BANGKOK - United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon's failure to win the
release of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi - or any other
conciliatory concession - from Myanmar's intransigent military rulers came as
no surprise to observers.
Senior General Than Shwe reaffirmed over the weekend his unwillingness to
accept outside mediation of his country's grinding political deadlock,
crucially at a time his State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime is
bidding to win international recognition for 2010 democratic elections few
believe will be free and fair.
During his two-day visit, Ban met twice with Than Shwe at the remote capital of
Naypyidaw and was twice denied permission to
visit pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, who is currently on trial for violating the
terms of her house arrest. His requests for the release of over 2,000 political
prisoners and the resumption of dialogue towards reconciliation with the
political opposition were also refused out-of-hand.
Ban made the unusual move of publicly criticizing the junta on its home turf,
expressing his "deep disappointment" and railing against the junta's poor
human-rights record to a crowd of assembled diplomats, aid workers and
government officials. "Allowing a visit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been
an important symbol of the government's willingness to embark on the kind of
meaningful engagement that will be essential if the elections in 2010 are to be
seen as credible," he said.
With most of the major political activists imprisoned or in exile, and the
democratic opposition led by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy repressed
and cowed, Myanmar's generals see little reason to negotiate. With general
elections set to solidify their rule under a "discipline democracy" banner,
allowing Suu Kyi's and political prisoners' release would only complicate, and
potentially disrupt, their planned transition to nominally civilian rule.
A succession of UN envoys has failed to make headway with the reclusive
military regime, which has weathered 38 different UN resolutions since cracking
down on pro-democracy street protestors in 1988. The UN's most punitive effort
to date has come from its affiliated International Labor Organization, which
through a series of investigations and threats of sanctions has forced the
regime to reduce, although not entirely eliminate, forced labor.
The United States and European Union have also put in place a series of
economic sanctions against Myanmar since 1988 over the regime's abysmal
human-rights record. Opinion is divided among analysts and diplomats about the
effectiveness of sanctions and United States policy towards Myanmar is
currently under review by President Barack Obama's administration.
Many argue the UN should also consider a strategic rethink. Ibrahim Gambari,
the UN's latest special rapporteur to Myanmar, has visited the country eight
times and never met with Than Shwe. Ban's previous visit in May 2008 - which
was billed as a humanitarian mission rather than a political one - was touted
as a success after Than Shwe agreed to allow foreign humanitarian agencies and
aid supplies into Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
However, that access was circumscribed to the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta region
and remained limited to that area despite UN and humanitarian aid organization
hopes they would be allowed to establish programs in other parts of the
country. Relief agencies have reported in recent months that the visa process
has reverted to pre-cyclone arrangement which required foreigners to wait weeks
before receiving visas.
The SPDC's collective psychology is complex and often incomprehensible to
outside observers. On one hand, they feel compelled to legitimize their rule -
both domestically and internationally - through tightly managed democratic
elections most of the opposition will boycott. On the other, they are fully
cognizant of how loathed they are by their own population and ridiculed in the
international community for stage-managing what are expected to be sham polls.
The generals believe that once elections are held and the SPDC hands power to a
civilian government that national reconciliation will be accomplished.
The junta has also ensured that through a new constitution passed by a
referendum last year that it will remain the real power at both national and
local levels. That includes provisions mandating a quarter of regional assembly
members and each region's chief minister be appointed by the central
government, while the military also retains the discretionary powers to
intervene in the event of undefined emergencies.
Despite the rough diplomatic treatment, Ban continues to give the junta the
benefit of the doubt. "I believe they will seriously consider my proposals and
I believe they got the message," he said at a press conference in Bangkok on
Saturday. "[Than Shwe] was saying that after [the election] he will hand over
power to civilians. He said when I come back he may be a civilian ... That
means he's committed to hand over all power."
Representatives of ethnic ceasefire groups were allowed to meet with Ban during
his visit. However, all were members of groups that have agreed to merge with
the Myanmar army and participate in the general elections. None of the major
ceasefire groups, including the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army or the
10,000-strong Kachin Independence Organization, were present at the meetings.
Until now, the UN has largely paid only lip service to Myanmar's ethnic
problems and has shown little effort to address the political implications of
ethnic insurgency beyond the human-rights issue. Ethnic groups are a crucial
part of Myanmar's political tapestry and their continued resistance will
provide the junta a convenient excuse to hold onto real power after the 2010
elections and promised political transition.
International condemnation led by the United States and last year's veiled
threat to force aid on Myanmar by invoking the so-called "right to protect"
principle has intensified the junta's siege mentality. A glimpse of that bunker
mindset was seen recently through images published of the underground tunnels
and bunkers the generals have dug, with North Korean help, under their new
capital and major military headquarters.
The near universal call for Suu Kyi's release will have only entrenched the
regime's paranoid attitude towards the international community. Whether or not
the generals can be pushed into reform action through behind-the-scenes
overtures from China or even Russia is yet to be seen. Some have suggested the
establishment of a multilateral negotiation forum similar to the six-party
talks on North Korea's nuclear program for Myanmar, though Ban made no mention
of such a body after his visit.
The UN has imposed strict sanctions on North Korea and with Ban's spurned
mission to Myanmar there will likely be pressure for a tougher Security Council
resolution against the regime. Myanmar has so far escaped serious Security
Council censure due to allies China's and Russia's support, though an exception
was the council's call in May for the release of all political prisoners. With
or without such measures, and with Ban's inability to manage a breakthrough,
the UN clearly needs to rethink its Myanmar strategy.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached