Interview with Vijay Nambiar, Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar

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The Secretary-General's Special Adviser for Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, briefs correspondents on a recent visit to the country, where he met with Government officials, including President Thein Sein, and the political activist Aung San Suu Kyi. (24 February 2012) © UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

3 January 2013 – Vijay Nambiar currently serves as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on Myanmar, a role he has held since 2010. The veteran Indian diplomat has also served as Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary-General from 2007-2012.

Having joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1967, Mr. Nambiar served in various capacities in a number of countries – including Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia – in addition to serving as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, prior to joining the Secretary-General’s senior management team.

In his Myanmar role, he is tasked with employing the Secretary-General’s diplomatic ‘good offices’ towards helping the south-east Asian nation on its path of transition that has created new opportunities and challenges for the UN and the international community to help steer the country towards peace, democratization and development.

In a recent interview, the UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Nambiar about the situation in Myanmar, as well as his experiences as a senior official with the United Nations.

UN News Centre: You have held some interesting positions under Ban Ki-moon. Tell us a little bit about your portfolio as the SG’s Special Adviser on Myanmar.

Vijay Nambiar: I was asked by the Secretary-General, when I was still his Chef de Cabinet, to concurrently assume this position for some time. The task of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Myanmar has actually evolved over the years. The good offices role of the Secretary-General on Myanmar has been on for several years, in fact for several decades, and is based on a General Assembly resolution. The mandate of the Special Adviser had been to look at a military Government and seeing how far they had stepped away from the expectations of the international community. In other words, to draw attention to continuously remind the military Government of Myanmar that it needed to look at issues of human rights, at democratization, and to look at issues where the government was seen wanting

In some ways, that was seen as finger-pointing by the Government and, therefore, the Government in Myanmar looked upon this function with some suspicion. But in the last few years, there has been a change in that kind of approach. For one thing, the Government itself has, for a number of reasons, moved onto the path of democracy. You can see that now it is reaching a stage of irreversibility, particularly after the 2010 elections. They said this was part of the seven-point programme. But in fact, it was the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, basically after the election, and her decision to move in the direction of helping realize this greater democratization.

I recall that as Special Adviser when I went immediately after the first election, which the United Nations had called a flawed election, she had not participated. She said that her party considered the constitution under the election as flawed and the election itself as illegal. And she said that ‘a parody of democracy is worse than an outright dictatorship’. At that stage, for various reasons, I mentioned to her that while I agreed with her, it was important to probably look at this new development in a slightly different manner and perhaps to help in moving that progress towards democracy. She said at that time that she had just come out of detention and there was a need for her to look at how things were developing inside the country.

In fact, there were a few civil society organizations which had, in the period of the military rule itself, found a little space and they wanted to expand their space. I think it is a sign of the greatness of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that she saw this in terms of how she should work with these forces and then after a meeting with the President, she sensed that she could work with the President. And though she still had and continues to have a large number of reservations about the way in which some of the army elements and even the Government is working, she has decided to work with them.

That actually has been a change, and in that sense, the work of the Special Adviser also has become very much more different now, in facilitating the process of democratization, in moving with the forces that are already in position, working with her as well as with the Government. Earlier we used to try and meet her, and constantly tell the Government where it was short. Now we are actually working with both of them. There are still several problems, it is still a fragile process, but I think there is progressively a much greater degree of understanding and acceptance of the work of the UN.

The [UN] Country Team has been working for several years in Yangon. But over the years, because of the sanctions that many of the important countries had against the Government, the work of the United Nations was also restricted. I think now progressively these restrictions are also being removed.

UN News Centre: You travelled to Myanmar in September this year. What were your impressions of how the country is responding to its opening up to the world?

Vijay Nambiar: I travelled both in June and September. Over the last two years, we have seen steady progress being made on the path of democratization. Some of the major steps have been, in April for example, the by-election in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself and her party decided to contest and she won a fairly distinct and overwhelming kind of victory. The people as a whole are still not really conditioned to working under an open democracy. So there is still a certain top-down kind of tendency you’re seeing. But slowly it is moving.

