Cancel your December trip to Burma now Mr. Ban. Or at least, don't undertake the trip in the belief that a fruitful discussion on big picture politics is remotely possible. As proven during the course of the now completed fourth trip to the conflict-stricken country of his Special Advisor to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, a high profile political breakthrough is not currently in the cards.
Come the end of the year, the junta's proposed 2010 general election date will be less than 24 months away. If the proceedings are going to be held with any degree of thoroughness or semblance of legitimacy, preparations would need to start immediately. Consequently, the junta will insist on discussing the proposed 2010 election. But can the idea of a free and fair election even be an issue in the wake of a constitutional referendum roundly decried as a 'sham'?
As Gambari was informed by representatives of Burma's headline opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD), any discussion on the subject of the 2010 ballot with the regime is anathema – principally because it would be viewed as lending an aura of legitimacy to a process that the NLD does not recognize.
And perhaps even more significantly, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi refused to meet with Gambari, apparently in a show of discontent with the progress of the Special Advisor's mission. This meant that Gambari's fourth trip concluded with his being unable to meet with either Aung San Suu Kyi or Senior General Than Shwe – the two highest profile actors on Burma's political stage – with Than Shwe, for his part, having now snubbed the Special Advisor on his last three trips.
In such a political climate, the odds of a breakthrough – let alone the identification of a starting point for negotiations – brokered between the elite parties to the conflict is highly remote, to say the least. Yet, surely the recommended course for the international community is not just to give up and turn its back on the country?
Burma's political standoff and prospects of conflict transformation and/or resolution have long been dominated by actors representative of Track I and III undertakings. The former refers to activities and initiatives of officially recognized governmental and organizational personnel, while the latter incorporates "individuals and private groups from non-government international organizations that are dedicated to promoting specific causes, universal ideals and norms, and enacting systematic social change," according to Search for Common Ground.
What happened to Track II? In short, Track II has been routinely neglected by dominant voices – bolstered by a vibrant Track III community – calling for and supportive of an overarching and near-immediate Track I solution.
Track II, on the other hand, seeks to take advantage of the activities of unofficial actors, who explore, negotiate and serve as middle figures between parties to the conflict in the service of the aforementioned official actors. Potential components of a Track II contingent include business, educational, religious, non-governmental organization and even political personnel. In their capacity they would both relay information back to officials and disseminate information among communities as to what possibilities – and corresponding ramifications – are being floated.
The potential benefits accruing from a heightened importance attached to Track II are multifold, while the obvious political stagnation of the past twenty years was driven home by last month 20 year commemorations of the 8-8-88 uprising.
Taking advantage of an increased network of smaller agencies and administers operating at more of a local level, an enhanced Track II approach could facilitate a broader and more inclusive Burmese civil society, which in turn could better foster the eventual advent of functioning institutions and social stability.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that conflict resolution at the center does not necessarily imply the resolution of peripheral issues. Along this line, the most obvious example of the proverbial peripheral issues is that of Burma's complex ethnic composition. More of a Track II type approach may ensure that other matters of conflict and concern not a focus of high-level Track I talks are not unintentionally omitted.
Thirdly, the unofficial nature of the exchanges and interaction may permit a more candid appraisal and development of any common ground. Such proceedings may also better assist in exploring something other than the highly striated win or lose scenarios that currently dominate Burma's political theater.
Track II, however, is not meant to exist in isolation. Ideally, it should serve to compliment corresponding efforts at the other levels. The paramount problem, however, is that more attention to and support of the development of Track II networks automatically implies developing working relationships in Burma to some degree defined by government edict. The quandary then, is whether more would be gained or lost from tapping into this resource pool.
Regrettably, events over the course of the last year have conspired to make the emergence of broad support outside Burma for enhanced Track II initiatives inside the country even less likely. Both the Saffron Revolution and constitutional referendum succeeded in the further ossification of political poles. But it was Nargis that hit hardest. What could have proved a catalyst for jump starting a renewed interest in Track II approaches, instead illustrated how remote Track II thinking has become.
May's cyclone and the government's response have without doubt made clear what little trust can be placed in the words and actions of the junta. Yet, an assessment can also be made of the work of established local organizations in conducting relief, and as is increasingly the case, rehabilitation programs.
Meanwhile, calls on the part of opposition supporters and the political opposition itself for Security Council or United Nations 'action' are at best…hopes; while on the part of the junta, they appear to attach desperately little significance to Gambari's mission. As a result, even if initiatives are carried forth – as in the case of Gambari's efforts – the current existence of the mutually incompatible political processes espoused by the junta and NLD prohibit any possible advance. First, points and areas where common ground does exist need to be identified, and the foundation – at present virtually nonexistent – for negations laid.
It is for this reason that increased attention of and support for Track II diplomacy and initiatives on the part of the international community could play a critical, and productive, role. Then, when the time is ripe and the groundwork firmly in place, a future 'Mr. Gambari' will actually be able to travel to Burma in the confidence that a single agenda and vocabulary will suffice with which to address both government and opposition political elites.