Ban Ki-moon Must Go to Burma
by Min Zin
Posted February 13, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)
Burma's military junta is testing the response of the international community. When world leaders say they are “concerned” about the situation in Burma, then “increasingly concerned,” then “gravely concerned,” and then—inexplicably—just “concerned” again, the generals in the Naypyidaw jungle smile and push forward with their hard-line stance.
It is hardly surprising that the junta is refusing an immediate return of United Nation's Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari and defying the U.N.'s calls for an inclusive national reconciliation process, now that the regime feels confident it is bringing the country back under control after its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations last September.
The generals even rejected the U.N.'s proposal to establish a poverty alleviation commission to address the country's humanitarian crisis, clearly demonstrating the regime's criminal disregard for the Burmese people's welfare.
Indeed, despite U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's repeated warnings that return to the status quo in Burma is not acceptable, that is precisely what is happening. The U.N. and other key international players realize the momentum for international mediation in Burma is fading and are trying to regain it with a swift return visit by Special Envoy Gambari. The Burmese authorities, however, say they will not approve the special envoy's itinerary until mid-April.
Each time the international community bends to the junta's will, the generals are emboldened. When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations caved in to the junta's demands by not allowing Special Envoy Gambari to give a Burma briefing at the Asean summit in November, hardliners in Burma celebrated their victory by stepping up oppression at home and canceling a scheduled visit by Mr. Gambari.
Some Burma lobbyists blame the failure of the special envoy's mission on the weakness of the secretary-general's mandate. “The Burma mandate of Ban Ki-moon, which has now been given by the U.N. General Assembly, must be enhanced and strengthened by the U.N. Security Council,” says Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. But the chances of such an initiative are slim, given China's permanent seat on the Security Council. In other words, the secretary-general may not want to risk a China veto.
Another possible mechanism, apart from a stronger U.N. Security Council mandate, is the “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar,” a group of 14 nations—Australia, Indonesia, Russia, the United States, China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, France, Norway, Thailand, India, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Secretary-General Ban convened the first meeting of the group last Dec. 19 to assist him in his efforts to spur change in Burma. The Group is officially described as “a consultative forum for developing a shared approach in support of the implementation of the Secretary-General's good offices mandate,” and meets informally as needed.
Many analysts wonder if the Group could evolve into multiparty talks on the North Korea model. Some Burma advocates in the U.S. have suggested that the secretary-general convene the next meeting of the Group in an Asian capital such as Jakarta or Beijing, thus drawing regional leaders into the mediation efforts.
In any event, Secretary-General Ban needs to make a decisive move to strengthen his office's role. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group called for the direct involvement of Mr. Ban, saying: “It would be useful for Ban Ki-moon to get more personally involved, particularly at times when negotiations may appear to be deadlocked.” It even urged the secretary-general to pay a personal visit to Naypyidaw in the near future.
Burma's National League for Democracy said it would like to see such a visit. “If Gambari's attempt continues to fail in bringing results,” says NLD spokesman Nyan Win, “Ban Ki-moon himself should visit Burma and let the military generals know clearly that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.”
Diplomatic sources in New York say U.N. officials are concerned about possible embarrassment for the secretary-general if the Burmese junta publicly rejects his entreaties. This week, as NLD members bravely protested outside their headquarters in Yangon, the secretary-general once again urged the junta to allow Special Envoy Gambari to return and move forward with talks with the NLD leadership.
Clearly, this isn't enough. It's time for Ban Ki-moon to call for a new U.N. Security Council mandate on Burma, to mobilize the “Friends of Myanmar,” and lastly to make a personal visit to Naypyidaw. The Burmese people's suffering under the military boot is far greater than any possible discomfiture the secretary-general may experience by being rejected by either the regime or its closest ally, China.
Unless the international community, led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, compels the Burmese junta to feel the cost of rejecting the U.N.'s mediation efforts in Burma, the prospect for reform in the country will remain hopeless.The secretary-general must try his best for Burma.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.