UN cautious, but sees a light

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has tiptoed carefully around yesterday’s official transfer of power in Burma, but said that opportunities exist for the new government to push the pariah in the right direction.

A statement released yesterday by the Secretary General, shortly after the announcement in state media, said that he had “taken note” of the transition, and asserted the new government’s “opportunity and, indeed… obligation to their people, to demonstrate that this change is one of substance”.

“Responding to the longstanding aspirations of the Myanmar [Burmese] people for national reconciliation, democratisation and respect for human rights remains essential to laying the foundations for durable peace and development in the country.”

It marks a somewhat more tentative reaction to recent changes in Burma, after the 66-year-old was last month criticised for hailing as an “important step” the appointment of incumbent prime minister, Thein Sein, as the country’s new president.

Thein Sein yesterday officially took his post as the top politician, a predictable move for observers who claim his loyalty to Burma’s dictator, Than Shwe, makes him the obvious choice to act the middle man between the ailing strongman and the new government.

While Than Shwe’s position as commander-in-chief of the army has been taken over by General Min Aung Hlaing, the reclusive junta leader now takes a more backseat position in the State Supreme Council, a shadowy ‘advisory’ body to the government comprised of the eight most powerful generals, including Thein Sein.

Yet despite Ban’s pledge to “continue to work with all relevant actors toward building a stable and fully democratic” Burma, he faces an uphill battle in forcing any break with the past: the key parliamentary positions are all taken up by powerful former generals, while some 80 percent of seats are occupied by pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members who will lead the new government.

The new political landscape also leaves little room for manoeuvring by Burma’s opposition, particularly the National League for Democracy which was outlawed as a party prior to the elections. Their calls yesterday for dialogue with the new government have so far gone unanswered.

The UN has long had difficulty influencing the Burmese junta, with Ban himself admitting in the past that the military had been “unresponsive” to his approaches.

Ban Ki-moon has also been no stranger to criticism: during his posting as South Korean foreign minister he described the controversial Shwe gas pipeline as a “win  win” project for the Burmese military and the South Korean government, consequently drawing the ire of Burmese and international rights campaigners who claim it has led to egregious human rights violations.

A leaked memo last year from the UN’s former anti-corruption chief Inga-Britt Ahlenius also described his secretariat is in a “process of decay” and questioned the UN’s “capacity to protect civilians in conflict and distress” in countries such as Burma.

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