World top news: UN chief gambles on Burma breakthrough
UN chief gambles on Burma breakthrough
Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 13:27 UK
BBC South East Asia correspondent
Ban Ki-moon is not a man known for taking risks. Yet his decision to visit Burma and meet its secretive military rulers – at a time when the rest of the world is outraged by their decision to put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial – is quite a gamble.
Mr Ban has been criticised for his unassertive style of diplomacy
The visit was requested by the Burmese government.
The generals are rarely graced by the presence of figures of Mr Ban’s international stature in their bunker-like capital Nay Pyi Taw.
If the secretary-general gets nothing in return, he will be assailed by his detractors for being naive, for allowing the status of his high office to be used by a pariah regime.
Critics have already argued that a UN secretary-general’s visit should be a prize, to be awarded after significant concessions have been made, not before.
But if Mr Ban’s visit can revive a dialogue between the military and the opposition that has been dead for six years, he can chalk up the greatest achievements at the UN to date.
So what are his prospects?
Previous UN envoys have generally had little success in Burma.
Burma’s rulers are prepared to sit in splendid isolation if they feel threatened by international pressure
The one exception was Razali Ismail, a distinguished Malaysian diplomat, who was appointed UN Special Envoy to Burma in April 2000.
He helped broker talks between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi that resulted in her release from house arrest in May 2002.
But after she was detained again a year later, Mr Razali was repeatedly denied entry to the country, and he resigned in frustration at the end of 2005.
His successor, Ibrahim Gambari, has led eight missions to Burma, but has little to show for them.
He arrived there right after the army’s violent suppression of mass anti-government protests in September 2007, and thought he had been given assurances by Senior General Than Shwe that the military would be lenient with the protesters.
Since then, in a seemingly calculated snub to international opinion, military-dominated courts have imposed harsh sentences on hundreds of political prisoners.
Ban Ki-moon’s position as secretary-general may make it easier for him to deal with the notoriously reclusive and stubborn military ruler.
It may be that his oft-criticised unassertive diplomatic style strikes a chord with Than Shwe.
Mr Ban certainly seems to feel he has a rapport with him, a big claim to make after just one meeting over a year ago – but a claim nonetheless that few other international figures can rival.
What we do know is that Burma’s rulers are prepared to sit in splendid isolation if they feel threatened by international pressure – the networks of tunnels being constructed underneath the new capital, with North Korean help, are testimony to that.
But they do care about their legitimacy and respectability in the world.
Why else take the risk of holding elections next year, albeit elections which will leave the military in a dominant position?
Mr Ban must seduce them with offers of respect away from the comfort zone of their bunkers.
The few people who have any contact with top Burmese officials say they have been genuinely caught off-guard by the storm of international protest over Aung San Suu Kyi.
That the trial has been repeatedly delayed suggests they have concerns – dissident trials are usually rushed through with little due-process – so there is some willingness to acknowledge world reaction.
Measuring the success of Mr Ban’s mission will be difficult.
He may win the release of a number of political prisoners. Some will dismiss this as a mere token, but such concessions do matter.
Mr Ban has a list of those of greatest concern to the UN; some are being held in very harsh conditions. Dozens of political prisoners have died in custody over the years.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party was brutally suppressed by the army
He almost certainly will not obtain Ms Suu Kyi’s release. The real test will be what happens over the next few months – whether a real dialogue can be restarted with the opposition.
Another test will be whether next year’s election can be made more inclusive.
At the moment the main opposition party, Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, says it will only consider taking part if the military government meets a series of demands including the release of political prisoners and changes to the military-drafted constitution.
As it stands, the election result is likely to be dismissed by many countries around the world as too unrepresentative and too tightly controlled by the military to be recognised officially.
Yet Than Shwe clings to the hope that the election will give his rule international legitimacy.
The election will, though, make meaningful changes to the arbitrary way Burma is ruled by a small cabal of military men.
If it can be improved, if the military can be persuaded to allow the opposition a greater role – these are very big ifs – it could offer the country a way out of its current dire predicament.
This is a prize Ban Ki-moon clearly thinks is worth pursuing.
Ban Ki-moon speaks in Burma (ITN news)