahim Gambari, hit a diplomatic low during a 2008 visit to Burma when the then detained pro-democracy leader turned down two requests by Gambari for a meeting. Even an attempt by two of Gambari’s aides to show up outside the gates of Suu Kyi’s home and shout Gambari’s name proved futile.

But this political minefield has not dimmed the world body’s quest to make its presence felt in order to pave the way for national reconciliation. In November, Nambiar’s office received more funds to increase its staff to four for its Burma mission, up from the two during Gambari’s stint as the Burma envoy.

“There is definitely a role for the U.N. to play in Burma, but they have to move beyond thinking it is just about the military and Suu Kyi,” said David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, a New York- based global rights watchdog. “There are so many other elements to be considered, including the concerns of the ethnic groups.”

“The situation now is far more complex,” he told IPS. “It is the Mount Everest of diplomatic efforts. And Nambiar is starting at the shores of the Indian Ocean.”

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