UN Chief Has Good Intention

Published on July 3, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – July 3, 2009

After weeks of uncertainty, the United Nations secretary general is scheduled to make a two-day visit to the military-ruled Burma from July 3-4. This comes after Ibrahim Gambari’s, secretary general’s special envoy, two-day visit to the country from June 26-27.

Ban Ki-moon, who is Asian himself, has good intention to help bring a democratic change to Burma, the country which had the last U.N. secretary general from Asia. U Thant was head of the world body from 1961 to 1971.

The U.N. chief’s visit is expected to center around three important issues: to press ahead with democratic reforms in the country; to urge the junta to release political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; and to press for inclusive and credible election in 2010.

There are two schools of thoughts on the secretary general’s visit. There are groups who advocate that Ban needs to go to Burma regardless of what the outcome might be and press for the release of political prisoners. There are others those who believe that the visit could legitimize Suu Kyi’s trial and this could demean the position of the secretary general.

This mission is partly a continuation of the secretary general’s good offices’ ongoing engagement, and also due to the overwhelming appeals by several rights organizations and democracy activists.

In December 2008, 112 former presidents and prime ministers urged the secretary general to visit Burma and press the military junta to release all political prisoners before the year end. Ban stated that he would visit Burma when he sees the likelihood of any positive outcome.

The continued arrest of dissidents in recent months and the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi have compelled the secretary general to embark this mission. Ban and Gambari received over 670,000 signatures worldwide urging them to press the military junta to release over the 2100 political prisoners.

“The release of all political prisoners is the first and most important step toward freedom and democracy in Burma,” said the petition submitted to the secretary general’s office on June 16. The signatures were reported to have been collected in 10 weeks.

Through Gambari, the U.N. chief may have been given assurance of the military regime’s willingness to reach some sort of compromise with the opposition groups in the face of mounting international pressures and condemnations.

It is largely expected that Ban will meet the military chief Than Shwe, perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.N. chief may be able to convince Than Shwe to release some prisoners, including political prisoners. However, leading dissidents of the 1988 democracy uprising are unlikely to be released anytime soon.

In an attempt to bring credibility to the upcoming election in 2010, the military may like to resume dialogue with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The junta will ask the NLD to annul the 1990 general election result. In return, the NLD will ask for the release of its leader Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

The opposition is expected to ask for the review of the basic principles of the military drafted constitution. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is unlikely to agree to making any major changes to the constitution, which guarantees 25% seats in the parliament for the military.

The SPDC will try to convince the visiting U.N. chief that ethnic minorities participated in the constitution drafting and are willing to participate in the upcoming election. In the absence of any U.N. mediation or international observers, the ethnic minorities will be forced to cast votes anyway.

Than Shwe and his military commanders understand that the U.N. chief has a limited power without endorsement from the Security Council. There is no foreseeable sign of the Security Council’s intervention as long as China and Russia maintain friendly relations with the Burmese military regime.

In the absence of strong international backing or unusual development within the military, the eight visit of Ibrahim Gambari and the much anticipated second visit of Ban Ki-moon cannot deliver the much needed democratic change, which represents the rights of all ethnic nationalities of the Union of Burma.

Given the nature of the limited roles and powers they have, Ban and Gambari should not be blamed entirely for the failure of the U.N. mission.

Neither sanctions nor engagement alone is effective. It is a coordinated international strategy which is needed to deal with the Burmese military junta.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.