Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cost what it May, Ban Ki-moon Must Go to Burma

The Irrawaddy News

Should United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visit Burma? My immediate answer is: yes. But would he achieve anything meaningful? My answer is: no. Then why should he go?

Since the regime first put Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in court on a trumped-up charge, it has been clear that this is going to be Burma’s new hostage drama calling urgently for a skillful negotiator.

Ban has made clear his wish to visit Burma again, and news reports last week suggested the Burmese regime is ready to welcome him in early July.

The secretary general is concerned, however, that a visit would not achieve much, and UN sources suggest that the regime could manipulate it again for propaganda purposes. Thus, no arrangements have yet been made.

Opinion is divided at UN headquarters on whether or not Ban should go. Skeptics suggest he will come back empty handed.

The prominent Burmese activist Win Tin told me last week that Ban should do his homework before visiting Burma. Those who support a visit argue that a UN secretary general’s job entails visiting countries and zones of crisis, whether or not they achieve anything.

A reluctance on Ban’s behalf to relate to Burma’s uncompromising generals is understandable.

His special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s past missions to Burma have been complete failures, costing the Nigerian official all credibility.

Gambari hasn’t uttered a single word about the latest regime action against Suu Kyi, further evidence that he doesn’t understand Burma. It’s no wonder that the Burmese government and opposition alike have lost faith in Gambari, regarding him as a laughing stock.

Ban should, therefore, avoid the blunder of following in Gambari’s footsteps.

Last year, when Cyclone Nargis slammed into lower Burma, Ban and his team flew in to visit the devastated region. A previous visit had met with a mixed reception, and even drew anger from the opposition camp when he refused to utter the name Aung San Suu Kyi for fear of upsetting the generals.

This time, if Ban goes to Burma his mission must be to rescue Suu Kyi and secure the release of her and the country’s more than 2,000 political prisoners. It’s doubtful that he will succeed at one stroke, but he must deliver a firm message to Burmese leaders—and he should demand a meeting with Suu Kyi.

First, though, he must do his homework and get to understand fully the situation and its challenges and opportunities.

He must realize that, aside from working to secure the release of Suu Kyi and political prisoners before the 2010 election, he should press the generals to ensure that the poll is an inclusive one. UN demands for the junta’s road map to be made inclusive have so far been ignored.

Ban should also look at the economic and humanitarian crises, as well as the issues of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and the conflict between cease-fire groups and the armed forces, or Tatmadaw. To understand these issues, he should travel to ethnic regions as well as to border areas where many refugees and displaced persons have been seeking safety.

He must then draw up a strategy with a time frame to achieve tangible outcomes, keeping in mind that Burma needs a peaceful political solution and that army leaders alone cannot rescue the country.

To deliver his message, he must be firm, and here he needs the backing of the 14-member “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar [Burma],” with whom he has been holding meetings since 2007. He also needs full support from key governments in the region.

However, there is a potential risk that Ban could encounter if he doesn’t do his homework properly. His visit could be manipulated by the regime, resulting in failure, ridicule and humiliation.

Here he could learn from previous special envoys to Burma. How many times have we seen UN special envoys visit Burma in the past 20 years? If each visit had produced results, we would now be in better shape and wouldn’t need Ban’s help.

Far from witnessing positive results, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of political prisoners over the past decade and in the crimes against ethnic nationalities.
The country’s humanitarian situation has become dire and Burma is now a basket case.

The truth is that if Ban visits Burma he will probably encounter only empty gestures from the cunning generals, who will lecture him at length on their road map and pose with their visitor in photo shoots designed to demonstrate that the regime has the support of the UN. It’s worked for the generals before.

If Ban wants to be an effective negotiator he must step up to the plate and meet Than Shwe’s challenge. If the junta leader refuses to budge, Ban should tell him there will be consequences.

In that frame of mind, there is every reason for Ban to go to Burma and, with the world watching in anticipation, meet the junta’s challenge head on.

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