Vijay Nambiar

Vijay Nambiaris the acting Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict of the United Nations Secretary-General. Previously, Nambiaris served as Chief of Staff to the Secretary General of the United Nations.


How is it in the U.S. interest to support the transition to democracy in Myanmar?

I would not really be in a position to speak for the U.S., but I would think that, in general, the changes that have been taking place around the world, as a mark of the transition to democracy; the Arab Spring is one of the major indicators of change that is happening. Asia, East Asia, is also in the trawls of change, there is generational change taking place, there is a fair amount of economic and developmental change taking place and I think the only area that seems to have been left out for some time has been Myanmar or Burma as it used to be called and I think there have been inclinations of change some of which has been slow, and in a sense halting the elections which the military government did bring in, institute in 2010 was actually part of a seven point plan that was introduced long ago.

But it was never the less a reflection of the willingness of the government of the military authorities to reflect some of the changes that were taking place within the country. Myanmar was a country that has an armed conflict that has been running for the past 60 years, it has been, subject to diplomatic isolation for almost 20 years, and has a military government which has been in power for almost 30 years, so something had to change, there was also a generational change that was taking place, so to an extent I think they were reflecting what was an inevitable change that had to take place.

Of course the process has been slow, but at the present moment after 2010 I think it is moving in a direction, which is moving towards democratic reform. And at least the indications that we have particularly after the release of 670 political prisoners, of course there are still numbers of prisoners who need to be released, I think it is in the interest of the world as a whole, and I would think, in the U.S. interest also, so see that this change takes place in a stable kind of a way, and that it reflects the genuine will of the people.

How did Myanmar become a military state?

Well I think, the army has been the major institution inside Myanmar immediately after the war and in fact, freedom was brought, the founder, the father or Aung San Suu Kyi was the father of the nation, was in fact the founder of the Burmese army too. And that was the strongest and most stable institution from the very start of the independence of Burma. But I think it was the initial faltering steps towards democracy were in a sense stopped, in a sense dislocated as a result of the struggle between the center and the peripherally particularly the arms struggle that took place with the ethnic groups and the army took control in, for what they said was in the larger interest of the unity of the country. And after that it was the self-interest of the army, which has preserved, and has lead to their clinging to power.

And what has happened in the last year that has lead to a democratic transition?

The single largest, the growth of the democracy boom particularly under the influence of the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi was a major factor in the awakening as it were of the democratic voice of Myanmar and that was expressed in successive demonstrations, the ’88 group and subsequently the promise of the election by the military authorities in the 90’s which was frustrated, and the subsequent movement of the national league for democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her successive efforts by the military to stifle the expression of this democratic movement was actually, successive efforts only brought more and more international kind of criticism for them and I think they progressively became more and more isolated. In the process I think the army in a sense drew a circle within themselves and began to restrict their international exposure. And I think it became almost diplomatic state.

What steps have to be taken by the global community and U.S. to promote democracy?

I think the constitution that was actually promulgated in 2010 and the elections that took place after that seem in a sense, form the basic frame work which in many ways a faulty, a fraud constitutional framework which can’t really be called a true democracy, but like the processes that have taken place in other parts of south east Asia also, I think it can be seen as a step in the direction of democracy, for example the existing constitution does provide almost a 25% number, representation, of the parliament seats are reserved for the army, now this is something that would not be normal in a democratic frame work but you have a situation like that in other parts of south east Asia also and so you can’t think in terms, now the process, the army, the authorities, of the present governmental authorities do not rule out a progressive dismantling of that kind of a percentage of the representation of the army — as the process of democracy and democratic reform progressed.

And I think many of the institutions of democratic societies, like a parliament or judiciary have just been, there is, there is a reference to it but it needs to be actually stabilized in the constitution, in the democratic, in the political culture of Myanmar. You must remember that Myanmar does have, in a sense some democratic antecedents in that it was part of British India in the past, and the constitution developments that had taken place in the Indian system were present in Myanmar also, in Burma also, so it’s not as if they are entirely in a sense unfamiliar with the democratic process.

Is there anything that the global community can do to speed that process?

