No one should be frustrated or surprised that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon left Burma empty-handed after his brief visit there last week. After all, he arrived there empty-handed on a mission he said at the outset would be “tough.”
He must, however, have been expecting to achieve more, for he said he had been “deeply disappointed” by the results of his two-day stay.
The generals in their remote capital, Naypyidaw, were more realistic—they knew that the UN chief was armed with no intimidating weapon, only words. Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe just shook his head when Ban asked for permission to see detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. His true mission, to persuade Than Shwe to free Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, was doomed from the start.
Than Shwe and his generals acted in the confident knowledge that if they rebuffed Ki-moon the possible repercussions would certainly exclude the one they fear the most—an Iraq-like invasion.
They would have calculated that more economic sanctions would be imposed. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after Ban returned from Burma that the world was prepared to “respond robustly” to the junta.
“So what?” was undoubtedly their reaction. For all their negative effects, sanctions pose no direct threat to the regime, which can continue to rely on the income from sales of its natural resources to keep it securely in power.
However, critics believe that the junta fears the UN Secretary Council. The Burma issue is sure to be raised before the Security Council in August, when the UK has the chair, and in September, when the US takes over the position.
Ban is expected to brief the UN Security Council about his Burma visit and it’s felt that this time, because of his humiliation at the hands of the generals, he might express himself more forcefully than ever.
Burma can still, of course, count on the support of China and Russia and the veto power they wield in the Security Council. There is no sign of change in that scenario.
Ban is not the only one to blame for that. The world is deeply divided and the junta exploits this failure to present a united stand in the face of its oppression of the Burmese people.
Only when the international divisions over the Burma issue are overcome will the UN be able to arm its secretary-general and special envoys with the means they need to force the regime to change its ways.
Only then will any UN mission to secure the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners have any chance of success. Only then can the first steps be taken towards national reconciliation.
Until that day, Suu Kyi will remain in detention or even behind bars. Political prisoners will continue to die in Burma’s gulags. National reconciliation will remain a day dream.
By their treatment of Ban Ki-moon and other UN envoys, the generals illustrate the truth of the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In this case, countless times means shame on us.
So the next time the UN undertakes a mission to Burma, expectations should stay low if it goes there with empty hands, for it will surely return again empty-handed.