Monday, July 6, 2009

Ban—Empty-handed But Wiser

The Irrawaddy News

Although he left Burma empty-handed without any visible sign of progress or concession from the Burmese junta, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit was by no means pointless.

Through his official visit to the military-ruled country he should have discovered a deeper understanding of how far the international community—under the name of the United Nations—can expect to go in its current mission to facilitate democratization in Burma through national reconciliation.

Ban's talks with the Naypyidaw regime—and primarily junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe—focused on three important issues: gaining the release of all political prisoners including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi; resumption of dialogue between the military government and its opposition; and creating the conditions for credible elections.

The UN secretary-general’s hopes were quickly dashed. He was even refused a visit with detained opposition leader Suu Kyi.

However, in forcing Than Shwe to show his cards, Ban is left in no doubts as to what degree of flexibility the regime might be prepared to go to—none.

The UN chief had no qualms about publicly criticizing Burma’s military rulers before he left from the country. "I believe the government of Myanmar [Burma] has lost a unique opportunity to show its commitment to a new era of political openness," he said in an emotive speech at Rangoon’s Drug Elimination Museum to 500 state officials, diplomats, INGO staff and local pressmen.

Of course, no one expected much from the visit, and observers noted once again that the junta would manipulate it for propaganda purposes. But at least Ban should have earned the respect of the international community for confronting the junta and for speaking the truth.

Now the gloves are off and Ban can concentrate more forcefully on what he has called "a very tough mission."

At a pit stop in the Thai capital, Bangkok, Ban met with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and told reporters that to show his commitment to moving the Burma issue forward, his special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, will shortly convene the so-called Group of Friends on Myanmar, a gathering of countries supporting greater dialogue.

However, Ban must now know that words without teeth will not worry the Burmese generals.

Naypyidaw has proved to the world that no matter how many resolutions the UN passes—even dragging Burma before the 15-nation UN Security Council—the junta will not willingly release the 2,100 political prisoners in the country, least of all Suu Kyi.

We will all be closely watching the UN secretary-general’s next step.

Ban’s visit may not have achieved any visible outcome, but the people of Burma will remember what he promised: "I have come to show the unequivocal shared commitment of the United Nations to the people of Myanmar. I am here today to say: Myanmar – you are not alone."

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