UN chief praises 'support' from junta

Jan 5, 2010 (DVB), The UN secretary general yesterday congratulated the head of Burma's ruling junta on the country's 62nd Independence Day anniversary and extolled the general's "support" for UN goals.

The cajoling coincided with an announcement by Senior General Than Shwe, who has ruled Burma since 1992, that elections would take place this year, although he failed to confirm a date.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to the general, published in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, that it was his "great pleasure" to extend his congratulations for the anniversary. Burma gained independence in 1948 after 124 years of British rule.

"It is heartening to know that the United Nations can rely on the guidance and support of Myanmar [Burma] in all its endeavours," he said. "Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration."

Ban Ki-moon was twice denied a meeting with detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to the pariah state in May, which came amidst a barrage of criticism about his "soft" approach to so-called 'rogue' states, such as Burma.

The letter also sought to emphasize cooperation in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, which include the reduction of extreme poverty and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to medical aid group, Medicins San Frontieres (MSF), Burma continues to be one of the world's lowest spenders on healthcare, at 0.3 percent of GDP, while less 20 percent of people in urgent need of HIV/AIDS treatment receive it.

The country ranked 132 out of 177 countries in the 2007-2008 UNDP Human Development Index, with an annual per capita gross national income of only US$220. It is consistently placed low on many political, social and economic barometers.

The tone of Ban Ki-moon's letter however corresponds to an international shift in approach to dealing with the Burmese junta, which has progressively been isolated through more than a decade of sanctions.

"Obviously diplomats couch their language in highly diplomatic terms, so he is looking to build bridges and I think it probably is the appropriate thing to be doing at this time," said James East, regional communications advisor at World Vision, one of the signatories to the MDGs.

He added that encouragement of the junta was at present preferable to "pointing the finger", which has to date been the policy of Burma's strongest critics, such as the United States.

The UN said in December that it would support a review of Burma's efforts to achieve the MDGs, whilst boosting assistance to its depleted agricultural sector, which was devastated by cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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