/ 3 November 2007

UN envoy Gambari to arrive in Burma

The United Nations’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was expected in Rangoon on Saturday for talks with the country’s ruling generals amid a row over the threatened expulsion of another key diplomat.

Gambari’s visit comes amid conflicting signals from the junta over its willingness to reform, in the wake of mass street protests against the ruling regime here that led to at least 13 deaths and the detention of thousands.

BUrma’s ruling generals abruptly announced late on Friday that the mission of the UN’s most senior official in Yangon, Charles Petrie, will not be renewed.

The junta also cut internet links in the isolated country on Thursday, restricting access to international websites in an apparent attempt to limit the flow of information before and during Gambari’s visit.

The regime’s latest heavy-handed gestures have blunted early optimism over Gambari’s arrival, following this week’s release of 165 people arrested during September’s wave of protests.

The move to expel Petrie from Burma, where he has worked since 2003, could complicate Gambari’s already difficult mission, with some warning that the row will sidetrack his reform discussions with the junta.

”The danger is that Gambari will spend his time talking about the UN’s role in Burma instead of the need to end the crackdown and bring real reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based pressure Human rights Watch.

The inclusion of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the political process is largely seen as crucial for the country’s gradual transition to democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest, and with other NLD officials in prison the party has been excluded from any debate over Burma’s future.

Current Asean-bloc chair Singapore said on Saturday it was ”deeply disappointed” by BUrma’s decision on Petrie, while the United States, one of junta’s staunchest critics, said it was outraged.

”I hope that this is not an effort by the regime to deflect from the mission” of Gambari, said the US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad.

A UN spokesperson said the organisation has ”full confidence” in Petrie and his team, and that it has instructed Gambari to raise the issue with the government.

Ahead of the envoy’s arrival, some experts said the international scrutiny faced by the junta since the crackdown could pave the way for a meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime’s top general Than Shwe, a key demand of the international community.

”Than Shwe does not … want to have dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, but current international pressure and sanctions may force him to have talks,” said Thai-based analyst Aung Naing Oo.

Others, though, see any concessions made by the junta as merely an attempt to appear that it is trying to meet demands for reform without ceding any real power.

”The junta is trying to make some concessions. But in terms of substance, I don’t think the concessions are real,” said Win Min, a lecturer at Payap University in Chiang Mai.

He added that any talks with the opposition would not represent real progress towards national reconciliation.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won elections in 1990 by a landslide but was never allowed to rule.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this week that Gambari’s visit ”will have to bring substantive results”.

This will include pressing for ”more democratic measures by the government, including the release of all detained students and demonstrators and open up their society as soon as possible,” according to the UN chief. – AFP