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Gambari’s battle in Burma

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — The United Nations special envoy to Burma is coming under fire for failing to nudge the country’s military rulers in the direction of real political reform. But it is wrong to blame the envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. After all, his mandate is from the United Nations and he reports to the U.N. Security Council.

The blame should fall squarely on others. First, on the recalcitrant and incompetent junta in Burma. Second, on Burma’s three key immediate neighbors — China, India and Thailand — which are vying for influence in the country. And third, on the international community for being at cross-purposes over how to handle Burma.

The result of this disarray is obvious. Free of any effective pressure, the Burmese military regime can continue to thumb its nose at the world. Gambari was rebuffed by the generals when he visited Burma last month for the third time since the bloody crackdown on peaceful protests in September drew widespread international condemnation. The regime’s strongman, Gen. Than Shwe, refused to see him.

The visit came in the wake of the regime’s announcement in February that it would hold a national referendum next a controversial new constitution, to be followed by general elections in 2010. Critics say the constitution will entrench and validate military rule.

Gambari suggested that the draft be changed to ensure that opposition rights were protected and that credible election observers be allowed into Burma. These and other proposals were rejected.

After his visit, Gambari gave a glum report to the U.N. Security Council, where the military regime is shielded by China and Russia from pressure that might be effective. Both argue that what is happening in Burma does not constitute a threat to international peace and security, and should therefore not be a concern of the Security Council. The other three power-brokers on the Council, the United States, Britain and France, have imposed a range of measures designed to hurt and isolate the Burmese regime.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Burma’s other neighbors do not support sanctions, arguing that they harden the resolve of the Burmese government to resist outside pressure.

Underlining this stand, Thailand’s prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, led a delegation to Burma last month and signed bilateral investment and trade deals. China, Thailand and India — the three countries with extensive shared borders with Burma — have strategic interests to pursue and protect there.

China got from the regime the rights to buy natural gas from a giant Burmese field in the Bay of Bengal, despite alternative offers from India and South Korea. The gas will be piped north through Burma to the land-locked Yunnan province in southwestern China. A parallel pipeline will carry Chinese oil shipped from the Middle East and Africa, while a highway will provide a trade route connecting Yunnan to a deep-water port on Burma’s coast. Construction is expected to start this year. The backdoor energy shipments into China will ease its dependence on Southeast Asia’s shipping straits, which Beijing fears may be vulnerable to closure in a crisis.

The interests of China and Thailand in Burma appear to overlap to an increasing degree. Once the pipeline is operational, China will overtake Thailand as the biggest buyer of Burmese gas. But both countries are working together to develop Burma’s gas and hydropower potential. Each will take substantial parts of the new gas and electricity that Burma will export, adding more revenue to the regime’s coffers.

Not to be outdone, India last week hosted a visit by Gen. Maung Aye, the second most senior officer in the military government.

India has been more critical of the junta’s crackdown than either China or Thailand and put arms sales to Burma on hold in November. But it is anxious to find more gas in Burma’s offshore zones and has proposed spending over $100 million to deepen the west coast Burmese port of Sittwe and the Kaladan River to make a vital transport and trade link with India’s isolated, underdeveloped and restive northeastern states. The Kaladan River flows through India’s Mizoram state into Burma. Once completed, the project will enable cargo vessels to travel between Mizoram and Sittwe.

Many Asian countries want Gambari to continue his seemingly fruitless mission to Burma. It supports their engagement policy with Burma and holds out hope that things will eventually change for the better. It is also a diplomatic veil behind which hard-nosed games of national interest can be played.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.