BURMA: U.N. Chief Comes Calling with Politics on His Mind

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 1 (IPS) – The return this week of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to military-ruled Burma gives the mission an air of a high-stakes gamble. On the line is the world body’s credibility to make headway in a country where outside pressure to break a political deadlock is frequently ignored by the military junta.

Ban’s two-day visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, will be the first occasion where he is expected to formally discuss with the military leaders key issues such as the release of over 2,100 political prisoner, including that of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Also on the cards during the visit from July 3 to 4 are a push for the long-stalled reconciliation talks between the military regime and the opposition, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The secretary-general “looks forward to returning to [Burma] to address directly with the senior leadership a broad range of issues, including longstanding concerns to the United Nations and to the international community,” says Michele Montas, Ban’s spokesperson, in a statement released ahead of the visit.

He believes that the issues of political prisoners, the resumption of dialogue between the government and the opposition to achieve national reconciliation, and setting the stage for credible elections in 2010 “cannot be left unaddressed at this juncture of the country’s political process,” Montas added.

The NLD is welcoming the visit even though its leader, Suu Kyi, remains incarcerated in the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon, the former capital. The 64-year-old Suu Kyi, who has spent over 14 of her last 20 years under house arrest, is on trial in a bizarre case involving a U.S. citizen who showed up as an uninvited guest in her home in early May after he swam there across a lake.

“We welcome the U.N. mission,” Nyan Win, the NLD’s spokesman, said during a telephone interview from Rangoon. “Ban Ki-moon needs to meet our leader Aung San Suu Kyi during this visit.”

Such a personal encounter with Suu Kyi will be “important for political stability in Burma,” he added. “Political issues have to be discussed.”

A meeting with Suu Kyi, the universally recognised icon for Burma’s pro-democracy movement, will be a first for the world body’s top diplomat. Ban did not have such an occasion when he made his first visit to the South-east Asian country in May last year.

The 2008 visit was billed as a humanitarian mission, not a political one. It came in the wake of the powerful Cyclone Nargis tearing through the country’s Irrawaddy Delta in early May, killing some 150,000 people and affecting over a million people. Yet, that visit painted Ban in poor light for what followed after he had received pledges for more humanitarian space in the cyclone ravaged areas from Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Burma’s strongman.

The Burmese regime made an about-turn within days after an optimistic U.N. chief declared that his four-day humanitarian mission to Burma had produced a breakthrough.

“I have been much encouraged by my discussions with Myanmar’s authorities in recent days,” Ban said at a press conference at the end of his first visit. “Senior Gen. Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance.”

The failure of a long string of U.N. special envoys to Burma since the early 1990s adds to the challenge Ban faces. They have been dispatched by the U.N. to help push the country towards a democracy following the brutal crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising in August 1988, which left some 3,000 unarmed protesters dead.

Ibrahim Gambari, the current envoy, has not been spared of the political hurdles. The Nigerian diplomat, who has made eight visits to Burma, has been denied access to Suu Kyi since August last year and has failed to get access to Than Shwe.

Yet, such set backs have not prompted a search by an important regional bloc for an alternative mediator to produce political reform in Burma. The 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member, declared in March, at its last summit in a Thai resort, that it placed faith in U.N. missions to achieve political change and an improved human rights climate in Burma.

An Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also welcomes the U.N. engagement in Burma. “You cannot expect Ban to perform miracles,” the diplomat said. “It is important that the U.N. stays engaged to win the confidence of the Myanmar leaders to edge them down the road of change.”

But those who have suffered at the hands of Burma’s military regimes, in control of the country since the 1962 coup, have little reasons to feel sanguine. They fear that the junta will use Ban’s visit to further consolidate its oppressive rule.

“Mr. Ban has to get a result from this visit,” says Bo Kyi, head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), a group of former political prisoners campaign for the rights of the country’s jailed opposition figures. “The first thing is the release of all political prisoners, including Daw Suu Kyi.”

Furthermore, Ban has to ensure that a “tripartite dialogue” between the military regime, the opposition and the leaders of the country’s ethnic groups get under way, Bo Kyi stressed during a telephone interview from the AAPP’s office in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burma border. “He needs to apply pressure on the military regime for change.”


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