The Parliament is also now becoming more active, both in terms of the activities of the parliamentarians and in terms of the legislation they are adopting. A major development has been the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has actually accepted, even as a leader of the opposition, the chair of the rule of law committee in Parliament. Also, a series of restrictions have been removed – the restrictions on freedom of speech, on assembly, on media, on censorship. They’ve actually released a large number of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners. There are still some who are under detention but the process has started and it’s been fairly convincing. I think these are good these that we are seeing. Of course, the need for a strong and independent judiciary is still something which needs to be developed. That is happening. But it is taking some time.

The democratization process is one thing, but there has to be some immediate benefit to the people and their development. Jobs have to be created and people have to know that, at the lowest level, people are moving up from poverty. Myanmar is still one of the least developed countries, and there are still monumental problems of poverty and underdevelopment. I think even Bangladesh has a higher per capita income than Myanmar at present. I think there is a lot to be done, but at the present moment the Government is putting in place a series of policies that are opening up the country, that are making it more transparent, and in terms of economic policies, that are now moving towards more engagement with the outside world.

In recognition of this, many of the countries, particularly of the West, have progressively dismantled their sanctions. Even in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], there has been a pronounced progress… particularly after the decision of ASEAN to allow Myanmar to host the 2014 ASEAN summit. This will be a huge development for Myanmar and I think it is now raising itself in order to taken on the responsibilities of the leadership of ASEAN. So these are the kind of developments that one has been seeing over the last months, which, on the whole, I think are very promising. There is still a long way to go. There are still a lot of things that could go wrong. But I think, on the whole, one should be saying it’s a glass half full rather than half empty.

UN News Centre: How is the UN perceived in the country – by the Government and by the people?

Vijay Nambiar: Traditionally, there has been a great deal of suspicion of the United Nations by the Government, partly because of the role which the United Nations was perceived as playing in pressuring the military Government. On the other hand, amongst civil society and among several of the dissident groups, there has been a sense that the UN needs to press the Government more. That situation is changing now. There is a much greater appreciation of the role which the UN can play. But beyond all this, for a long time, there has been a feeling in the Government, and even among the people in Myanmar, that it has been the victim of what they call ‘targeted resolutions.’ The Third Committee resolution which has been coming every year over the last several years has been a voted resolution and it has been, in a sense, finding fault with all the things that have been happening in Myanmar. Therefore, among the people and the Government, there was a sense that the UN is picking on Myanmar.

I think slowly they have been realizing, with progress in democratization, that they needed to move also in meeting some of the expectations of the international community. And this year, for the first time, you have a resolution which is a consensus resolution which was adopted on 26 November. I think that has, for the first time, shown that Myanmar is ready to work with the international community in addressing many of its human rights concerns.

But there are still certain problem areas, such as the situation in the western part of the country, with respect to Rakhine. While there is still a great deal of stereotypes which continue to fester and a strong sense of suspicion within, and misgivings between, the communities as a result of the violence that occurred in June and in October. The UN has been trying to persuade the Government that it needs to address some of the longer-term problems, apart from the immediate problems of lowering the violence and getting the communities to live together. There is also a need to look at the longer-term issues of citizenship, identity permits, work permits, and birth registration. On the whole, there has been a certain amount of growing confidence inside the country between the Government and the United Nations that they can work together. There is, at the same time, a higher expectation now that, in development, the United Nations would be able to help the Government much more, and the people much more. And that is being done by the UNDP [UN Development Programme].

UN News Centre: What is the role of civil society when it comes to human rights issues?

