On May 20, 2006, Ibrahim Gambari, the gregarious UN under-secretary general for political affairs, met with leaders of Burma’s military junta and their most famous political prisoner, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. It was Gambari’s first trip to Burma, and the first time in two years that the country’s secretive rulers had granted a UN official such high-level access. Gambari’s optimism was palpable: “They want to open up another chapter of relationship with the international community,” the seasoned Nigerian diplomat said in a press conference on May 24. But three days later, only a week after meeting with Gambari, the junta extended Suu Kyi’s house arrest by a year. Suddenly, Gambari’s optimism was his humiliation. “People thought he had fallen for their line,” says Mark Farmaner, director of Campaign for Burma UK. “He was completely suckered.”
It was just the first in a series of diplomatic blunders that would sully Gambari’s tenure as the UN’s envoy in Burma. Widely viewed as a pawn in the junta’s game of repeatedly fooling the international community about its willingness to change, he earned the nickname “Gullible Gambari.” “He had all these meetings and nothing to show for it,” says David Mathieson, a Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch.
When the UN announced in December that it was reassigning Gambari to be its top envoy in Sudan, effective January 1, many Burma watchers breathed a sigh of relief. “Gambari--who liked to tell critics who faulted him for a lack of results that his mission was ‘a process, not an event’--often seemed a hapless bystander whenever anything actually happened in Burma,” The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based newspaper established by Burmese citizens in exile, said in a scathing editorial. But some Darfur activists are now worried that Gambari might repeat his mistakes in Sudan. “My main concern is that his focus would be on accommodation of the regime, and that would leave the perpetuation of an unacceptable and unstable status quo,” says Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.
Gambari can’t be blamed for the fact that conflict within the Security Council has prevented the UN from adopting a strong Burma policy. But, instead of advocating for a tougher stance, he was all too willing to play the role of genial UN hack pushing a soft line with a notoriously duplicitous regime. “You need a much harder edge to a UN envoy’s position,” Mathieson says. “You don’t need someone who is charming and well-connected. … The [regime] respects strength and dedication, and he didn’t embody either of those two qualities.”
Gambari was already a UN veteran when he was assigned to Burma. His résumé included a stint as Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, missions in South Africa and Angola, and an appointment as the secretary general's Special Adviser on Africa. He took over the Burma mission with his now-infamous inaugural trip as under-secretary general in 2006 and was officially appointed envoy the following May. That same year, he also became the Special Adviser on the International Compact with Iraq and Other Political Issues.
His jumbled title concerned some people from the start. “You’re doomed from the get-go,” Mathieson says. “Burma is a tacked-on issue. The [regime] would just look at him and say, ‘Who cares about you?’” But Gambari worried Burma watchers for other reasons, too: Most of his work had been in Africa, and he knew little about Burma. “When he was first appointed, there was a feeling among the [activist] crowd that he didn’t know anything about it,” says one UN insider close to the Burma mission. “There was certainly a feeling that the Burmese are very racist and that they wouldn’t respond well to an African.” (His predecessor, Malaysian Razali Ismail, had quit in January 2006.)
Others hoped his background would prove an asset. “Gambari’s African warmth was somewhat disarming for [the junta],” the UN insider says. “He’s very physical. He claps you on the shoulder, he takes your hand. I’m not saying he gave [regime leader] Than Shwe a hug, but he’s not reserved in the way Asian top diplomats are.” What’s more, Gambari had witnessed Nigeria’s transition from a military regime to a democracy in the 1990s from a top diplomatic perch. “He was able to say things to the [Burmese] government that others weren’t,” the UN insider explains. “They don’t talk to that many people who say, ‘I feel your pain; I’ve been there.’”
But his role in Nigeria angered, and continues to anger, many human rights activists. He served as the country’s UN ambassador under the repressive regime of President Sani Abacha. During Gambari’s tenure, the government executed democracy advocate Ken Siro Wiwa. Gambari publicly referred to Siro Wiwa as a “common criminal” and didn’t condemn his execution. He later explained that he was afraid the international community would place sanctions on Nigeria. “On the one hand, he understands the way that brutal regimes work. On the other hand, he doesn’t have a very good track record,” says Fowler of Save Darfur. “The very fact of being the representative of the regime at the time … shows that he’s driven more by expedience than anything else.”
Gambari visited Burma seven more times after his initial embarrassment. Each trip followed the same benign pattern. “[The regime] organized his schedule, decided who he saw, planned his dinners,” says Farmaner of Campaign for Burma UK. (Gambari admitted in a 2007 interview that the junta kept him “holed up.”) His agenda focused narrowly on the relationship between the junta and Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). He would ask the regime’s leaders to release Suu Kyi--who was never allowed to become prime minister after her party won the 1990 general election in a landslide--and other political prisoners; to engage in talks with the NLD; and to expedite democratic reforms. Sometimes Than Shwe would meet with Gambari; on other trips, only lower-level regime members would speak with him. And he was usually granted brief audiences with Suu Kyi.
