The Intricacies of Ban’s Role in Burma

Published on October 14, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Irrawaddy – October 14, 2008


Earlier this year, I authored an analytical article entitled “Don’t Blame Gambari” in reference to how Ibrahim Gambari’s unyielding mission to Burma had been largely perceived.


The article discussed how the UN special advisor was assigned a critical diplomatic task without an enforcement power from the UN Security Council. His latest visit in August was decried by the Burmese opposition as abject failure. The National League for Democracy (NLD) called it a “waste of time.”


With the UN special advisor’s diplomatic efforts seemingly waning, voices of concern and frustration have overwhelmed the good offices of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


One advantage the secretary-general might have over his special advisor, who is a Nigerian diplomat, is that Ban was a South Korean career diplomat who may be better versed in dealing with Asians.


When Ban became the first Asian to hold the secretary-general’s post after U Thant of Burma, there was high expectation for some sort of solution to Burma’s political problems.


Unambiguously, the office of the UN secretary-general has embarked on a number of unprecedented initiatives in attempts to effect change in Burma. One most notable aspect of Ban’s involvement is the formation of the “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar [ Burma ].”


In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the UN secretary-general made a humanitarian visit to Burma. Although not expressed explicitly, Ban could have sensed the xenophobic nature of the isolated military leaders. This was the last meeting between Snr-Gen Than Shwe and the UN leadership.


Last month, Ban convened a “high-level” meeting of the Group of Friends. The Security Council reported: “The members of the Group expressed continued support for the Secretary-General’s Good Offices and encouraged Myanmar to use this channel to address key issues of concern to the international community.”


Burma activists and analysts alike are divided on whether Ban Ki-moon should make a second visit to Burma. Proponents are of the view that his visit may boost the democratization process; whereas other analysts are skeptical of the probability of any democratic change without the Security Council’s mandate.


While the majority of political pundits may agree on the necessity and vitality of the UN’s continued engagement in Burma, opinions are noticeably differing on approaches and existing applied strategies.


In his October 7 press briefing, Ban told reporters in New York that “…you should also know that without any tangible or very favorable results to be achieved, then I may not be in a position to visit Myanmar.” The NLD was quick to welcome the statement.


It is very unlikely, at least for now, that the military that proceeded with a referendum to adopt a new constitution in the midst of Cyclone Nargis will swerve or scuttle the proposed seven-step “road map” before the 2010 election.


The State Peace and Development Council understands the ineffectiveness of the United Nations’ engagement in the absence of Security Council’s mandate. The recent strained relations between Western countries and Russia might have also widened the gap of cooperation within the Security Council.


The good offices of the secretary-general have given it a shot – but with no bullets. If no change is happening from within Burma, the international community might have to wait a day for the Security Council veto system to change, or a surprise move by China and Russia to side with the three other permanent members or abstain from voting.


At this juncture, even if Ban chooses to visit Burma, not much should be expected out of it. However, the UN’s continued engagement is very essential.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the general secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).