Ban Ki-moon delivers on low expectations

Francis Wade

July 6, 2009 (DVB), Perhaps all too predictably, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came away from Burma yesterday with nothing to show for a visit characterised by high ambitions but low expectations.

Perhaps the first mistake was to arrive with the bar set so high, hoping in two days to catalyse change in a country that has steadily worsened over nearly half a century. His three key demands , that all political prisoners be released, that dialogue be resumed between the junta and opposition groups, and that elections next year be free and fair , were ambitious, to say the least. The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is a clear sign that the regime has no interest in having a viable opposition, while the UN chief would have to overturn a constitution that guarantees continuation of military rule to achieve the latter.

The visit, however, did not even begin well. He entered the country hounded by warnings that his presence there could lend legitimacy to the regime, and within hours these were vindicated. In his opening address to Senior General Than Shwe, the man orchestrating the Suu Kyi trial, Ban dropped a bombshell, the reverberations of which will be felt across the whole of Burma and much of the world with even rudimentary knowledge of Burmese affairs: "I appreciate your commitment to moving your country forward," he said.

The UN chief would not be there in the first place if this were the case. Burma is in political, economic and social ruin. It has one of the world's highest counts of political prisoners relative to population, its economy is near collapse, and the social fabric of society has been torn to pieces by half a century of unwavering military rule. "Than Shwe has steadily moved his country backwards," Brad Adams, Burma specialist at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian. "It’s just what we implored him not to say, to make these diplomatic gaffes."

It may have been that Ban Ki-moon was looking to soften the generals before his formal request to meet with Suu Kyi. Even that, however, failed, twice. He asked Than Shwe both on the Friday and Saturday for permission, and was both times snubbed. Prior to the visit, senior National League for Democracy member Win Tin warned that, without the meeting, Ban risked "only making friends with the junta" and rendering the trip "meaningless".

In some respects it is surprising the meeting was denied; it could have been useful for the junta's own propaganda purposes, and would have impacted little on the trial. Her fate belongs to the government, not Ban, and contrary to the image they project, any sense of credibility for the generals would be welcomed. Furthermore, a brief meeting between the world's most senior diplomat and the world's most famous political prisoner may temporarily appease international critics and buy time for the regime while the world speculates over what it means for Suu Kyi.

By his own admittance, Ban left Burma "bitterly disappointed", and he will have to report back to the UN Security Council on what steps to take next. There is a foreboding sense, however, that the international community is running out of options. Western sanctions have failed to force change from the junta, while the policy of engagement favoured by its Asian neighbours has lacked any substance. Ban Ki-moon's last gasp effort at rescuing Suu Kyi from another five years imprisonment fell flat on its face, and the UN's credibility and influence in Burma will have been significantly damaged by it. Few people seem to have an answer as to what to do with the country, but all will be agreed that praise for the junta without achieving substantial concessions is a whole-hearted step in wrong direction.

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