The intricacies of U.N., Ban Ki-moon’s role in Burma

Published on October 20, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen 

Special to The China Post – October 20, 2008

On March 14, 2008, I authored an analytical article entitled “Don’t Blame Gambari” in reference to Ibrahim Gambari’s largely perceived unyielding mission to Burma.

The article discussed how the Special Advisor was assigned a critical diplomatic task without an enforcement power from the U.N. Security Council. His latest August visit was also bashed by the Burmese opposition as an abject failure. The National League for Democracy (NLD) called it a “waste of time.” 

With the U.N. Special Advisor’s diplomatic efforts seemingly waning, voices of concern and frustration have overwhelmed the good offices of the 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 Asia.  

When Ban Ki-moon became the first Asian to hold the Secretary General’s post after U Thant of Burma (1961-1971), there was high expectation for some sort of solution to Burma’s political problems.

Unambiguously, the office of the U.N. Secretary General has embarked on a number of unprecedented initiatives in attempts to effect change in Burma. It is rather a question of efficacy. One most notable of Ban’s involvement is the formation of ‘Group of Friends of the Secretary General on Myanmar.’  

In the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, the U.N. 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 Senior General Than Shwe and the United Nations leadership. 

Last month, the Secretary General convened a “high-level” meeting of the ‘Group of Friends.’ The Security Council in its report published: “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, many analysts are skeptical on 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 United Nations continued engagement in Burma, opinions are noticeably differing on approaches and existing applied strategies. 

In his October 7 press briefing, Ban Ki-moon 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 roadmap before the 2010 election.  

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

The good offices of the Secretary General have given its shots, 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 surprising move by China and Russia siding with the three other permanent members or abstaining from voting. 

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).