Written by U Ne Oo on 2006-01-19

Recent decision by Mr. Razali Ismail to quit the post of a Special Envoy of UN Secretary General marked the end of an era. That is the era in which the United Nations system hides its impotent position about Burma by using the so-called 'diplomacy'. The term 'diplomacy' here means precisely that the two confronting forces -- or rather issues -- will have been diverted/diluted in order to avoid a direct confrontation or a show-down. Taken through a normal context, the use of diversionary tactics, or diplomacy, is somewhat an insult to the truth and the democracy aspiring masses. If it is seen on a positive light, such as that of the situation of Burma, the diplomacy can pave the way forward to generate time and to consolidate, in our case, the Burmese democracy forces.

Whether we view the UN's diplomacy in a positive or negitive lights, the era of Tan Razali Ismail's tenure as UN Special Envoy has unmistakenly been a failure. By saying this, of course, it will be totally unfair to blame only on Mr. Ismail and his performance. There are several other factors including the shortcomings of democratic campaigners on the inside and of the outside. As for the United Nations itself, the member governments' ambivalence towards human rights issues, along with the rise of ultra-right-wing governments, in particular United States and other parts of the world, have contributed to this failure.


Before embarking on the broader subject of Burmese politics, it is useful to look at who Razali Ismail is. Mr Ismail is a distinguished UN diplomat, who's said to be very close to former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir. Prior to the appointment as the Special Envoy for Burma, he chaired UN General Assembly for some years. As long-term UN diplomat, he undoubtedly knows major players within UN System and he is reported to be well-liked by all other diplomat members. Given him coming from Asian region -- where affinity might be consider as an asset in breaking dialog -- this may probably the main reason the Secretary-General has chosen him for the task of political dialogue in Burma.

While Mr. Ismail may probably goalong with the job insofar as UN is concerned, there were not so positive aspects of the Envoy. Because Mr Ismail has been accustomed to working within UN system as a government representative, any innovative solution through him was unlikely. As such the Envoy has limited of scope and in vision, he is not likely to take any initiative from exile democracy groups (I don't think anybody from exile groups ever asks of anything from him). Sure, the Envoy can do the job, but any leadership by Mr. Ismail on the issue like transition to democracy in Burma most unlikely.

Perceived downside of the Envoy -- i.e. the quality not seen by me -- is his personal commitment to truth and justice as well as the level of empathy with a people in transition. Sure, an envoy appointed by the UN cando only so much, but these personal qualities would still count.


The UN system began watering-down on human rights issues in Burma probably around 1999. The ICRC was allowed into Burma. Limited co-operation with UN system was 'shown' in the area of some humanitarian and Labor rights issues . In 1999, the Australian government was initiating -- the now disgraced -- human rights training program in Burma.

The percieved progress in the earlier part of 1999-2003, which attributed as the success by the Envoy, may as well be a deliberate mis-representation by the media. At that time Gen. Khin Nyunt and OSS had probably played along that line of deception -- but unclear that was an orchestrated with the players at the UN. The OSS/Khin-Nyunt's played-along deceptions were more likely to have carried out under the coaching of some public relation firms. This 'diplomacy' and 'deception' has come to an end by the Depayin Incidents of 30 May 2003.


With the 2005 Tutu-Havel report, the issues on Burma is finally taken up by Security Council. Whether the Security Council will issue a binding decision to solve crisis in Burma is still remain to be seen. Our best hope is the Russians and Chinese to 'look the other ways', on which the Security Council grants the UN Secretary-General a full authority to initiate a proper and broad-based dialogue in Burma.

Considering a new envoy, the issue of 'personally acceptable' to the junta is no longer relevant. Whether the UN appointee or not, anyone who come by way of breaking the political impasse will likely to be resisted by the junta. As such, the Secretary-General's choice of Envoy to Burma will be important. Personally, I like to see an Envoy for someone who have indepth knowledge of the humanitarian crisis facing Burma. And hopefully an Envoy who is more innovative, broadly perceptive and has the capacity to show some leadership. And let wish for an envoy who's from European or African countries or even, Korean or Japanese, who may have empathise with our struggle for democracy. AND forget about the possibility of an Australian for envoy, they have no tickers for Burma.

In solidarity, U Ne Oo.


An Interview with Razali Ismail [2005] Thoughts of Former UN Envoy

January 10, 2006

The Irrawaddy speaks to outgoing UN Special Envoy to Burma Razali Ismail regarding his decision not to renew his contract and therefore leave the post on January 4. Ismail spent nearly five years in the role, enjoying early success in managing to bring the National League for Democracy and the military government together for talks, while making nearly a dozen trips to Rangoon. However, the last two years of Ismail's mandate were marred by the junta's unwillingness to allow him into the country.

Q: You were credited with bringing the NLD and the government together for talks shortly after taking up the post of special envoy. What else do you feel you achieved in the role?

A: That is not exactly accurate. The NLD and the government, they didn't have the talks that I expected that they would have. It was not done at the level of the prime minister and [Aung San] Suu Kyi it was done at a lower level.

