Monday, March 2, 2009

Do We Need a ‘Diplomat Watch’?

The Irrawaddy News

I congratulate The Irrawaddy for publishing an interview with British Ambassador Mark Canning (“Mark My Words”). Canning said that, “...while the search for a political solution goes on, the people of this country should not be made to suffer further.” I completely agree with him.

I live in the country, and I notice that we now have fewer professional foreign diplomats based in Rangoon. Canning is a rare species—he seems focused, and he understands the situation. Before him, I remember Martin Morland as a courageous British ambassador who stood up against the Saw Maung regime. Former US Ambassador Burton Levin was also a strong supporter of the democracy uprising in 1988—the indiscriminate killing took place in front of the US embassy when people marched there to protest against the Ne Win regime.

But those days are gone. The US has downgraded its diplomatic tie with the regime since the 1988 massacre and since then many people see the quality and professionalism of diplomats posted in military-colonized Burma as something of a mixed bag. Some Asian ambassadors are known to be sympathizers with the regime and the generals—to name a few: India, China, Thailand, Singapore and Japanese embassies enjoy “friendly” relations with the regime. It is a shame and a disgrace in the history of Myanmar [Burma], and one day we will all remember.

But these Asian diplomats should not be disappointed. There are those in the West who share their views. In Burma, as recently as last year, a Western embassy invited only pro-junta people and regime sympathizers to one reception. The embassy claimed that it do not want a pro-democracy crowd. The US and UK missions are still popular among Burmese, but the postings of some diplomats have been controversial.

We all know diplomats and ambassadors based in Bangkok are also responsible for Burma. Those postings are difficult jobs as far as I understand. Burmese exiled groups and people friendly with the dissident movement have to deal with people in new postings about every three year. They find some good friends, but they tell me they also some who have differing views. Rumors circulated that these days some Bangkok-based diplomats and ambassadors support the 2010 election, and they naively believe that Burma is going to change after 2010. Is it true?

Some diplomats have, I was told, been “brainwashed” and ignore the plight of the Burmese people, refugees and displaced people along the border and inside. They have never traveled to the border zone to learn firsthand. Is it true? If it is, then it is sad news. The quality of diplomats working on Burma has gone down, I think.

My Burmese colleagues told me they hope for more diplomats who have real knowledge and a more balanced view on Burma.

Is there a complaint mechanism if Burmese supporters inside and outside the country believe that some ambassadors and diplomats aren’t professionally competent?

Are they happy giving their credentials to “Naypyidaw Than Shwe,” who in return offers them a political lecture? Since The Irrawaddy has a “Than Shwe Watch,” is it time for a “UN Watch or Gambari Watch?” Maybe it’s time for a “Diplomat Watch.”

Sit Naing Thu is an independent Burmese observer of politics and civil society in Burma.

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