No Time Like the Present
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
In May, when news of American warships near Burma’s shores reached survivors of Cyclone Nargis, they were immediately cheered by the possibility of humanitarian intervention. Abandoned by the Burmese regime and struggling to feed themselves, they could do little else but hope for deliveries of food and medicine from foreign troops.
In the end, they were disappointed to learn that the warships had left without coming to their assistance. Once again, the tantalizing fantasy of a sudden, dramatic collapse of tyranny in Burma vanished, leaving only lingering questions about what the international community would be willing to do to free this long-oppressed country.
Overthrowing the regime of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his minions, who rule from their distant capital of Naypyidaw, could be accomplished in a matter of hours. Then opposition and ethnic leaders, including those who are now serving long prison sentences, could step in to form a caretaker government during a transition period that would last just a few months before elections could be held.
Unlike Iraq, Burma would not require a protracted occupation or a costly commitment to nation-building. Billions of dollars might need to be pumped into the country at first, but probably no more than what the US now spends in a single month to keep Iraq from imploding. It would be a small price to pay to see a tyrant removed from power and a free Burma reborn.
US President George W Bush, who met with exiled activists in Bangkok in August, has offered his symbolic support for the cause of democracy in Burma, but many wonder if there isn’t more he could do to help the Burmese people achieve their dream of freedom.
Unfortunately, Burma’s fate is still in the hands of Than Shwe, the man who refused to speak with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2-3.
Ban, who eventually received an audience with the recalcitrant general, was careful not to raise political issues during his visit in late May. He merely appealed to Than Shwe to allow humanitarian aid workers into the country. Of course, the fate of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who at that time was just coming to the end of her fifth year under house arrest, was completely off the agenda.
After Ban’s visit, many Burmese bitterly joked that the UN had once again saved the day—for the regime.
For Than Shwe, the visit only served to send a clear message that he remains firmly in control. In the months since Ban’s departure from Burma, the aging general has pursued his political agenda of forcing the country to accept his vision of a “disciplined democracy” with renewed vigor.
While the UN continues to demand the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners, the junta has added hundreds more to their ranks. This outrage prompted 112 former world leaders, including former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George H W Bush, former British prime ministers Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and former Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi, to call on the UN chief to return to Burma.
In a petition organized by Norway’s ex-prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, they urged Ban to meet with Burmese leaders to push for the release of detained activists and politicians. Even if a return trip was not possible, they said, he should “make it clear that all political prisoners in Burma must be released by the end of this year.”
Ban’s response was disappointing for Burma watchers, and devastating for the country’s political prisoners. He said that he would not visit because it would be futile to do so at this time. In other words, he conceded defeat—although all he would admit to was feeling “frustrated” by the lack of progress.
On December 5, soon after a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Burma, Ban tried to put a positive spin on the latest chapter in the UN’s never-ending saga of failure in the Southeast Asian country.
Speaking to reporters, he said: “The Government of Myanmar [Burma] has officially declared that cooperation with the United Nations is a cornerstone of their foreign policy. We welcome it and we look forward to continue, and expect a concrete action by them to implement their commitment.”
It is, of course, impossible to believe anything the junta says about its willingness to “cooperate”—this is, after all, a regime that has lied repeatedly to the people of Burma and to the international community. But Ban seemed to accept it, if only because it absolved him of his duty to take more decisive action.
But Ban has not ruled out the possibility of returning to Burma when the time is right.
“I am ready to visit Myanmar again, to continue our consultations on various issues—humanitarian issues, and also political issues,” he said. “At this time, I do not think that the atmosphere is ripe for me to undertake my own visit there.”
Ban fails to acknowledge, however, that it is his responsibility to create the conditions that will make the junta more receptive to his message. It makes no sense to leave the prospect of change to the initiative of a regime that has clung to power for two decades. If the UN wants to help, it must do it now—not when it is convenient.
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