Monday, June 22, 2009

U.N. envoy en route to Rangoon ahead of boss's visit

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (mizzima news)- United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari is scheduled to arrive in Burma later this week to pave the way for the proposed visit of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in early July.

The U.N. diplomat’s trip is expected to start on Friday, according to a Burmese government official. “It will be a short visit to discuss the national reconciliation process and make arrangements for Mr. Ban’s visit,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

U.N. officials, when contacted, were not prepared to discuss the visit, only saying that nothing can be confirmed at this stage. Other sources, though, said Gambari’s trip was already being planned and was very likely to go ahead as scheduled. Several diplomats in Rangoon told Mizzima that while nothing is yet confirmed, they expect to see the U.N. Envoy arrive towards the end of the week.

“If Ban Ki-moon is coming to Burma in July then Gambari – as his Special Envoy – would have to lay the groundwork for the visit,” a Western diplomat in Rangoon told Mizzima, declining to be identified.

Asian diplomatic sources believe that Ban will travel to Burma from June 30th to July 2nd immediately after his scheduled visit to Tokyo to meet government leaders and leading business people. His itinerary after that is undecided but a visit to Burma is a "possibility," U.N. spokeswoman Michelle Montas told journalists in New York on Friday.

Publicly, U.N. officials will only confirm the Secretary General has yet to make up his mind. Privately, however, many diplomats who have good contact with Ban have told Mizzima over the last two weeks that he is very keen to go. The UN chief has been invited to visit Burma in July, according to Burmese government officials who say they have yet to receive a reply to the invitation.

It is expected the U.N. Envoy is going to be carrying the formal response with him – in the form of a letter from Ban Ki-moon to General Than Shwe, the junta’s top general. As yet it is unclear whether Gambari will meet the senior general this time – as on many previous visits the junta leader has refused to see him.

The U.N. boss is unlikely to go to Burma without some kind of offer from the top general. Most diplomats in Rangoon believe the Secretary General’s expectations will be laid out during Gambari’s trip. Two weeks ago Ban Ki-moon told journalists at U.N. headquarters in New York: "When the time is appropriate and conditions are ripe, as I said many times, I'm ready to visit Myanmar [Burma]. I'm working on that now."

Ban Ki-moon last visited Burma in late May 2008 in the wake of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis and chaired the donors’ meeting in Rangoon which provided crucial aid for Burma’s cyclone victims and the country’s subsequent reconstruction plans.

During that visit the U.N. Secretary General had a one-hour meeting with Than Shwe in which there was reportedly a frank and friendly discussion, according to Burmese military sources. Officially, Ban Ki-moon has insisted that only humanitarian issues were discussed during that trip as that was the precondition for the visit.

However during their talk Than Shwe asked the UN chief what he thought about the country’s “roadmap to democracy.” And the Secretary General seized on the opportunity to urge the junta leader to make the national reconciliation process transparent and inclusive – iterating that the National League for Democracy must be allowed to contest the elections in 2010 for them to be credible. He also told General Than Shwe that all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, should be released as soon as possible, according to U.N. officials close to Ban Ki-moon.

As the discussion came to an end, according to someone at the meeting, Than Shwe slapped his thigh and said this was the best and most frank conversation he has ever had with a foreigner. Ban Ki-moon is hoping that he will be able personally to build on the rapport that was established between the two men during their exchange last May.

Apart from personally taking his boss’s response to the generals, Gambari also now has the monumental task of preparing what he often in the past has called the “modalities of the visit.” Ban Ki-moon of course has already made the key issues clear: "Promoting democratization, including the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, has been one of my top priorities and it will continue to be my top priority," Ban recently told journalists.

Of course both Gambari and Ban are likely to be visiting Burma during the ongoing trial of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, also scheduled to resume on Friday. She has been charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest last month by allowing an American to swim across the lake behind her house and permitting him to come inside and providing him with food and drink. If convicted she faces five years in jail.

Her fate may decide whether Ban does continue on to Burma after Japan. Gambari is expected to discuss this with the junta’s leaders on this visit. He is also likely to be looking at the upcoming general election, the first since 1990, scheduled for next year. Another regime concession may be publication of the crucial electoral law. “We expect Gambari to be the first to be shown the document that has been drawn up months, if not a year, ago,” said a Western diplomat based in Rangoon.

Gambari will fly on to Tokyo early next week after his short visit to Burma to convey the junta’s response to the U.N. chief, according to U.N. insiders. While this may be Gambari’s eighth and final visit to Burma as the U.N. Special Envoy to the troubled Southeast Asian country, it may yet prove to be his most crucial.

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