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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 15, 2009
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 out.

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.

Repressive record
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 transition.

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 Bangkok.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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