YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s ruling junta wanted Ban Ki-moon to go into a grandiose drug museum through the back door to prevent the U.N. secretary-general from making a rock-star entrance.
Ban eventually did walk through the front door _ a small victory after he had lost far bigger battles, notably a hoped-for meeting with jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong sahn SUE CHEE).
After a two-day visit in which the generals tried to stage-manage the world’s top diplomat at every step, Ban left the country with few prospects of even slightly loosening the iron grip on power held by military regime and its junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
If people saw Ban acting independently in Myanmar “that would cause Than Shwe to lose face,” said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Japan’s Meio University. “So they want to manipulate him.”
By snubbing Ban, the country’s military rulers lost an opportunity to improve its standing among many of the world’s nations that view the struggling country with rich reserves of gas and minerals as a pariah.
Inside Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s opposition party said Than Shwe (pronounced TAHN SHWAY) showed he is unwilling to permit real change ahead of the 2010 elections, which would be the first in two decades. Ban had asked to make his closing speech to diplomats and humanitarian groups Saturday at a hotel, but the junta refused and forced him to instead speak at the government’s Drug Elimination Museum.
Ban’s staff didn’t want his presence there _ where a wax figure depicts a military intelligence chief chopping opium poppies, which Myanmar views as a scourge introduced by colonialists _ to appear like another prop furthering the government’s agenda
“They fought us over every last detail,” said a U.N. official who took part in organizing the trip, speaking anonymously and out of protocol because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Ban _ whose mild-mannered facade belies a toughness and occasional temper _ would have preferred a tete-a-tete with Than Shwe to having note-taking aides around, an example of his belief in his ability to sway recalcitrant world leaders if only he can get them alone in a room.
But Than Shwe’s idea of a tete-a-tete was to pit himself and the other four generals who together make up the ruling State Peace and Development Council against Ban and some high-ranking U.N. deputies in the rarely visited capital of Naypyitaw, according to U.N. officials.
The 76-year-old Than Shwe suggested that Ban might not be invited back until after the elections.
Ban said Than Shwe promised to hand over power to civilians after the elections. But the generals refused to follow U.N. recommendations intended to prevent sham elections, including publishing an election law and freeing Suu Kyi and 2,200 other political prisoners to ensure general participation.
“Only then will the elections be seen as credible and legitimate,” Ban told reporters Monday in Geneva, Switzerland.
The government refused to honor the results of the 1990 elections after Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. The junta tolerates no dissent and crushed pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007.
At the end of the trip, Ban tried to defuse the notion he was returning empty-handed.
He said the visit was an opportunity to plant seeds that could blossom later and that he was dutifully relaying the international community’s message the elections must be seen as credible.
In the meantime, Ban said he will keep talks alive with Than Shwe through the so-called Group of Friends on Myanmar.
That approach hasn’t nudged Myanmar on key issues. Nor have eight previous visits by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban’s top envoy to Myanmar, produced many results.
“Than Shwe is using the United Nations as a way of buying time or distracting people from the main issues, so it isn’t very constructive,” Seekins said. “I don’t think Than Shwe is willing to make political concessions, especially concerning Aung San Suu Kyi. I think he would really like to put her away in jail and not have to worry about her.”
In the absence of Suu Kyi, it was left to Ban to deliver unusually stinging remarks about the government, its pummeling of human rights and the urgent need to set a new course.
When he took the stage at the museum, it was a rarity in the military’s half-century of dominance _ an outside political figure allowed to say what he wants.
And after much haggling, Ban’s black Mercedes was allowed to pull up to the front door of the museum. There, his motorcade disgorged a small entourage of aides and a half-dozen international journalists. Local press awaited him inside.
That also ensured an audience for him in Myanmar and beyond _ another small victory.