UN chief's Myanmar trip fails to move junta

The UN secretary general had wanted to meet the democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi but authorities refused him access.

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BANGKOK // Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has left Myanmar without being allowed to see the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "I'm deeply disappointed," Mr Ban told journalists at Yangon airport when he arrived by plane from the capital Naypitdaw, after a second meeting with the top junta leader, Gen Than Shwe. "I think they have missed a very important opportunity of demonstrating their willingness to commit to continuing reconciliation with all political leaders. It is a setback to the international community's efforts to provide a helping hand to Myanmar at this time."

Mr Ban was always aware he was on a "very difficult mission" - and that there was a danger of going away empty-handed having served the junta's propaganda purposes. It is unclear whether Mr Ban was able to get any concessions on the major issues they discussed during the two meetings with Than Shwe. These were the release of all political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi as soon as possible, the resumption of talks between the military and the pro-democracy parties, and making sure the planned elections next year are inclusive and credible.

"I was assured that the Myanmar authorities will make sure that this election will be held in a fair and free and transparent manner," Mr Ban said after his first meeting with the general. But the subsequent refusal to allow him to see Ms Suu Kyi must cast doubt on the regime's credibility. "This is not a make or break trip," the secretary general's special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, told The National on the eve of the visit. "The important thing is to keep the process of UN engagement in the country going, and, if possible strengthen and deepen it."

"It's too early to tell whether Than Shwe has completely rebuffed Ban Ki-moon, the regime seldom makes concessions during these kinds of visits. It's usually before or after," said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand and veteran Myanmar watcher. "I sense that there may be a few concessions later, like the release of non-political prisoners, but little else." Diplomats and UN officials in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, believe there will be some goodwill gestures from the regime in the weeks to come. "We can expect some releases of political prisoners - maybe even hundreds as the UN secretary general requested during his talks with the senior general," said a western diplomat in Yangon, on condition of anonymity.

But most analysts fear that the UN's role in brokering national reconciliation between the two sides has hit a dead-end. Opposition activists and western politicians are in no doubt that Mr Ban has been sent away with his tail between his legs. The key option they will be pursuing now is almost inevitably increased sanctions against the junta. "If the Burmese regime refuses to engage, the international community must be prepared to respond robustly," the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, warned in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post on Friday. "We will 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 wrote.

But two decades of UN resolutions and increased sanctions have not moved the regime an inch. "Outside influence on the regime's calculations is minimal," Thant Myint-U, a former senior UN official and author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, recently said in an interview. "The regime is arguably in a much stronger financial position than ever before largely because of its gas sales." Much of that is exported to China and Thailand.

These countries are not going to opt for sanctions. Both Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minster, and Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, recently again dismissed sanctions as a means of moving the generals. But now that the UN seems to have failed to produce concessions, the pressure will be on the regional bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) of which Myanmar is a member, to increase the pressure on the junta to make sure their road map to multiparty democracy is sincere and plausible.

Beijing too will be under more pressure to make sure its ally engages with the international community and is not a continuing embarrassment that they have to reluctantly defend, especially at the UN Security Council. "The UN, the European Union and Asean must now collaborate to convince China to co-operate in finding a solution for the crisis in Burma," Zin Linn, a spokesman for the pro-democracy movement and former political prisoner, said. "The regional players must urge the military regime to abandon its recalcitrant policies in the interests of dialogue and reconciliation."

So Myanmar's allies and neighbours are likely to continue to push for engagement with the junta as the only way forward. After the Asean success in coaxing the regime to accept international assistance and aid workers to help with the country's relief efforts and recovery plans in the aftermath of last year's devastating Cyclone Nargis, through the creation of the Tripartite Core Group which provided a framework for Asean, the UN and the government of Myanmar must work together.

Asean countries are willing to help Myanmar, according to the group's secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, who was instrumental in setting up the new approach. "If it is so desired by the government of the Union of Myanmar, I am sure some of the Asean countries will be willing to share their experiences," he told The National. Three countries in the regional bloc - Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines - have all made the transition from authoritarian military regimes to democracy.

The Asean foreign ministers summit, to be held in Thailand, is only a few weeks away. At that meeting there will also be a one-day session with the region's dialogue partners, which includes Australia, China, Japan, the US and the EU, all with a keen interest in Myanmar, in the Asean Regional Forum. Myanmar is bound to dominate the formal discussions and the bilateral meetings in the margins of the summit. But few expect much to emerge from those meetings either.