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Olympics, UN, U.S. Shun Burma After Year Of Broken Promises

by Sonny Inbaraj

Burma Finds Itself With Fewer And Fewer Friends

(IPS) BANGKOK -- The world was reminded at the opening of the 28th Olympic Games in Athens that politics is still a big factor in sports when host Greece, as a member of the European Union, barred Burma's sports minister from the premier international sports event -- along with ministers from Zimbabwe and the formerly Soviet state of Belarus.

The ban announced by the Greek government on Aug. 10 indicates that in the eyes of Athens the rights abuses in Burma are on par with those allegedly committed by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in the use of laws to criminalize peaceful gatherings, terrorize the opposition and close media outlets in his country.

The Burmese generals have also been put in the same league as the regime lead by Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko whom Western governments accuse of trampling on democracy and organizing Latin American-type death squads to get rid of political opponents.

In this climate of increasing disappointment, one serious constraint has been brought out by commentators and activists -- namely the role of Malaysia's Razali Ismail, the United Nations special envoy to Burma.

Four years in the job and many feel that Razali has been unable to persuade the Burmese generals to negotiate a program of reform. They point out that his mediation has also failed to secure the release of Suu Kyi and neither has his diplomatic overtures resulted in any serious reduction in the number of political prisoners, or any hint at democratic reform within that country.

To rub salt into Burma's wounds, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Aug. 13 that the United States will continue to exert pressure on the military government there until opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) and other groups are allowed to fully participate in a reformed political process,

"As long as Aung San Suu Kyi is denied the opportunity to participate in the political life of Burma, and her party is also denied, then we will continue to speak out strongly and find out if there are any other levers one can apply against the regime," Powell told a group of visiting journalists, according to a State Department transcript.

"We will not have a satisfactory relationship with Burma until this matter is resolved," added Powell.

Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest by the military junta soon after her NLD won the majority of seats in the 1990 national elections. She was released briefly in 1995, but her movements outside the capital Rangoon were restricted by the junta.

But Suu Kyi has spent the last year in detention after pro- government thugs attacked her convoy, and her party has since endured a renewed crackdown.

In a bid to ward of international criticism, the Burmese junta last August announced what they called a road map towards democracy. On May 17, the junta restarted a national convention to draw up a new constitution that they said would lead to free and fair elections in the country.

But its credibility has been criticized because of the absence of Suu Kyi's NLD.

Last month, President George W. Bush renewed for one year sweeping trade and economic sanctions imposed in 2003 to punish Burma for its failure to engage in a genuine dialogue with the NLD and agree to democratic reforms.

Frustration at the UN special envoy's performance boiled over in the U.S. Congress last November with Congressman Lane Evans saying it was time for Razali to go.

"We need to strengthen the authority of the UN envoy and replace him with someone capable of rallying international support for change," he said.

New York Republican Peter King also raised concerns about the UN's efforts in Burma.

"We need to take a serious look at the efforts of the United Nations secretary general's special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail," he said. "Are his efforts hampering or helping the struggle for freedom in Burma?"

The sticking point that is earning Razali disrespect in the diplomatic community is his business dealings in Burma.

The UN special envoy is also the chairman of Iris Technologies, a Malaysian company in which he owns 30 percent of the shares. In May 2002, the company signed a deal to provide 5,000 electronic passports to the Burmese government.

Razali played down fears that the electronic passports, with embedded microchips, could be an Orwellian 'Big Brother system' linked to larger databases designed to keep Burmese under the watchful eye of the regime.

"Anyway,it's only for those people who want to travel outside. In most cases, those will be government people," he told the British Broadcasting Corporation.

At the start of Razali's mission in 2000, when he replaced Alvaro de Soto from Peru as the UN envoy, many thought democratic change was in the air.

"Regionally, his close support with then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was widely viewed as a diplomatic asset," wrote Burmese observer Andrew Steele in the influential 'Far Eastern Economic Review' magazine.

"Mahathir has pushed hard for Burma's 1997 entrance into ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations), and it was thought Razali could use that social capital to push the junta towards reform," commented Steele. "(But then)...that euphoria has since evaporated."

ASEAN's members are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Burma joined the club in 1997 despite misgivings by some governments and activists in and out of the region, but ASEAN countries said membership would allow their 'constructive engagement' policy to slowly encourage Rangoon to open up its political system.

In light of the present circumstances, it seems that Razali has been a poor choice by the United Nations already weakened with a very restrictive mandate on Burma and grappling, at the same time, with the conflicting intentions of the United States, the European Union and ASEAN. In the midst of this, the UN envoy to Burma, is also embroiled in conflict of interest issue that has seriously undermined his credibility as an interlocutor to free Suu Kyi.

"We have to take a hard look at what's been achieved by Razali. His role remains useful, however, to governments who hide behind his mandate and refrain from taking any serious action themselves," John Jackson of the London-based Burma Campaign U.K., told IPS.

"But given that the current strategy has failed, what new strategy is being considered next?" he asked.

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Albion Monitor August 17, 2004 (

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