Saturday, December 27, 2008

UN secretary-general must visit Burma to begin the end-game

Bangkok Post

The United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seems to be waiting for a miracle before he will visit Burma. Like a scientist afraid of his own experiment, he aims to plot the result before he begins the process. For months now he has been ducking and weaving around increasingly vocal calls for him to visit this failed state with its military despots in charge, and to bring the full weight of the global community to bear on the many and on-going human rights violations occurring there. He seeks, he says, an assurance there will be an outcome. This is an untenable position, overly cautious by far for such a critical situation as Burma.

The UN is willing to allow the Burmese military junta to ride roughshod over international standards of human rights, political practice, economic sustainability and foreign relations.

The global body is allowing the regime to push on towards a sham election in 2010, which will inevitably bolster their power and defer the development of democracy in Burma.

While the shortcomings of the UN indicate a global system that is failing Burma, the UN is not alone.

Regionally, a virtual free-for-all has erupted as investors from China, Russia, Korea, Thailand and elsewhere rush into Burma. A resources and energy assets boom has given the military regime an opportunity to open the flood-gates. Sanctions in place in the US and the EU have ensured Burma's neighbours have few serious competitors, or watchdogs.

The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, as the legitimate and mandated de jure government in Burma has outlined a step-by-step plan for more focussed and successful engagement with Burma.

The first vital and unavoidable step would be for Mr Ban to visit the country as soon as possible. This would be an opportunity to present and embody the international community's concern over widespread human rights violations and the volatile actions of the country's rulers.

Second, the UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari must go to Burma again to meet officials and establish infrastructure to:

a) ensure the release of all political prisoners;

b) facilitate open negotiations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC;

c) to set up a permanent liaison office in Burma to pursue the direct intentions of the Secretary-General; and

d) to bring solutions to Burma's economic crisis.

Third, a process on on-going engagement needs to be rolled out. The generals need to be obliged to meet and engage appropriately with the UN Special Envoy and must grant all relevant UN officers unlimited access throughout the country.

Fourth, the UN should kick-off a process of national reconciliation, capitalising on the work already done by the NCGUB in this direction. This process must be inclusive of all opposition parties, the military and all ethnic groups. This must take place before the proposed elections in 2010 to head-off the usual ruses of the generals to exploit international goodwill, to marginalise authentic opposition voices in Burma and to ensure the irrevocably flawed 2010 election can never take place.

Fifth, all such processes need to have the full-backing of the UN and have their agenda set by the UN. This needs the backing of the UN member states, who must stand up and act on Burma more than they are, and should be a priority as the run-in to the 2010 election looms closer.

Sixth, this process has to be fully open, the dialogue made public and the results known to all, so as to ensure full accountability and the good governance of the initiative.

These are concrete steps, not idle thoughts. Such a programme will have the means of bringing progress to Burma. The international community understands these mechanisms and can work within them. Yet, there is inaction; a sense the rhetoric is there to knit a veil for international leaders.

Recently, Mr Ban said the actions of the junta are "abhorrent and unacceptable" and called for "bold action" on the generals' part to move towards democracy. But, the words will sink quickly without being forcefully backed by Mr Ban himself.

This is not the time to be overly fastidious in the interests of protocol or Realpolitik, or to protect the perceived dignity of the secretary-general's office. Our people are in grave danger. They and the world will forgive Mr Ban should he try hard and fall short. History will look more harshly on not trying at all.

As Mr Ban considers the moment, Burma drifts further and further away.

Thaung Htun is the United Nations representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

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