THE Myanmar junta’s refusal to allow United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to visit detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will likely prompt a new push for Security Council action, but all depends on China.
The 15-nation council has been unable to take serious action in the case of the former Burma because China, the nearest Myanmar has to a major ally, has opposed it. Like the United States, Britain, France and Russia, China is a permanent veto-wielding member of the council and can block any action.
The last time the council said anything about Myanmar was last May, when it issued a non-binding statement urging the junta to ensure an upcoming referendum on the country’s new constitution would be “an inclusive and credible process”.
At the time, critics said the referendum that approved the constitution was a farce. Many UN officials and diplomats worry next year’s multi-party election will be the same.
China has shown flexibility on North Korea. It has supported two sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons programme. But Beijing has been unwilling to allow the council to impose sanctions on Myanmar, whose nearly 2,000km coastline provides neighbour China with easy land and sea access to South Asia markets.
One Security Council diplomat said it might be time to try again to press China to use its influence on the secretive military rulers of Myanmar to reform.
“I think China knows the council will have to look again at Myanmar,” the Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity after Ban’s visit. Other Western diplomats have expressed similar views.
Ban embarked on his two-day visit to the Southeast Asian country with low expectations, telling reporters ahead of time it would be a “very tough mission”. His goal was to inform the generals of the growing international dismay over what rights groups say is the country’s dismal human rights record, and to urge Senior General Than Shwe to release the country’s more than 2,000 political prisoners and keep his promise to democratise.
Ban travelled to Myanmar’s remote new capital, Naypyidaw, where he asked Than Shwe to let him meet with Suu Kyi, being held at a guest house at the notorious Insein prison in Yangon on charges of breaching the terms of her house arrest.
After making Ban spend the night in Naypyidaw, Than Shwe told him on Saturday he could not visit Suu Kyi because she was on trial and he did not want it to appear as if the junta was being “interfered with or pressured from outside”.
Critics say Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s trial is a sham intended to ensure she does not take part in the country’s first election since 1990, which Suu Kyi’s party won. She has spent most of the time since then under house arrest at her Yangon lakeside home.
On Saturday evening, Ban told a packed audience of non-governmental organisations, opposition members, government officials and diplomats in Yangon he was “deeply disappointed that they rejected my request” to see Suu Kyi.
Ban also said Myanmar’s human rights record was of “grave concern” and its people would suffer if the regime continued to be isolated as a result of its failure to initiate meaningful, inclusive democratic reforms.
There was no applause during Ban’s speech, but his rebuke of the generals in front of a local audience prompted murmurs throughout the crowd at Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum.
Ban may face some criticism since he left without any guarantees from the generals that Suu Kyi and the more than 2,000 political prisoners would be freed. Human Rights Watch had urged Ban not to make the trip.
Ban, however, said in Yangon it was too early to call his visit a failure.
“My meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi or not meeting with her should not be the benchmark of success or failure of my visit. “I believe they will seriously consider my proposals and I believe they got the message.”
Among his proposals to the junta were release of all political prisoners before the 2010 election and steps to ensure the polls are free and fair. UN officials said he asked the generals to allow international monitors into the country to observe the elections.
Ban said later that Than Shwe promised him the election would not be rigged and power would be handed over to civilians afterwards.
UN officials said privately it would be unfair to blame Ban for the generals’ unwillingness to budge on Suu Kyi and other issues. They also said that with the Security Council divided on Myanmar, Ban was the world’s only card to play.
“You can’t fault him for trying,” a UN official said.
One of the few top world figures the Myanmar supremo is willing to meet, Ban had hoped he would have some sway with the 76-year-old Than Shwe, having convinced him last year to allow humanitarian aid groups to enter Myanmar to help with post-Cyclone Nargis recovery efforts. But that was not the case.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in his blog that if Ban was unable to persuade the generals to keep their promises of reform, the world would have to act.
“The international community will work with Burma if the generals are prepared to embark on a genuine transition to democracy,” he wrote.
“But if the Burmese regime refuses to engage, the international community must be prepared to respond robustly.” — Reuters