For a man who has been described as "too soft", Ban Ki-moon’s speech was surprisingly stern. "When I met General Than Shwe yesterday and today, I asked to visit Suu Kyi. I am deeply disappointed that he refused," the UN Secretary General told a crowd of diplomats, international aid workers and government officials on Saturday night in Rangoon, the former Burmese capital.
"I believe the government of Myanmar has lost a unique opportunity to show its commitment to a new era of political openness," he continued. "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be allowed to participate in the political process without further delay. Indeed, all the citizens of Myanmar must be given the opportunity to contribute fully to the future of this country." It’s the kind of message that is rarely delivered to Burma’s leaders on their home turf.
In spite of this tough talking, and aside from fewer police in the streets, Ban’s visit has not yet driven any noticeable changes in a country which has been ruled by various military governments since 1962.
Life goes on in Burma: on Sunday 5 July, the day after Ban’s departure, more than 40,000 football fans gathered at the national stadium in Rangoon to watch the final of the new professional football competition, which was launched in May. And the next day, even more people went to Shwedagon Pagoda to mark the full moon of Waso, an important Buddhist festival that signifies the beginning of Buddhist Lent.
In the West, however, governments, human rights groups and the media continue to vacillate and argue over the merits and failures of the Secretary General’s visit. Arguably, Ban Ki-moon’s was always a doomed mission, given the unrealistic demands being made by political and human rights groups. Late last week, Human Rights Watch said anything less than the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would constitute a "failure" on Ban’s part.
Before heading to Burma, Ban admitted to reporters in Singapore that his mission would be both risky and difficult, pointing to the "certain uncertainties" of the situation, a clear reference to the ongoing trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now faces five years in prison due to an uninvited guest, the American John Yettaw.
"I will try to meet with representatives of all registered political parties including Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s my hope. But I have to raise this issue with the Senior General directly, in person," said Ban. No meeting eventuated, despite two separate discussions with Senior General Than Shwe, a man whose name is frequently preceded in Western media outlets by the adjectives "reclusive" and "iron-fisted".
According to the Sunday edition of New Light of Myanmar — the government’s mouthpiece — Than Shwe told Ban he "would like to arrange a meeting between [Ban] and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi but she is now on trial … so [the Government has]no right to organise a meeting."
That statement must have rankled with the Secretary General — and may have encouraged him to be more critical of the Government in his departing speech. Burma is not known for its separation of powers and Than Shwe has the final say on almost every Government decision.
That said, it’s possible the Burmese government can be swayed. China, for example, has a strong influence on the nations’s domestic affairs. It’s widely believed that the purpose of the recent visit of the Government’s number two, Vice Senior General Maung Aye, to the People’s Republic was to seek advice on the trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Some analysts predict that the combination of China’s influence and the Secretary General’s demands — which also included the release of some 2100 political prisoners and the introduction of an election law ahead of next year’s polls — will convince the generals to make some concessions in coming weeks.
A senior diplomat told exile news website Mizzima that "Than Shwe was never going to make any public concessions during the visit. These things happen in the weeks after UN envoys leave." The most likely outcome is the release of an election law, although we could also see a repeat of last year’s farce where 6995 common criminals were released from the country’s jails — and only seven political prisoners.
Of course, these concessions are never enough for some observers, who continue to push for further isolation and make unrealistic demands of the Government. On New Mandala, a Southeast Asian studies blog hosted by the Australian National University, a post advocating engagement drew some critical comments, particularly after Ban was unable to meet with the Nobel laureate.
"Talks alone are a success," the poster, Dylan Grey, argued. "While there have indeed been a series of UN envoys to Myanmar, a visit by the Secretary-General is a considerably more substantial engagement."
"What is Ban doing there in the first place?" replied one commenter, "Ozzie". "The predictable results have been achieved and once again the generals have out-manoeuvred the so-called diplomats."
If we consider Ban’s venture into the "Lion’s Den" — as one diplomat called it — a "failure", the question of what path to take in future dealings with Burma’s military government must be addressed.
Neil MacFarquhar’s recent article in the International Herald Tribune is one of the most considered pieces on Burma I have read for some time. "The fact that Mr Ban emerged empty-handed after his two-day visit that ended Saturday provides the strongest evidence yet that a different approach is overdue," he writes. "Rather than tying negotiations, not to mention sanctions, to the treatment of just one figure, say policy analysts, humanitarian workers and exiles, the world should engage the junta on a broad range of economic, humanitarian and ethnic issues that will return electoral politics to its rightful place as one concern among many."
Economic and political isolation have not been effective tools in persuading the generals to relinquish power; rather, this strategy has tightened their stranglehold by reducing Western influence. If anything, the generals welcome the safety of isolation over the uncertainty of engagement. This was recognised in Ban’s speech on Saturday, when he called on Burma to "unleash its economic potential".
"[T]he reality is that millions continue to live in poverty. Standards of living in Myanmar remain among the lowest in Asia. The people of Myanmar need jobs, they need food security and they need access to health care," said Ban. "We must work to ensure that the people of Myanmar can benefit from and contribute to the regional and global economy."
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