The ‘Go-Between’ Expert

ASIA INTERVIEW

UN special envoy brings vast troubleshooting experience to his latest task in Myanmar.

IT WAS a long wait.

Mr Ibrahim Gambari, the UN special envoy to Myanmar, was kept in the dark for three days as to whether he would meet the ruling junta’s elusive strongman, Senior General Than Shwe.

The experienced troubleshooter, who is no stranger to resolving so-called intractable issues in hot spots around the world, arrived in Yangon on a Saturday last month.

He held brief consultations with government representatives at the airport before being flown to Naypyidaw, the military’s hideaway capital. Still there was no sign of Gen Than Shwe.

Instead, he was taken to the country’s remote north-east for a sightseeing trip and to attend a workshop with journalists. He was also invited to join in a pro-government rally in the mountainous region.

Mr Gambari was giving his first account of the visit to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

“The initial programme from their side did not include a meeting with the head of the SPDC,” he said, using the official name of the military government, the State Peace and Development Council.

“We pointed out to them that this would be an incomplete visit without calling on him,” he said.

He revealed that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon made a “very strong and powerful intervention”. As a result of this, the generals relented.

“But the problem was that he (Gen Than Shwe) was not in Naypyidaw but he was out in the provinces. That caused the delay and as a result I had to wait until he came back on Tuesday.”

The Nigerian diplomat smiled as he recounted what happened during the visit, betraying how difficult his assignment was.

Dressed in a white pinstriped shirt, a black tie with white dots and well-cut slacks, he looked relaxed despite the steady stream of phone calls and visitors to his office on the 21st floor of the United Nations Headquarters here.

He has handled equally difficult situations before with regimes in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and Cyprus.

Speaking with a measured and cautious tone – lacing the conversation with humour – he talked of Myanmar as another important project where he could make a difference given his skills as a troubleshooter.

He demonstrated his ability to deal with the junta and the opposition camp on his recent visit by playing the role of a go-between – a role he appears to have honed to an art.

“I was shuttling from one side to the other, passing messages. That was my job, to try and break down the barriers between both sides.”

On the military government, Mr Gambari had this to say: “The junta is stubborn. They have been isolated for so long. Their priority is really stability. And they knew I was coming to deliver inconvenient messages.

“But nonetheless, they received me with great courtesy. I had very substantive discussions with the generals.”

As for opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he met twice during the trip, he said she looked “a lot healthier this time than before”.

He added: “She seemed to be in favour of a dialogue provided that there are clear timelines and it was serious…She appeared to be a lot more receptive to dialogue now than she was before.”

Mr Gambari first visited Myanmar in May last year and again in November, and was the first foreign dignitary in two years to meet Ms Suu Kyi.

His main objective during the recent trip, he said, was to foster talks between the junta and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

Another objective was to have an assessment on the ground following the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

And a third was convey very strong messages to the generals to stop violence against the protesters and to release political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi, to defuse the crisis.

“So, I went, I saw and I reported,” he said with a hint of irritation, perhaps at reports that his trip there was a failure.

“I could not see a number of people who would have helped me get a complete picture,” he revealed. “I was not allowed to meet the NLD and the monks.

“But I got communications from these groups and I was also thoroughly briefed by the UN country chief. So, I felt that I had got a fairly good sense of what was happening on the ground.”

Mr Gambari clearly shows no signs of slowing the pace. He is looking forward to his next visit to Myanmar next month.

“I will go down to Myanmar as often as need be but it is up to the junta and the opposition there. I have the energy to do so. I am only 63.”

Gambari on…

WHAT HE DID

“I was shuttling from one side to the other, passing messages. That was my job, to try and break down the barriers between both sides.”

SECRET TO SUCCESS

“I think credibility and track record of openness is important. One must be willing to listen and to see the point of view of everyone even if you don’t agree with it. There must also be humility to recognise that the problem of Myanmar lies with the people.”

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION

“It is not whether but how and when. And we want an all inclusive national reconciliation process. The sooner the better because that is the only guarantor for peace and stability in Myanmar.”

MEETINGS WITH JUNTA

“The junta is stubborn. They have been isolated for so long. Their priority is really stability. And they knew I was coming to deliver inconvenient messages. But nonetheless, they received me with great courtesy. I had very substantive discussions with the generals.”

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