Vijay Nambiar: Over the years, the international NGOs and civil society have been playing a major role in trying to project the human rights situation inside the country and what needed to be done. At the same time, inside the country, there were still, even during the military Government, small civil society organizations which were playing an active role. They had a very limited role but they were playing a fairly active role. And they had a little space, which was progressively being opened up. Of course, the major sort of iconic figures like Aung San Suu Kyi were in detention. With their release from detention, there has been a strong growth spurt in the number and the activities of civil society organizations inside the country. They have become much more active, become more vocal and they are contributing very substantively to economic development.

One example of this was, after the new civilian Government and the elections in 2010, there was strong pressure by the part of the regional groups, the civil society organizations and even some of the representatives of the ethnic groups in eastern Myanmar concerning the influence of some of the big development projects, like the hydroelectric projects, on the environment of the Kachin area. As a result, the President decided to suspend implementation of a major hydroelectric dam project which it had with China. This was a huge investment that China had and the Government decided it would review some of the decisions which were taken. This was a very interesting example of how the new Government was responding to civil society – pressures on the one hand, and at the same time, looking at the larger question of being more transparent in terms of how the decisions are being taken.

I think increasingly now you are finding civil society organizations inside Myanmar reflecting their views in Parliament, publicly outside Parliament and with the Government. It’s a very welcome development. At the same time, I must say that these are still initial stages; it still has not reached a stage of complete maturity.

UN News Centre: Did you find that the media is active and what could be done to increase capacity in this respect?

Vijay Nambiar: The media is now becoming fairly active. The censorship law has now been withdrawn. For almost 30 years they’ve been having this censorship law. In fact, some of the newspapers are almost surprised that this has happened and they need to get used to this process of being able to speak out openly. But I think the press and the media are taking to it with a great deal of activism. In general, outside the country, the Burmese media has been fairly active. Now many of them have moved back to the country and they continue to function with the same kind of independence.

Of course, there are certain downsides to the openness. To an extent, I think some of the recent violence has actually brought out some of the less favourable consequences of the liberalization of the media because once the media begins to be open, all kinds of stereotypes and sometimes narrow views tend to be perpetuated and then there’s a lot of incitement of tension and violence between the communities. I think they are realizing that some of these negative aspects of the openness of societies should be addressed. The Government is also recognizing that the cure for this is not control or less freedom but perhaps more freedom and a greater sense of responsibility within the media.

UN News Centre: What are the priorities of the UN in Myanmar going forward?

Vijay Nambiar: There are basically two or three major priorities. One is helping to facilitate further the democratization process. There is a major role the UN can play in helping the Government conduct a population census, which is due in 2014. We will also expect to help in terms of electoral processes and procedures. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is going to set up a presence, and we will also help in terms of best practices for the setting up of a national commission for human rights.

There is also, on the political side, the possibility of the UN’s experiences and those of other countries being used in the political reconciliation process. One of the major issues that still needs to be addressed is the relation between the centre and the periphery, between the ethnic groups and the central Government. This is something that Myanmar will have to do by itself. It is something which they will require national ownership for. But to the extent that the United Nations can help in bringing to their attention best practices and perhaps in a quiet way being able to feel out some of the possibilities with the various groups, I think we will see if there is any scope for help. But this has to be done in the full knowledge and with the understanding of all the parties and stakeholders concerned.

On the development side, there is a large amount of work that can be done. The UNDP and the various agencies, funds and programmes have been helping a great deal, particularly now that the Government is opening up. There are many areas of policy, as well as aid coordination, where the UN and its agencies can help. There is also the area of humanitarian assistance and support. That is again an area where the UN is doing a lot, whether it is on the part of the High Commissioner for Refugees, on the part of OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], on the part of the World Food Programme. There are a lot of things that need to be done to help vulnerable communities and communities that are affected by the ethnic problems that have been there for several years now, as well as the most recent problems of violence. There are internally displaced persons, there are refugees and there are stateless people also, all of which need to be given the kind of humanitarian support that is needed.

