Monday, July 6, 2009

Ban versus the junta – who won?

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appears to have left Burma empty-handed on what was seen beforehand as a crucial visit to strengthen the UN’s role in the country and encourage the junta to be inclusive and transparent in its national reconciliation process. The international community is now focused on the regime’s rejection of Ban’s requests to see detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ban is obviously personally disappointed as he believed he had established a special relationship with Senior General Than Shwe, hinting that Burma's military head-of-state may listen favorably to him. "I'm deeply disappointed,” Ban told journalists at Rangoon airport when he arrived by plane from the capital Naypyitaw, after a second meeting with the junta's top leader.

"I think they have missed a very important opportunity of demonstrating their willingness to commit to continuing reconciliation with all political leaders. It is a setback to the international community's efforts to provide a helping hand to Myanmar [Burma] at this time.”

But is it really that big a deal – though symbolically important for sure. Even Ban Ki-moon on reflection seems to concede this. “My meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, however, should not be seen as the only benchmark for success or failure of my visit,” he told journalists in Bangkok after he flew out of Rangoon. But of course he may only be putting a brave face on what was a definite personal rebuff.

Access to Aung San Suu Kyi is the only card the regime has to play when dealing with the UN and its Western detractors. But UN involvement in Burma is far greater than that, and involves both political, development and humanitarian issues.

What is really important, as Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said, is the start of genuine dialogue with the military regime. For many of the poor in Burma, the more immediate question is humanitarian aid and development assistance.

Ban Ki-moon came with a detailed agenda that he presented before the regime’s top leaders. Apart from the need for political change, the UN boss reminded the generals that they were missing out on the region’s economic miracle.

While the government has taken steps to develop the country, tackle human trafficking, curtail opium cultivation and control the spread of the HIV AIDS: “the reality is that millions continue to live in poverty,” Ban said. “Standards of living in Myanmar [Burma] remain among the lowest in Asia.”

“The people of Myanmar [Burma] need jobs, they need food security and they need access to health care,” Ban advised the junta. “We must work to ensure that the people of Myanmar [Burma] can benefit from and contribute to the regional and global economy.”

Ban also made these remarks in a public address to a joint gathering of diplomats, civil leaders and representatives of community groups and international aid organizations shortly before leaving the country. This in itself was an important concession that the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was able to wring out of the generals in advance, a week before his boss was due to arrive. This is something that neither Bangladesh nor Sri Lanka allowed when the UN chief recently visited – for fear that the government would not like what he said, according to senior UN officials. The junta leaders will not like what they heard, though most of the country’s businessmen, middle class and poor would have endorsed his remarks unreservedly.

“It allowed him to leave Burma, telling the world what had actually been achieved by the visit, essentially setting the stage for another public relations disaster and inevitably, increased international pressure,” an Asian diplomat told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

Before the trip, many Western diplomats feared that Ban Ki-Moon was going unprepared into what one called the “Lion’s Den”. The UN chief was always aware that he was on a “very tough mission” and that there was a danger of going away empty-handed having served the junta’s propaganda purposes. Ban shunned formal briefings on Burma, apart from a long briefing from Goh Chok Tong – the former Singaporean Prime Minister who visited Burma in a personnel capacity last month -- preferring to allow the discussion with Than Shwe to develop naturally, without too many preconceptions.

“He must have forgotten that the General is an expert in psychological warfare – and a diplomat will be no match for his cunning,” Zin Linn, a spokesman for the opposition-in-exile told Mizzima.

However, it remains unclear whether Ban was able to get any concessions on any of the major issues he discussed during two meetings with Than Shwe – national reconciliation, economic development, dealing with the ceasefire groups and humanitarian assistance.

One thing, however, is for sure – Than Shwe was never going to make any public concessions during the visit. “These things happen in the weeks after UN envoys leave – like in the case of the last time Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest [6 May 2002]. Mr Razali [the envoy at the time] was clearly told it will happen two weeks after you leave the country,” a senior diplomat involved in the process told Mizzima, declining to be identified.

“This is not a make or break trip,” the Secretary-General’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, told Mizzima on the eve of the visit. “The important thing is to keep the process of UN engagement in the country going, and, if possible strengthen and deepen it.”

The issues raised by Ban were the release of all political prisoners – including Aung San Suu Kyi – as soon as possible, the resumption of talks between the military and pro-democracy parties and assuring the planned elections in 2010 are inclusive and credible. He also discussed ways the UN could support plans for economic development, especially in the agricultural, fisheries and livestock sectors. And on the extremely vexed question of post-Nargis and broader humanitarian assistance, he raised the need especially for the swift issuance of visas.

“I discussed, as well, the expansion of humanitarian assistance beyond the delta area. These are all areas where I expect the Myanmar [Burma] government to demonstrate progress in the very near future,” he told Bangkok-based journalists.

