Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is set to visit Myanmar from 30 to 31 August. He first visited the Southeast Asian country in May 2008 to mobilize desperately needed international assistance in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis. The Secretary-General returned to Myanmar in 2009 to encourage the army leadership to open the door to democratic change and participate in the global arena as a responsible and active member.
After the 2011 election, the UN worked closely with the government headed by President U Thein Sein to help consolidate the democratic reform process. The UN has been engaging with other political forces, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties, to broaden the base of political activity. The active involvement of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party provided the momentum that culminated in the historic election victory of November 2015.
As the Secretary-General prepares to travel once more to the country, his Special Adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, shares his views about the UN’s role in the country’s ongoing political transformation.
Politically Speaking: What role has the UN’s good offices played in Myanmar working towards reconciliation and sustainable peace?
Vijay Nambiar: Under the Secretary-General’s leadership, the nature of the engagement of the United Nations on Myanmar has been constructive, forward looking and multifaceted. As many as 22 members of the UN family are present in the country, lending their strong support to help promote inclusive and equitable socio-economic development, in keeping with the core Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) objective of leaving no one behind. The United Nations is also involved in the democratization process, the peace process and efforts to alleviate inter-ethnic and inter-communal tensions. We have consistently called upon the authorities to address the issue of institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya. I was, perhaps, the first international official to visit Rakhine after the unfortunate outbreak of violence in Rakhine in 2012 and have been working steadfastly and quietly, since on inter-faith initiatives with the Government as well as with the communities to help navigate the complex challenges around this issue.
What is your assessment of the peace process in Myanmar when looking ahead to potential milestones?
There is no question that many challenges remain. But I feel Myanmar is on the right track. At a time when, in many parts of the world, the UN and our partners face setbacks and disappointments as we strive for the alleviation of tensions and sustainable peace, in Myanmar we are happily witnessing consistent and visible progress in many areas of its national life. Admittedly, there are major challenges here too, but the United Nations is happy to be an important partner in this progress.
Looking to the future, I think, three points stand out. First of all, there is an unprecedented sense of optimism and desire for change in the country today. The people have spoken out clearly at the election. They now have an opportunity to make this process of democratic change irreversible. The prospects have never been so good in the entire history of Myanmar.
Over the past four years, the good offices of the Secretary-General have played a notable role in assisting national reconciliation efforts. We were invited together with China to be official observers in the negotiations between the government and almost twenty ethnic armed organizations since early 2013. In addition, we have been in contact with all stakeholders in a low-key and discreet manner through the various stages of this process. Occasionally, we have tried to smooth differences, lower tensions and move parties towards understanding and dialogue. As the process of political dialogue moves forward, we feel it should move into a unified single track that is inclusive but also helps further a common understanding of how to build a “democratic federal union” based on equality. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of 15 October 2015 and the upcoming 21st Century Panglong Conference to which the Secretary-General has been invited are encouraging signs. Although much work remains to be done to build trust between the various parties and groups, these are a major steps towards peace after more than half a century of civil war.
Secondly, while the world welcomes this change, it must also exercise what has been described by one international observer as “strategic patience.” It must allow Myanmar to do this under its own national ownership. There is widespread recognition that both the motivation and objective conditions exist today for all parties, groups and communities to coalesce around a new social contract that could define the nature of future power and resource sharing arrangements in the country. It is also clear that the first step in this process will have to be an understanding between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the army, an understanding that is practical, credible and sustainable.
Thirdly, for any change to be truly transformational, it must, within a reasonable and realistic time frame, extend to and involve all the significant parts of the country’s varied political, military and economic interests and elites, as well as its diverse races and ethnic communities and bring them together in a larger bargain that is institutionally grounded in a federal democracy and involves genuine devolution of power, autonomy and inclusivity for all the regions. Such a bargain must also guarantee a modicum of dignity, equality and non-discrimination for all Myanmar’s citizens irrespective of race, religious, linguistic difference or economic status.
The project of nation-building in Myanmar is far from over. There are even today major fault lines including the issue of the treatment of minorities. But, what the country will need, now more than ever, is sustained engagement as well as steady support and encouragement from the United Nations and other members of the international community, as it moves forward to consolidate democracy, advance justice, and ensure durable peace, human rights and development for all its peoples.
Title picture: Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar attending a plenary meeting of the ethnic armed organizations in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State, 2016. UN Photo