UN gains leverage over Myanmar By Haseenah Koyakutty
BANGKOK - The consensus headlines from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon's
recent trip to Myanmar focused on his failure to meet with detained
pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The ruling military junta's Senior
General Than Shwe disallowed the diplomatic contact because Suu Kyi is
currently on trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.
But an emerging parallel narrative is starting to generate different headlines,
where UN pressure on the military regime and political fatigue among its top
generals produces results. According to reports, Myanmar's ambassador to the
UN, U Than Swe, told the Security Council on Monday that his government was
"processing to grant amnesty" to an undisclosed number of political prisoners
to allow them to participate in democratic elections scheduled for 2010.
Ban had pressed the military regime during his recent visit to release over
2,100 political prisoners and ensure that the democratic elections would be
free and fair. The prisoner release announcement comes notably while the global
spotlight is focused on Myanmar's secretive military modernization and nuclear
energy designs. The UN's latest and unanimous Security Council Resolution 1874,
passed last month against North Korea, recently forced a North Korean ship
suspected of carrying arms or missile components to abort its voyage to Myanmar
and return home.
Chief of US naval operations Admiral Gary Roughhead told reporters that the UN
resolution was indication of the international community coming together on the
issue and the US navy's tracking of the North Korean ship was a "very effective
way" of preventing arms proliferation. Significantly, China and Russia, which
have both shielded Myanmar from UN Security Council censure with their veto
votes, cooperated with the toughened sanctions against Pyongyang.
What the purportedly Myanmar-bound North Korean ship was actually carrying
remains a mystery, but the incident underscored how the UN and US are
collaborating on security issues more effectively under the Barack Obama
administration than the two sides did under the outgoing George W Bush
government. Tying Myanmar to North Korea could also pay strategic dividends for
the UN, which has for years tried to mediate national reconciliation in Myanmar
without any meaningful breakthroughs.
During Ban's most recent visit, his second to Myanmar as the UN's chief envoy,
Than Shwe dropped what some considered a symbolic bombshell. According to the
UN, the reclusive military leader told Ban during their discussions that the
next time the UN chief visited Myanmar, "I will be an ordinary citizen, a lay
person, and my colleagues will too because it will be a civilian government."
Myanmar's generals plan to hold democratic elections next year after nearly a
half century of uninterrupted military rule. Myanmar ambassador Swe told the UN
on Monday that the country was "steadfastly proceeding on its chosen path to
democracy" and hinted that the regime might accept international assistance in
arranging the polls if deemed "necessary". Several opposition groups, including
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, may boycott the polls if
their conditions for a free and fair poll are not met, while exiled activists
have slammed the polls as a sham designed to perpetuate Than Shwe's and the
military's rule under a civilian guise.
But people familiar with Ban's recent closed-door meetings say the general
conjured up the prospect of a civilian government in the presence of his
military lieutenants who may still be split on the issue. The septuagenarian
leader, a former expert in psychological warfare, is notorious for his mind
games, making promises to the UN only to later break them. But political
fatigue, an under-appreciated concept in conflict resolution, cannot be ruled
In neighboring Indonesia, nobody predicted its all-powerful military would step
aside constitutionally in favor of civilian rule after former dictator
Suharto's fall from grace in 1998. Military schisms and fatigue were
contributing factors in that democratic breakthrough. Myanmar lacks a credible
constitution, impartial institutions, and a vocal middle class to press for
democratic change, but like all decrepit regimes the end game often comes about
through a succession of policy mishaps.
Than Shwe has in recent years overseen state-sponsored killing of Buddhist
monks, the initial rejection of international emergency aid for over two
million cyclone victims, and now subjected Suu Kyi to a show trial few if any
in the international community believes has legal merit. The regime's top
general has ignored the world's pleas for her release and once again bid to
manipulate the UN in the process.
A UN official who requested anonymity out of protocol described Ban's first
two-hour meeting with Than Shwe as a mission to "speak truth to power"; as
unscripted, frank and "forceful back-and-forth" through an interpreter. When
the capricious dictator dismissed an idea out-of-hand, the UN official
recounted, he would reply with a curt "Yes, thank you."
The second meeting eventuated with the general's refusal to allow Ban to visit
Suu Kyi, and the UN's top envoy had to make do with meeting her NLD party
stalwarts. Ban's exclusive time with Than Shwe was notable as the mercurial
general has in the past rebuffed top UN envoys who visited the country.
It's unclear if the two sides spoke about weapons proliferation or Myanmar's
nuclear designs. Upon his departure, Ban said Myanmar's generals had missed an
opportunity to work through the UN, but has yet to indicate whether the UN
would consider tabling a resolution against Myanmar similar to the one passed
against North Korea.
Prior to Ban's courtesy call, Than Shwe met with Singapore's former prime
minister Goh Chok Tong, who last month led an official delegation to Myanmar.
Singapore is a leading foreign investor in Myanmar, its second-largest trade
partner after Thailand and one of the first countries to offer Cyclone Nargis
assistance. A Singapore hospital has also provided treatment to Than Shwe for
an undisclosed medical condition.
A source who accompanied Goh during the four-day visit said Myanmar is at a
"tipping point" and that there's a genuine need and want for change among the
military and population. The Singapore source said that during their meetings
the army expressed "deep frustration" over its inability to tame armed ethnic
insurgent groups. At the upcoming elections, the Singapore official estimated,
the downtrodden population "would buy into the rhetoric of the party that
promises them the most peace".
History has shown that political breakthroughs often occur when least expected.
The UN and international community should recognize the growing signs of
political fatigue in Myanmar's stalemate, while at the same time treat Than
Shwe's overtures of democratic change through elections with deep skepticism as
long as Suu Kyi remains behind bars and her NLD is excluded from any political
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum to be held in
Thailand later this month, and North Korea and Myanmar are expected to dominate
the security-oriented agenda. All eyes will be on China, which has big
investment interests in Myanmar and in the past protected its military regime
from UN censure, but may now frown on the generals' weapons proliferation and
alleged nuclear gambit with North Korea - both clear threats to international
peace and stability.
It is possible that the UN, ASEAN and its dialogue partners could, with the
backing of the US and China, move to close ranks and apply more uniform
pressure for change on the military regime. Than Shwe is arguably running out
of options and time-trusted allies and if China were to meet the regime's
brinksmanship with support for a new punitive UN resolution, a new diplomatic
dynamic would emerge where the UN might yet make a difference in Myanmar.
Haseenah Koyakutty is a freelance Southeast Asia correspondent based in