UNITED NATIONS - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar (Burma) for the July 3-4 weekend in what turned out to be a major political gamble -- with no discernible results so far.
Ban is probably the only world figure of stature who can meet the country's reclusive 76-year old leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and did so for two days in the remote administrative capital Naypyidaw. But the ruling junta turned down his request to meet opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in prison on trumped up charges of violating her house arrest.
The U.N. secretary-general had ambitious goals: the release of the more than 2,000 political prisoners, a dialogue between the military and Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy and "the need to create conditions conducive to credible elections next year." None of these were fulfilled -- at least not during his visit.
Still Ban told reporters traveling with him he was optimistic political prisoners would eventually be released. "I believe they are very seriously considering releasing political prisoners, if not soon, at the latest before the beginning of this election," he said, according to Reuters reporter Louis Charbonneau.
But Ban said the general did not want to interfere with the judicial process involving Suu Kyi's trial. He said he urged the junta to drop charges against Suu Kyi and other political leaders but received no guarantees.
Suu Kyi, 64, and in fragile health, was jailed after John Yettaw, an American Mormon, swam to her home, saying he had a vision that she would be assassinated by terrorists. She had never met him but is still accused of violating terms of her arrest.
She was transferred to prison after spending more than 13 of the past 19 years secluded in house arrest after her National League for Democracy party won a huge victory in 1990 elections but the military refused to budge.
For Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, Myanmar is a challenge. He points with pride at convincing Than Shwe to allow U.N. agencies to deliver relief after Cyclone Nargis devastated coastal areas last May and after everyone else had failed. He says international aid helped save half a million people from ruin. Sadly, they arrived only after some 140,000 people had died and at least 21 Burmese aid workers who sought to help survivors were jailed.
Public Rebuke to Military
Ban, before leaving the country on Saturday, spoke to local non-governmental organizations, diplomats and U.N. agencies in the commercial hub Yangon. He outlined his vision for Myanmar, stressing democracy, human rights and development. His remarks were distributed by the United Nations.
"We want to work with you so your country can take its place as a respected and responsible member of the international community. We want to help you achieve national reconciliation, durable peace and sustainable development. But, let me emphasize: neither peace nor development can thrive without democracy and respect for human rights.... Peace, development and human rights are closely inter-related. Failure to address them with equal attention will risk undermining the prospects."
Ban then rebuked the junta in front of a local audience, a rarity in Myanmar.
"When I met General Than Shwe yesterday and today, I asked to visit Ms. Suu Kyi. I am deeply disappointed that he refused. I believe the government of Myanmar has lost a unique opportunity to show its commitment to a new era of political openness."
"Allowing a visit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been an important symbol of the government's willingness to embark on the kind of meaningful engagement that will be essential if the elections in 2010 are to be seen as credible."
Although sanctions have been imposed by the United States and many European nations, Burma's neighbors, including India and China, trade liberally in timber and other natural resources. And the giant French-based oil company Total does a thriving business, arguing that if it left, another oil company would take its place and pay less attention to the plight of its employees.
Gordon Brown on Sanctions
In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a statement attacked the "obstinacy" of the government for not allowing Ban to meet Suu Kyi and hinted at sanctions.
"I hope that there is still the possibility of a change of approach from Burma but if not, my sad conclusion is that the Burmese regime has put increased isolation, including the possibility of further sanctions, on the international agenda."
Various U.N. bodies have adopted some 38 resolutions against Myanmar without results. China and Russia oppose any robust U.N. Security Council action, including sanctions.
The fear remains among U.N. diplomats and human rights groups that the military would not relinquish any power (unless some troops rebel) and that Ban's visit could be used to solidify the junta's rule in the 2010 elections. Much of it depends on the fate of Suu Kyi - the symbol of resistance to the junta. If she stays in jail or returns to house arrest, few will have hope for change in Burma.