There is also the work of UNODC [UN Office on Drugs and Crime]. This has, over the years, also been an area where there’s been a large amount of international drug trafficking. So there is a lot that needs to be done in helping the Government in terms of eradication of cultivation of poppy and things like that. There too UNODC is playing an active role. Many of these things are happening in the ethnic areas and I think that contributes to the complexity in addressing problems of political reconciliation. So these are areas in which the UN is now actively playing a role and with the cooperation and support of the Government.

UN News Centre: You served for many years as Chef de Cabinet for the Secretary-General. What was the greatest challenge you encountered?

Vijay Nambiar: There have been several challenges and I don’t know whether I could identify any one challenge. But I might mention, in the context of the fact that there has been recent attention paid to the report of an expert group, that Sri Lanka has been one of the big challenges that the UN has faced and I as Chef de Cabinet. The way in which the UN has dealt with various aspects relating to protection of civilians is an important issue and we have progressively been learning how we need to be more sensitive to these issues. At the same time, one has to realize that dealing with political crises which have human rights dimensions is a very sensitive process because you need to address some of the political issues first, while at the same time you need to not be unaware or neglect the civilian protection dimension.

I think that was in some ways projected very deeply in Sri Lanka. And the most recent report by Charles Petrie has in some ways set the record straight in terms of what the UN could do in terms of being able to save civilian lives during the final stages of the conflict. I think they have set the record straight in terms of the fact that there was a limit to which we could help. The question of the assessments of the actual nature of the casualties and the trade-off, as it were, between getting access to the people who needed it – the vulnerable populations – and the need to put pressure on the Government, that is an area where I think we have to learn from the report that Charles Petrie has prepared.

I think in a sense that was one of the bigger challenges. I must say that the UN as a whole… we have to remember that every situation is a challenge. When these things happen, whether it’s in the past in Rwanda or Srebrenica or in other places, in Congo today or in Sri Lanka during the final stages of the conflict, you have to maintain a very careful balance and you have to consciously remember that the world is watching. I think that’s an important challenge.

UN News Centre: What would you say is an accomplishment you are proud of as his Chef de Cabinet?

Vijay Nambiar: I think to an extent the work of the Chef de Cabinet largely depends on the trust and confidence of the Secretary-General. I suppose my accomplishment, if I can call it an accomplishment, is to be able to have continued to keep his trust and confidence. I think that, ultimately, is the test of anybody’s success. I think the fact that I continued to have his trust and confidence, because he has given me this particular responsibility, is something which I would consider an accomplishment. Also, I think during my time as Chef de Cabinet, I have been able to keep a certain amount of trust and confidence of my colleagues – I would classify that as perhaps my major accomplishment.

UN News Centre: What surprised you most when you came to work for the UN after being India’s Permanent Representative to the UN?

Vijay Nambiar: It’s difficult to say but I think that, coming from a national bureaucracy and being from the foreign service of a country like India, I was rather surprised at how little international civil servants work [in relation] to systems. Even in terms of the way in which you work, the work processes, in many ways in the international civil service have been rather ad hoc I felt. But at the same time, I must say that I was most impressed by the enormous amount of diligence and the sheer commitment of the international civil servants, the sheer idealism, the sense of commitment and the ability to put in so much thinking and imagination into their work.

In most of our national bureaucracies, we work normally according to established patterns and there is a very strong sense of what you can do and what you cannot do. I think that in an international civil service, there is a much greater degree of sense of possibility, as it were. And where people have been imaginative, they’ve been able to take a lot of action. In that sense, I think the UN has been much more pro-active than even many national bureaucracies because they tend to work strictly according to instructions.

To an extent again, the United Nations works according to the mandates laid out by the Security Council or the General Assembly. But in between those mandates there is a lot the UN Secretariat can do pro-actively, and that is the biggest challenge. I find that, particularly at many of the higher levels, at the leadership levels in many of the departments, there is a strong sense of pro-activism. I feel that that is something that has most impressed me.