A Rescuer for the U.N. -- and Burma

13 November 2007

By Fred Hiatt (fredhiatt@washpost.com)
Monday, November 12, 2007; Page A21
Repost from washingtonpost.com

Last Thursday, U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari looked sure to be slinking out of Burma in humiliating failure. The secretive general who runs that Southeast Asian nation had kept Gambari cooling his heels for six days, finally refusing to talk to him. Any semblance of a U.N.-sponsored diplomatic process seemed about to sputter to an undignified close.

Then Gambari, and the diplomatic process, too, found an unlikely rescuer: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic forces in Burma and daughter of Burma's independence hero. Having been escorted under police guard to a meeting with Gambari from the house arrest where she has spent the past 4 1/2 years -- and most of the past two decades -- she gave Gambari a statement to read on her behalf once he reached Singapore.

The statement validated his efforts and expressed something between hope and confidence that a dialogue between her and the dictatorship might ensue. Suddenly it seemed possible that the peaceful uprising of the people and the monks, which the junta brutally sought to crush in September, might yet lead to a negotiated political process for long-suffering Burma and its 50 million people.

How did the weakest actor in this drama -- one who has been almost entirely cut off from the world, from her supporters, even from her family -- manage to become its animating force? Why did she choose to throw Gambari and the faltering U.N. process a lifeline? And how might she expect the world to respond?

We have to guess at some answers because the junta is too afraid of Aung San Suu Kyi's popularity and legitimacy to allow her to speak freely. In 1990 the National League for Democracy, which she heads, won a landslide victory in national elections, but the junta never honored the results. In May 2003, the regime nearly killed her when a mob of government-sponsored thugs attacked her and her supporters in the town of Depayin. The statement read by Gambari is the first public expression the regime has allowed her since then.

Aung San Suu Kyi is often compared to Nelson Mandela, and not only because they share an otherworldly forbearance and are both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi is savvy as well as saintly; she is playing for results. So her lifeline to Gambari probably indicates that she believes there is at least a chance the regime will enter into serious negotiations this time around.

Why might that be true, given how often the generals have played at dialogue only long enough to allow international attention to drift away? Because after the bloody crackdown on revered monks, even the generals may understand that they crossed a line that the majority of Burmese will not forgive. Just Friday, as Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet with her advisers for the first time in years, it was revealed that the regime was frantically dishing out promotions and raises to riot police officers while also reshuffling top military ranks. That could be a response to discontent in the ranks. And yesterday a U.N. human rights investigator was allowed into the country for the first time in four years.

But a close reading of Aung San Suu Kyi's note shows that she is hardly naive or sanguine about success. She stressed her willingness to cooperate but said that a dialogue must be "meaningful and timebound" -- it can't stretch on forever.

That is where the outside world must come in. U.N. officials are busy congratulating themselves and preparing for more visits, while other countries happily name new envoys and core groups and discussion panels. But what's needed is pressure, not celebration or more talk. The U.N. Security Council should implement an arms embargo. The Bush administration, which announced targeted banking sanctions against top officials and tycoons, needs to accelerate their implementation, and the European Union has to join in.

These are things Aung San Suu Kyi is not free to say, negotiating as she is from isolation and confinement. But having saved the U.N.'s bacon, the least she is owed is some tangible support to strengthen her position -- and the chances that dialogue might succeed.