He didn’t meet with ethnic opposition groups such as the Karen, an oppressed minority rebelling in the eastern part of the country, despite the fact that such groups have considerable influence on Burma’s political situation. Because many of these groups have leaderships in exile, Gambari could have planned meetings quietly without the junta’s oversight--but he didn’t. “In terms of the details of the Myanmar political situation, he wasn’t vastly interested,” the UN insider explains. “He didn’t have a great command of detail.” (Members of his office did maintain backchannels with various opposition groups.)
After each trip, Gambari would say that his mission, while slow-moving, was progressing--even as the regime kept up its business as usual. “There wasn’t a level of realism and honesty,” says Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. In 2007, when the NLD was barred from participating in the writing of a new constitution, Gambari still praised the process. “The international community would have preferred a more inclusive process, but nonetheless it’s an important event,” he told Agence France-Presse. “We hope that that will lead to even more progress.” (The constitution, finalized in May 2008, legitimized the military’s rule and barred Suu Kyi from holding office.) After his trip that September, which he took in response to the junta’s brutal crackdown on protests led by students and Buddhist monks, Gambari told reporters that he was optimistic about Burma’s future. “The fact is that I’ve been allowed in three times now,” he told NPR that October. “So that gives me some encouragement that perhaps, perhaps, you know, there might be an opening there.” And, when Cyclone Nargis slammed Burma in May 2008 and the regime blocked international aid, Gambari was nowhere to be seen.
Frustration with Gambari peaked when, in August 2008, Suu Kyi refused to meet with him. Burma watchers say she was fed up with his failure to kick-start talks between the regime and the NLD. Sensing an opportunity, the junta reportedly encouraged Gambari to send UN staffers to Suu Kyi’s house where, shouting on a megaphone, they implored her to meet with the envoy. Photos of the embarrassing scene ran in The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s media mouthpiece, with the headline, “[Gambari] unable to meet with Daw Aung Suu Kyi however much he tries due to her rejection.”
Gambari would visit Burma only two more times. After a February 2009 trip, the regime released about two dozen political prisoners, and Gambari declared that his “message [was] getting through.” (The Karen National Union issued a statement at the time that criticized the envoy for “once again … visit[ing] Burma without also meeting with genuine representatives of Burma’s ethnic nationalities.”) In May, however, the regime pulled another about-face, putting Suu Kyi on trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest. When she was convicted in August, Gambari told Voice of America that he was “extremely disappointed”--but, as always, he was optimistic about the little things. “The conditions of her detention, house arrest, have been eased somewhat,” he said.
When news broke that Gambari was being sent to Sudan, Burma activists declared him a failure. “He has no sort of success that he can show,” says Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “Things have gone from bad to worse during his tenure.” (Although some human rights groups were pushing for his removal, Gambari’s transfer may have had more to do with African politics; some observers speculate that Nigeria, which reportedly feels its large troop presence in Sudan is underappreciated, was lobbying to have one of its own appointed envoy.) According to the Campaign for Burma UK, in the first two years of Gambari's mission, the number of political prisoners in Burma almost doubled and more than 130,000 people were forced from their homes in an "ethnic cleansing campaign." And he was never able to start talks between the regime and the NLD.
To be sure, the UN didn’t offer Gambari--or any previous envoy--the tools needed to implement a tougher Burma policy. Because of opposition from Russia and China, the Security Council has never taken formal action against the country, and the secretary general reportedly backs a soft approach in dealing with the junta. But many Burma watchers agree that, even without UN teeth behind him, Gambari should have been a stronger public critic of the regime, instead of a naïve optimist. He should have vigorously underscored the junta’s refusal to reform, as well as its human rights abuses, in his public statements and reports. He should have met with opposition groups other than the NLD. And he could even have told junta leaders that he wouldn’t visit if they remained uncooperative. “He didn’t do that because of the seduction of access,” Mathieson says. Adds the UN insider, “There’s a school of mediation that says you have to keep your foot in the door. He comes from that school. He’s not terribly confrontational.” (The UN did not respond to requests for an interview with Gambari.)
Some activists say the next Burma envoy should be a well-known dignitary with an independent power base and no need to add a new line to a UN résumé (a former head of state or top general, for instance). Others say the envoy position should be eliminated; Campaign for Burma UK has called on “UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take the lead.” But activists agree that whoever takes charge of the mission should be the strong advocate for change that Gambari never was. “I want to get an effective UN representative who is non-biased and well-prepared on Burmese issues,” Khim Maung Swe, an executive committee member of the NLD, told The Irrawaddy. “Moreover, he must dare to speak openly and bravely.”
Gambari’s diplomatic career isn’t finished, and human rights activists are waiting to see if he’ll take a tough approach in Sudan, as the country prepares for national elections and a referendum on southern secession. “Everyone is hoping that he’ll surprise and be effective,” says Fowler of Save Darfur. After his work in Burma, don’t count on it.
Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.