x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Envoy preparing the way for Ban to visit Myanmar

UN officials are saying little because secretary general does not want high expectations for success in dealing with junta.

BANGKOK // The United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari arrived in Myanmar yesterday to prepare the way for the proposed visit of Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, in early July. "It will be a short visit to make arrangements for Mr Ban's visit," a Burmese government official said on condition of anonymity. UN officials, when contacted by The National, were not prepared to discuss the visit. But Mr Gambari did say he was on his way to Yangon.

"The nature of my mission this time is a bit different [from previous trips] since it has a particular focus and while in Yangon my programme is likely to be very tight," he said in an e-mail. While in Myanmar. Mr Gambari is unlikely to meet many of the key opposition leaders that he has in the past, according to UN insiders. Whether that includes skipping seeing Aung San Suu Kyi though is unclear.

"If Ban Ki-moon is coming to Myanmar then Gambari, as his special envoy, would have to lay the groundwork for the visit," a western diplomat in Yangon said, but declined to be identified. One of Mr Gambari's key assistants, a former senior UN official, has been in Myanmar since the beginning of the week preparing for the envoy's visit. Mr Gambari's trip this time is also shrouded in secrecy. "UN staff are maintaining 'radio silence' because the UN chief doesn't want to raise expectations that he will visit in the near future and they are uncertain of what the junta's response will be to Mr Gambari," said a western diplomat based in Bangkok who follows Burmese political affairs closely.

The UN promised the regime that it would be a discreet visit without fanfare or publicity, a senior UN official in New York said. Asian diplomatic sources believe that Mr Ban will travel to Myanmar immediately after his scheduled visit to Tokyo from June 30 to July 2. Mr Ban though is expected to fly to Myanmar via Singapore - where he would meet the former Singapore prime minister Goh Chock Tong, who visited Myanma earlier this month in a private capacity and met the junta's top leader, Gen Than Shwe.

Publicly all UN officials will only say is that the secretary general has yet to make up his mind. Privately though, many diplomats who have good contact with the UN chief believe he is very keen to go. While his itinerary after Singapore is undecided, a visit to Myanmar is a "possibility", a UN spokeswoman, Michelle Montas, told journalists in New York last Friday. The UN chief has been invited to visit Myanmar in July, according to Burmese government officials, but the United Nations has yet to respond to that invitation.

Mr Ban's proposed trip will depend on him being able to come away with some concrete results from the trip. Most diplomats in Yangon believe the secretary general's expectations will be laid out during Mr Gambari's visit. Two weeks ago Mr Ban told journalists at the UN headquarters in New York that: "When the time is appropriate and conditions are ripe, as I said many times, I'm ready to visit Myanmar. I'm working on that now."