In some ways the sanctions has been a pressure point, but I think more than sanctions, in the current situation, I think it is the self image of the country itself, and its status and influence in the region particularly the influence of Arakanese, which has made a difference in terms of bringing a greater realization to the political leaders in Myanmar that they needed to change, to measure up to, to live up to the expectations of the region. They offered to host the 2014 Arisen Summit in Myanmar, has been an important, kind of a, it’s a kind of, it’s a promise, an expectation, and kind of a target for the government of Myanmar to work towards, and in that sense I think it is an important aspect of the self image that Myanmar should be able to measure not just as a, a kind of, a leadership of Arakanese in just form but also to measure up to the actual requirements of being a leading force nation of the Arakanese.

What’s the mood of the people?

The immediate background of my visit this time was to participate in a meeting of that is called the “Peace Donor Support Group” which is headed by Norway and is intended to address some of the reconstruction and resettlement needs, or developmental needs immediately after the seize-fire agreements that have been signed by the central government with some of the ethnic groups this is part of the overall process of national reconciliation which the government has set into motion with the major seize-fire groups and the only one who’s seize-fire agreement has not yet been signed is the Cachin group, and even their discussions are in progress and there is hope that there will be some kind of political agreement in the near future.

Now, this was one aspect of the major priorities of the government the building up of the national reconciliation between the central government and the ethnic groups, which are in fact, many of them, have for almost 60 years have been at war with the center and conflict with the center. That was one of the reasons for my going, but while I was still on my travel the communal troubles in western Myanmar actually resulted in an outbreak of violence of fairly serious proportions took place in the Rakhine area and the government had to impose an emergency and the army was called to put an end to the violence and there has been almost, quite a few deaths also between the clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim groups in Rakhine.

I had the opportunity of accompanying the minister of boarder affairs to Sittwe and two places in northern Rahkine: Maungdaw and Buthidang and saw for myself some of the ravages that the communal violence has actually wreaked. And there is a serious effort being made now by the government to put an end to the violence through a firm, prompt but at the same time, I think, so far sensitive approach by the army.

I do not think I can say that the violence has entirely stopped, it is still a very fragile situation, and there is a great deal of mistrust among the communities. The way in which the government responds, the way the army responds to these challenges will impact on the overall reform process of the government, and how will they deal with this situation particularly the situation of the Rakhines and Rohingyas? This is a long term problem between the community which has not been accepted by the many of majority community inside Myanmar that is by the Burmans, they’re not being recognized. The Rakhines and Rohingyas are really considered, viewed by them as almost immigrants, as persons who’ve come from the outside. Where as they came to have a historical, they consider this to be there land compared to the Rakhine states.

And so how they handle this sensitive issue and come to a peaceful settlement is as important as the issue of the peace and the national reconciliation with the ethnic minorities. So this is also a major test and the last few days have not been exactly very edifying because of the large-scale violence that has taken place. 21 deaths have taken place, some thousands of houses have been burned, and I think that the atmosphere has been tense in the region.

What are some of the specific goals of the Secretary General?

The Secretary recently made his third visit to Myanmar. Actually, he was perhaps he was the first secretary general after U Thant who is a Burmese Secretary General to visit Myanmar and the first visit he did visit was in during Cyclone Alex which was a time of national catastrophe and disaster. Subsequently he visited again, a year later, this is his third visit. And this time particularly after the bi-election which was in a sense Aung San Suu Kyi scored a spectacular victory taking 44 seats, I think this was a major harbinger of change, and it’s interesting at that stage with the Secretary General’s visit meeting both the President, who is one of the key figures in the change that is taking place and Aung San Suu Kyi. The goals which the Secretary General has set for himself is; first, to see that there is a stable transition that takes place towards democracy, that is one of the goals he has set up, helping countries in transition, and there, to an extent I think apart from bringing about greater political change, greater democratization, political and human rights the release of political prisoners and helping in the process building up to the 2015 elections, there is the larger issue of trying to provide a development dividend to the people also.

To some extent the suspension of sanctions, the lifting of sanctions on the part of many countries is going to help, even the United Nations the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and many other developmental agencies of the United nations to have regular programs to help in many of the developmental efforts to bring greater attention to the need for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and ODA (Official Development Assistance) in Myanmar which has been desperately lacking over the last few decades in fact, of course, Myanmar is a country with considerable natural resources and it’s a rich country and as Aung San Suu Kyi has herself been saying, is that what it requires is foreign investment taking into consideratoin the requirements of rule of law, the democratic aspirations, and the need for clean government.