I really don't know that I should make the evaluation myself of what I achieved, what I did not achieve. That's up to you guys in fact it is best to conclude that I have failed. I mean, you look down the road after nearly five years, I have failed because I could not deal with the circumstances the exit of [former prime minister Gen] Khin Nyunt and all his group. After that, I couldn't deal with it [the Burmese government] anymore. Up to that point in time, fine after that he wouldn't see me anymore as much as I tried and therefore no success means failure.

Q: Just how frustrating was it for you?

A: No, it's not frustrating. It was never really frustrating. Frustration is for personal stuff. These are big issues. Why should you be frustrated? You are a facilitator. If you start being frustrated, you can't do your business. You have so many aspects to cater to, all the positions that have been taken by the government, and they see themselves as the custodians of the state and all the things they have done and sacrificed. Suu Kyi standing up for the things that should be different new. At one time, she thought it could be changed, it could be done, but finally accepting there should be a compromise for the sake of the people, and she was willing to work with Khin Nyunt. So, there are so many factors it is not easy to capture this thing.

Q: You have recently suggested in the press that your replacement be more palatable to the regime. You yourself were previously a civil servant working for a fellow Asean government. How much more palatable can your successor be without suffering a lack of credibility?

A: If the Senior General [Than Shwe] has a personal dislike for me which is not impossible then another fellow perhaps can be found within Asean or within the region of Asia that would be more palatable to him.

Q: It seems unlikely that Snr-Gen Than Shwe disliked you before you took up the post. Wouldn't any special envoy be in the same position as you found yourself in that regard?

A. If you have to ask those questions, especially questions relating to Aung San Suu Kyi of course he [Snr-Gen Than Shwe] is going to dislike hearing these questions being asked. So we should take a step backwards. Would he allow anyone to go in man or woman to do the things that I was allowed to do before, in absence of Khin Nyunt? I think that is very important.

We went quite a long way. I spent hours talking to Aung San Suu Kyi alone, something like three hours. If there were bugs or whatever, I don't know, but we were allowed to discuss things and there was no attempt to tell us it was taking too much time, nothing. And I give credit to the government. I was allowed at least two meetings with Suu Kyi every time I went in. And then I met the other political parties, and there were several other people that I met and even I met a few people that were on their own but had an influence in the politics of Myanmar [Burma]. So I am not sure the senior general would want the UN to be as engaged as that. The UN must ask itself the question whether, in that event, you would want to do it, because if it does it for anything less, it is opening itself up to a lot of questions.

If the Senior General [Than Shwe] has a personal dislike for me then another fellow perhaps can be found that would be more palatable to him.

The UN has to represent other things also. There are serious humanitarian problems that can come up even more serious in the future. So it is not as if the UN can close the door. The UN must find a way to bring funds to Myanmar [Burma] and it's hard dealing with Myanmar [Burma] without dealing with the government. So that's the other aspect of it.

Q: There has been an extended period of paralysis as far as you and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Sergio Pinheiro are concerned. Is there a chance the UN envoy system will be overhauled in Burma's case?

A: I am a creature of the [UN] General Assembly on that last paragraph of the resolution to work for the offices of the secretary general. Pinheiro is totally a human rights creature. At this moment, he has not been there [Burma] longer than me, so I don't know what he wants to do, and I am sure if the Human Rights Commission is overhauled they would look at what the human rights special envoy would have to do. I feel overall it would mean bringing the Security Council to be more involved in the Human Rights Council.

Q: Could the UN tie failure to meet basic expectations of progress by the government including the granting of visas to special envoys to UN Security Council action?

A: [Laughs] Well, define action. I don't know, but I think the Asean countries would be frantically opposed to that and so would, of course, obviously China, India I think if things don't change and things get really bad, then it may go in that direction. I don't know.

Q: Isn't there a way, though, that the UN can apply more pressure to get the special envoys into the country?

A: Allowed into the country? I mean if the next person comes in he is not allowed to see the government that's not going to help. I mean, the foreign minister of Malaysia, he's not going to Myanmar [Burma] unless he is allowed to see people like I was allowed to see.

Q: Do we know who your successor is likely to be?

A: No, no.

Q: When will the decision be made?

A: I don't know, I really don't know.

Q: Are you involved at all in the decision as to who will be appointed?

A: Let's leave it to the [UN] secretary general and his assistants.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to the incoming special envoy?

A: [Laughs]. Some quick advice. I mean it's such a complicated country. Sometimes, it's a country that pulls you in. There are some things that are difficult to deal with, but there are some wonderful things about Myanmar [Burma], with wonderful people and wonderful scenery, and they have the ability to go forward, given the chance. And, what quick advice can I give?

Well, if he is appointed and if he contacts me, I would definitely spend a lot of time to help him, familiarize him with the terrain and perhaps [he would] not make the mistakes I made.


Tenure of Razali Ismail, the UN Envoy to Burma