UNITED NATIONS - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar (Burma) for the July 3-4 weekend in what both friends and detractors view as a major political gamble. With an agenda that asks the ruling military junta to open its doors to national "reconciliation" (which would end their solitary rule), Ban is convinced he can persuade the country's recalcitrant leaders that reforms are for their own good.
The deck is stacked against him. He arrived on the day the show trial against opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 64. was due to resume but then was delayed a week on a technicality, a sign perhaps that the leadership does care about international opinion. She 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.
Suu Kyi was transferred to prison after spending more than 13 of the past 19 years secluded in house arrest after her party, the National League for Democracy, won a huge victory in 1990 elections but the military refused to budge. Without any relief for Suu Kyi - and only the reclusive junta leader Senior General Than Shwe can grant that - Ban's visit may disappoint.
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 the international workers helped save half a million people from ruin. Sadly, they arrived only after some 140,000 people had died, countless others lost their homes and at least 21 Burmese aid workers who sought to help survivors were jailed.
This time Ban's goals are politically more ambitious and he listed three in several news conferences:
"First, the release of all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; the resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition as a necessary part of any reconciliation process; and third, the need to create conditions conducive to credible elections next year."
Without the release of political prisoners, estimated at some 2,100, the opposition party will not consider negotiating with the military.
On Friday, Ban met Than Shwe, 76, in the remote administrative capital of Naypyidaw, built in 2005 and reachable by air or by bumpy roads. (When annoyed at the world body, Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian diplomat who has traveled to Myanmar on behalf of the secretary-general several times, was forced to go by road, although last week he flew by air, diplomatic sources said).
"I would like to help move your country forward and appreciate your commitment to moving your country forward," Ban told the general, according to Reuters. He is to meet him again on Saturday. The U.N. chief also asked for a meeting with Suu Kyi, but has not received an answer.
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, writes on these pages that if the Burmese regime refuses to engage, the international community must be prepared to respond robustly. "We should not rest until Aung San Suu Kyi -- and all those who share her commitment to a better and brighter future for Burma -- are able to play their rightful role in it.," he said.
For Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, Myanmar is a challenge. He points with pride at convincing Than Shwe to allow UN agencies to deliver relief after Cyclone Nargis devastated coastal areas last May and after everyone else had failed. He says the international workers helped save half a million people from ruin. Sadly, they arrived only after some 140,000 people had died, countless others lost their homes and at least 21 Burmese aid workers who sought to help survivors were jailed.
Laura Bush, the former first lady who made Burma a personal project, wrote recently in the Washington Post that it was crucial Ban press the regime to take immediate steps to end human rights abuses, particularly in ethnic minority areas where rape was common.
"Inside Burma, more than 3,000 villages have been forcibly displaced -- a number exceeding the mass relocations in genocide-racked Darfur. The military junta has forced tens of thousands of child soldiers into its army and routinely uses civilians as mine-sweepers and slave laborers...Human trafficking, where women and children are snatched and sold, is pervasive. Summary executions pass for justice, while lawyers are arrested for the 'crime' of defending the persecuted."
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.
Various U.N. bodies have adopted some 38 resolutions against Myanmar without results. The 15-nation U.N. Security Council, whose resolutions are binding, was thwarted by a double veto from China and Russia (supported by South Africa) in January 2007. But the new trumped up charges against Suu Kyi elicited a unanimous statement from the Council in May calling for her release and that of all political prisoners.
"There is a real danger that Burma's general will try to use Ban's visit to legitimize the 2010 elections," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement before the visit. He said that returning Suu Kyi from prison to house arrest would not make the visit a success.
Western diplomats are divided on Ban's trip. They welcome the U.N. chief bringing Burma to the world's attention again. (The junta renamed the country Myanmar, which the U.N. but not the United States and other nations recognize). But they also fear that if he does not come away with substantial progress, his visit would serve to give the generals legitimacy. And that progress centers on Suu Kyi.
Follow Evelyn Leopold on Twitter: www.twitter.com/evjournalist