I think these are the kinds of priorities for which the new government is also pushing and I think with members like Aung San Suu Kyi in parliament, I think the process will be pushed also, I think it will be pushed with serious intent over the next few years. And I think, for example when the Secretary General visited recently there was a meeting of what we call the “Global Compact” which is a group of businesses which will network with Myanmar businesses in order to establish norms of corporate social responsibility and issues like that.

In addition to that for the first time in almost 30 years, Myanmar will be having a census which is, again, the president has asked for the assistance of the United Nations in completing the national census, population census and so on. This will be an important database for developmental programs. The U.N. also hopes to be able to provide considerable funding for the national reconciliation effort through what is called the Peace-Building Fund, which is a fund, which the United Nations has. And in cooperation with other donor countries who are not just in the major western donors, but generally even countries in the neighborhood there is prospects of a considerable buildup in terms of the developmental particularly the resuscitation of the rice economy of Myanmar  and I think the major effort is needed for human resource development a development of norms of government etc, where also the United Nations can do a lot.

So these are some of the major aims which the United Nations has over the next few years to have a regular developmental programming to be done, helping human resources development, encouraging foreign direct investment and also other practical issues pertaining to the ethnic issues, the areas where there have been ethnic conflict of defining, or resettlement, migrant communities bringing back the refugees. These are issues that there is a considerable amount of effort that is needed. In all these areas the U.N. has a major role to play.

The transition to democracy usually brings the issue of the expectations of the people not being met. Are the daily lives of the people being affected?

This is in fact very important; in fact when I first met Aunt San Suu Kyi in November of 2010, this was immediately after the first election after, under the new constitution, which even the United Nations had publicly said was a flawed election in the sense of in many cases she herself felt it was a sham election. At that stage she had mentioned to me that a parody of democracy is much worse then an outright dictatorship and she was bemoaning the fact that the elections itself was, the NLD (National League for Democracy) had actually boycotted the elections because they said it was under a constitution which they did not accept, and the way in which the election was conducted was seriously lacking in credibility.

I did tell her at that stage that I did agree with her description of the parody of democracy and an outright dictatorship. But I felt that it may be useful to see this as a process and perhaps there may be some reason in trying to build and encourage this process of transition mainly because over the years, the successive years under the dictatorship and of the detention of senior political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi herself there were at the same time civil society organizations which were working slowly just inside the country trying to get some space, and they already had created some space for themselves.

And they expressed the expectation that they would like to see that space enlarged, by working slowly to increase there own area of functioning and broaden the democratic function. And I think it is a sign of the wisdom and the far sightedness of Aung San Suu Kyi that in a few years she got in touch after her release from 20 years of detention, after several year of detention, that she was able to come back and look to the developments within and then she was able to reach out to the government and the government reached out to her too and as a result of the conversations between President Tin Sin and her, the government changed the electoral rules in order to enable her to join the electoral process and her party to register. She joined the elections and she won a very resounding victory in the bi-elections and she is now a member of parliament within the system.

And I think that process of slowly trying to enlarge the process of democratic space within a flawed construction has helped to build a much large degree of expectation with in the country. Now, it is easy for that expectation to be frustrated, and I think she is constantly conscious of that and I think that is why she’s been constantly saying that you need to keep the momentum in terms of democratic transition, and at the same time, people must also feel that there is some dividend that is available in terms of livelihoods, in terms of jobs, in terms of opening out to the world and in terms of certain ways in which the government responds to major social issues.

For example the building of the Mid-Sun Dam, in the eastern part of the country as a result of the local the objections to the environmental impacts excreta or the increasing sense which we have that the government has the more dubious cases of investments within the country, excreta. These are all indications of the expectations of the people coming more and more into the public domain and the government showing its response to that, and it is a threat to their situation still, by no means can we say that its irreversible, but at the same time I think that there is this stronger expectation that is building and that it’s important that the international community lends a hand in helping this movement forward, the U.N. has a role, major donor countries have a role, Arakanese has a major role, and I think that its positive reinforcement that’s been helping Myanmar in its progress towards democratic reform.