The Council is expected to ask the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, for a briefing in the latter half of February after his visit to Myanmar (at press time his visit was expected from 31 January to 3 February). Gambari is also expected to visit other countries in the region and brief the Secretary-General (who will be in Delhi in early February) before coming back to New York in mid-February. This will be Gambari’s seventh visit to Myanmar since becoming Special Adviser.
Any Council action will be dependent on the outcome of Gambari’s visit. No firm decision has been made on the format or timing of the briefing, but the expectation is that it will be informal and possibly before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit which is scheduled for 27 February.
Key Recent Developments
In December 2008, 270 activists including monks, student leaders and National League for Democracy (NLD) members were sentenced to long jail terms for their roles in anti-junta protests in 2007 and for helping victims of cyclone Nargis in May. On 29 December nine supporters of detained Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested for holding a protest in Yangon calling for her release.
In September, the junta freed seven political prisoners and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, including Win Tin, a 79-year old journalist, who had been imprisoned since 1989. However, according to Human Rights Watch, in August and September 39 arrests were made.
On 3 December, 112 former government leaders wrote to the Secretary-General urging him to visit Myanmar and pressing for the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. The initiative was led by former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and signatories of the letter included former US Presidents George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and John Major and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Secretary-General said he would consider another visit if “a meaningful outcome” could be expected.
On 9 December, the Secretary-General met with the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar. In remarks to the press following the meeting he acknowledged growing frustration that UN’s efforts have not yielded the results hoped for. Following the 27 September 2008 ministerial-level meeting of the Group of Friends, members called for the Myanmar government “to work more closely with and respond more positively” to the UN’s good offices to address issues of concern, such as the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the initiation of an all-inclusive dialogue between the Myanmar government and the opposition. (The Group of Friends includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam from ASEAN, the EU, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and Norway.)
listening to the briefing but taking no action; and
if the Myanmar government appears more open to working with the UN, a cautiously positive presidential statement also reinforcing previous calls for the release of political prisoners, inclusive national reconciliation and genuine dialogues as well as the need to address humanitarian and economic issues might be a possibility, along with some new incentives.
Other options include:
initiating a process of six-party talks (bearing in mind the format used with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) by inviting the relevant participants to a closed Council meeting; and
finding a way of getting more involved in the mechanisms set up to deliver humanitarian aid in order to build a stronger relationship with the Myanmar government.
A key issue is whether the Council now needs a fresh approach to dealing with the Myanmar situation. Some Council members are now interested, if there is news of a positive shift in Myanmar, in the idea of incentives to make concrete steps forward, including the release of prisoners and embarking on an inclusive dialogue ahead of the 2010 elections. This also appears to be in line with the Secretary-General’s thinking and the goal of some to develop greater trust between the Myanmar government and the UN.
An issue is whether the Secretary-General should visit Myanmar soon, and if he does, what sort of input can the Council provide ahead of a visit by the Secretary-General.
Another issue is timing. Should the Council act in mid-February so that there is a message for leaders at the ASEAN Summit, which takes place on 27 February, or is it wiser to wait until after the summit? A related issue is finding alternative ways of working closely with ASEAN.
A growing issue is the impact of the increasing number of refugees from the Rohingya community in Myanmar, Muslim minorities, many of whom fled to Bangladesh to avoid persecution and are now arriving by boat in neighbouring countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern about possible mistreatment of the Rohingya seeking asylum in Thailand.
This issue is likely to continue to be a divisive one for members of the Council. China’s position is that this issue should not really be a major feature on the Council’s agenda. Viet Nam, as a member of ASEAN, espouses constructive engagement and prefers a light handed approach. It remains to be seen if Japan, which became an elected Council member in January, will take on a bridging role between the Asian and western countries on the Council or if it will align itself more closely with the other Asian countries.
Among the European nations, although there is a real interest in keeping this issue before the Council, there are differences in whether or not to offer carrots instead of just sticks. France seems open to incentives. The UK seems more reluctant and appears concerned about appearing to reward the Myanmar government.
The US position under the new administration is being closely watched. It remains to be seen if the US position may be open to a new approach for dealing with the Myanmar government.
Selected Press Statements