So what other assurances did he receive from the Senior General. “I was assured that the Myanmar [Burma] authorities will make sure that this election will be held in a fair and free and transparent manner,” Ban said after his first meeting with the General. But so far, regarding his other key suggestions – “to publish as soon as possible the electoral law, establish an electoral commission and set a date or month for the election in 2010” – the junta’s response remains pending.

“It is too early to tell whether Than Shwe has completely rebuffed Ban Ki-moon, the regime seldom makes concessions during these kinds of visits. It’s usually before or after,” said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand and veteran Burma watcher. “I sense that there may be a few concessions later, like the release of non-political prisoners, but little else,” he told Mizzima.

Diplomats and UN officials in Rangoon believe there will be some goodwill gestures from the regime in the weeks to come. “We can expect some release of political prisoners – maybe even hundreds as the UN Secretary-General requested during his talks with the Senior General,” said a Western diplomat in Rangoon on condition of anonymity. But many analysts fear that the UN’s role in brokering national reconciliation between the two sides has hit a dead-end.

Most opposition activists and Western politicians are in no doubt that Ban Ki-moon has been sent away with his tail between his legs. Now the UN Security Council has to be propelled into action and there are already calls for increased sanctions against the junta.

“If the Burmese regime refuses to engage, the international community must be prepared to respond robustly,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned in a newspaper editorial and a press statement over the weekend. “We will not rest until Aung San Suu Kyi -- and all those who share her commitment to a better and brighter future for Burma – are able to play their rightful role in it,” he said.

But two decades of UN resolutions and increased sanctions have not budged the regime an inch.

“Outside influence on the regime’s calculations is minimal,” said Thant Myint-U, a former senior UN official and author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. “The regime is arguably in a much stronger financial position than ever before largely because of its gas sales.” Much of that is exported to China and Thailand.

These countries are not going to opt for sanctions. Both Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva again recently dismissed sanctions as a means of moving the generals. But now that the UN seems to have failed to produce concessions, the pressure will be on the regional bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member, to increase pressure on the junta to make sure their roadmap to multi-party democracy is sincere and plausible.

Already Thailand’s Prime Minister has hit out strongly against the generals. “Thailand wants the Burmese government to release the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners as part of its national reconciliation process,” Vejjajiva told Ban when he met the UN chief as he passed through Bangkok on Saturday, according to government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

So the pressure on Burma is likely to build on two fronts: within ASEAN and at the UN. “The junta’s refusal to allow the world’s top diplomat to see Daw Suu is clear evidence of the regime’s intransigence. It is now time to apply real pressure on the generals,” Thaung Htun, the exile government’s representative for UN affairs, told Mizzima.

Beijing in particular will come under more pressure to make sure its ally engages with the international community and is not a continuing embarrassment that they have to reluctantly defend, especially at the UN Security Council.

“The Secretary-General should brief the UN Security Council as soon as possible and the Council should consider passing a binding resolution. Since the credibility of the UN is at stake, China and Russia should no longer defend the regime,” argued Thaung.

Activists and diplomats alike believe its time to find a united front – for a coordinated and consistent position within the international community.

“The UN, the European Union and ASEAN must now come together to collaborate to convince China to cooperate in finding a solution for the crisis in Burma,” Zin Linn told Mizzima. “Regional players must urge the military regime to abandon its recalcitrant policies in the interests of dialogue and reconciliation,” he added.

So Burma’s allies and neighbors are likely to continue to push for engagement with the junta as the only way forward. After ASEAN's success in coaxing the regime to accept international assistance and aid workers to help the country’s relief efforts and recovery plans in the aftermath of last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, through the creation of the Tripartite Core Group, further arguments for such an approach are expected.

ASEAN countries are extremely willing to help Burma, according to the ASEAN Secretary-General – who was instrumental is setting up the new approach. “If it is so desired by the Government of the Union of Myanmar [Burma], I am sure some of the ASEAN countries will be willing to share their experiences,” he told Mizzima. Three countries in the regional bloc – Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines – have all made the transition from authoritarian military regimes to democracy.

The ASEAN foreign ministers summit, to be held in Thailand, is only a few weeks away. At that meeting there will also be a day-session with the region’s dialogue partners, which includes Australia, China, Japan, the US and the EU, all with a keen interest in Burma. Burma is bound to dominate the formal discussions and the bilateral meetings in the margins of the summit. But few expect much to merge from those meetings.

“I think it is now too late to move the generals. They are not going to amend the constitution to suit the NLD, or release political prisoners,” said Mr Tonkin. “No doubt the Chinese have been telling them to make some gestures, but they only have so much influence, and the West has none.”

So as always, whether Ban Ki-moon or Burma’s top general won this round – the Burmese people have lost again. But the UN is unlikely to give up trying to assist Burma in whatever ways might be possible. “The UN's help in Myanmar’s [Burma's] national reconciliation process is a long and complicated matter – it’s a process,” Gambari told Mizzima on the eve of Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the country.

“What is important is genuine economic and political reform which the Burmese people as a whole desire and deserve,” he stressed.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too