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At UNDP, As Five More Get Silenced, Myanmar Restrictions Explained, Still Undefined Corruption

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, June 19 -- In the midst of its unfolding North Korea scandal, in the second of its two week Executive Board meeting, the UN Development Program on Tuesday made available for questions its resident representative in Myanmar, Charles Petrie.

            Meanwhile, a purge of sort continued within UNDP. On June 14 the head of budgets was demoted. This week, legal and computer security personnel have been reassigned. UNDP sources tell Inner City Press this is fresh retaliation, and that those whose jobs are taken are told to say nothing at all, or lose everything. This is the way it works now at UNDP -- even insiders are cast out, if doubts arise about their loyalty to the code of silence. As Ban Ki-moon heads to Washington on Wednesday, one wonders if the growing scandal at UNDP will be raised.

            A month ago, Inner City Press began asking about published reports of corruption within UNDP's Myanmar operations. UNDP Spokesman David Morrison refused to provide details. Associate Administrator Ad Melkert on June 6 said that the firings proved that UNDP's system were working, but he refused to state of what the corruption consisted. Inner City Press reported, from inside sources, that two "captains" within UNDP's Myanmar operation required tithing of one to two months salary by UNDP's local hires.

            Charles Petrie on Tuesday acknowledge he'd heard of that, not only in Inner City Press' recent reporting, which he said he'd read, but when he first arrived in Myanmar. He said he looked into it but could not document it. But sources tell Inner City Press that

"When Charles Petrie first came to Myanmar, he had heard of the extensive corruption.  In his first week, he conducted several staff meetings in which he gave the 'new sheriff in town' speech, saying past deeds would not be examined, but that he expected a clean ship while he was there.  Shortly thereafter, an unsigned memo arrived on his desk that, essentially, said that if he expected his visa to remain valid then he had better shut up. Charles has been another empty suit shilling for more funds to the country ever since."

            On Tuesday, Inner City Press asked Petrie about this directly. He requested that his answer, with its discussion of the ramifications within UNDP of a persona non grata finding, be treated only as background. What this cannot conceal is that when UNDP's resident representative in The Gambia was persona non grata-ed for questioning the Gambian president's claim to cure AIDS by the laying on a hands, the expelled resident representative virtually disappeared in the UNDP system, while a more pliant and compliant replaced was sent in.

UNDP's Petrie and military strongman - silence in Myanmar, while retaliation at UNDP in NY

            Inner City Press on Tuesday asked Mr. Petrie and his many handlers for a single example of UNDP official's career not suffering from criticizing a regime on human rights or public health grounds. No examples were provided.

            Mr. Petrie pointed, as one of his main successes, to UNPD's AIDS work in Myanmar. But it is public record that the UN's Global Fund for AIDS suspended service to the country, in light of corruption. Apparently, UNDP has despite this finding soldiered on, as it did in another context in North Korea.

            UNDP's operations in Myanmar can be distinguished from North Korea by a "restrictive mandate" imposed on the former program in 1993. It has been pointed out, however, that from 1995 through at least 2000, UNDP's Asia and Pacific region has run by the Yangon-supported Burmese Nay Htun. (Mr. Htun was the official Burmese government candidate to head the UN World Health Organization last year, despite not being a doctor.)  Some argue that external and generic "restrictive mandates" don't matter, if those overseeing are, in fact, favoring and favored by the government at issue.

            Petrie on Tuesday said that in Myanmar, unlike North Korea, UNDP has not engaged in any "Nationally Executed" program, in which funding is handed to government for them to implement programs. While denying that there have been any counterfeit issues with UNDP in Myanmar, it remains unclear if tithed-up money goes to the Burmese regime, and if UNDP in Myanmar pays in "hard currency," as it did in North Korea.

            Beyond being UNDP's resident representative in Myanmar, Mr. Petrie is also the UN's humanitarian coordinator. The entire network of UN agencies in Myanmar, including UNDP, was criticized earlier this year for helping the "State Peace and Development Council" junta tighten its grip over rural communities, including with the use of force labor on road. At the time, Mr. Petrie said that he was "aware of the challenge," but declined any more specific comment.

            Not only for UNDP but also for other agencies, Mr. Petrie has a history of tough postings, from Rwanda in 1994 to Eastern Congo and elsewhere. He is reportedly something of a swashbuckler, another Tuesday quite measured in his speech, overseen by a number of UNDP personnel sitting behind two of the four reporters. Was Mr. Petrie being watched? Or was he teaching spin? On this we aim to have more.

            Perhaps the most telling comment made by Mr. Petrie on Tuesday was his description of UNDP's goal and role in Myanmar: "to stop things from deteriorating." UNDP insiders to whom Inner City Press has related this comment interpret it to mean, "to preserve the status quo." In repressive regimes like Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Myanmar and North Korea, this is virtually a promise to support dictatorships.

            Mr. Petrie to his credit spoke Tuesday not only about "overcoming the skepticism of the international community" -- increasingly, such skepticism of UNDP is well-placed and deserved -- but also about being transparent, presenting what UNDP is actually doing, and allowing a debate about its merits. Whether such disclosure and debate will be possible about the wave of demotions and retaliation in which UNDP is now engaged remains to be seen. A first step could occur through Ban Ki-moon this week. It's to that level it must go: Kemal Dervis and Ad Melkert has stopped answering questions.  Developing.

    Again, because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540