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Evelyn Leopold: UN CHIEF ENDS BURMA VISIT: NO RESULTS SO FAR

July 4th, 2009, 07:07 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar (Burma) for the July 3-4 weekend in what turned out to be a major political gamble — with no discerable results so far.

Ban is probably the only world figure of stature who can meet the country’s reclusive 76-year old leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and did so for two days in the remote administrative capital Naypyidaw. But the ruling junta turned down his request to meet opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in prison on trumped up charges of violating her house arrest.

The U.N. secretary-general had ambitious goals: the release of the more than 2,000 political prisoners, a dialogue between the military and Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy and “the need to create conditions conducive to credible elections next year.” None of these were fulfilled — at least not during his visit.

Still Ban told reporters traveling with him he was optimistic political prisoners would eventually be released. “I believe they are very seriously considering releasing political prisoners, if not soon, at the latest before the beginning of this election,” he said, according to Reuters reporter Louis Charbonneau.

Disappointed

But Ban said the general did not want to interfere with the judicial process involving Suu Kyi’s trial.

“I’m deeply disappointed,” Ban said. “I think they have missed a very important opportunity of demonstrating their willingness to commit to continuing reconciliation with political leaders..I pressed as hard as I could as a way of committing themselves to this (democratization) process.”

He said he urged the junta to drop charges against Suu Kyi and other political leaders but received no guarantees. “It is a setback to the international community’s efforts to provide a helping hand to Myanmar at this time,” Ban was quoted as saying.

Suu Kyi, 64, and in fragile health, was jailed after John Yettaw, an American Mormon, swam to her home, saying he had a vision that she would be assassinated by terrorists. She had never met him but is still accused of violating terms of her arrest.

She was transferred to prison after spending more than 13 of the past 19 years secluded in house arrest after her National League for Democracy party won a huge victory in 1990 elections but the military refused to budge.

For Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, Myanmar is a challenge. He points with pride at convincing Than Shwe to allow U.N. agencies to deliver relief after Cyclone Nargis devastated coastal areas last May and after everyone else had failed. He says the international workers helped save half a million people from ruin. Sadly, they arrived only after some 140,000 people had died, countless others lost their homes and at least 21 Burmese aid workers who sought to help survivors were jailed.

Now What?

The U.N. chief could call on the U.N. Security Council, including China, to take more robust steps against the junta if it does not change its policies by a certain date. But this is unlikely as Ban prides himself on a low-keyed approach, despite criticism that he makes too little use of the bully pulpit available to him.

Complimenting Ban’s efforts, Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, writes in The Huffington Post that if the Burmese regime refuses to engage, the international community must be prepared to respond robustly. “We should not rest until Aung San Suu Kyi — and all those who share her commitment to a better and brighter future for Burma — are able to play their rightful role in it,” he said. (The junta renamed the country Myanmar, which the U.N. but not the United States and other nations recognize)

Although sanctions have been imposed by the United States and many European nations, Burma’s neighbors, including India and China, trade liberally in timber and other natural resources. And the giant French-based oil company Total does a thriving business, arguing that if it left, another oil company would take its place and pay less attention to the plight of its employees. Various U.N. bodies have adopted some 38 resolutions against Myanmar without results.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council, whose resolutions are binding, was thwarted by a double veto from China and Russia (supported by South Africa) in January 2007. But the new trumped up charges against Suu Kyi elicited a unanimous statement from the Council in May calling for her release and that of all political prisoners.

The fear remains among U.N. diplomats and human rights groups that the military would not relinquish any power (unless some troops themselves rebel) and that Ban’s visit could be used to solidify the junta’s power in the 2010 elections.

“There is a real danger that Burma’s general will try to use Ban’s visit to legitimize the 2010 elections,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement before the visit.

And much of it depends on the fate of Suu Kyi – the symbol of resistance to the junta, whose abuses are legion, including forced labor, executions and trafficking. If she stays in jail or returns to house arrest, few will have hope for change in Burma.

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