Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was the subject of a Security Council briefing by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on July 13, 2009. The Secretary General had just returned from a visit to Myanmar, where he met with its military strongman Than Shwe. He also met with other senior government officials and some members of the opposition, but was denied access to the imprisoned Nobel Peace prize recipient and leading pro-democracy activist in Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
This highly vocal opponent of the military junta is on trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest, which had been illegal in the first place. Aung San Suu Kyi’s only “crime” was standing up to the regime that prevented her from assuming the position of Prime Minister, which she had won as leader of the National League for Democracy party in the 1990 general election. For this “crime”, she faces five years of imprisonment.
In his report to the Security Council, Ban Ki-moon recited the expectations of the international community that he had conveyed to the Myanmar junta. These included the release of all political prisoners, the resumption of dialogue between the government and the opposition and the creation of conditions for inclusive and credible elections. Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep disappointment” in being denied access to Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Myanmar regime, he said, had pledged to turn over power to a civilian government and “to make the elections free and fair". Of course, there are a couple of major catches. Twenty-five percent of the seats must go to candidates with military backgrounds and the winner of the prior general election and leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, is barred from running in next year’s election.
Everyone speaking at the Security Council meeting politely thanked the Secretary General for his report (even the Myanmar Ambassador who spoke right after Ban Ki-moon). Most of the speakers criticized Myanmar’s treatment of the political opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the decision of the junta to bar Ban Ki-moon from visiting her.
Great Britain and France launched the toughest verbal attacks against the Myanmar regime and, like the United States, insisted on using only the old name Burma when referring to the country.
The U.S. speaker was also critical of the Myanmar regime. But an underling, not Ambassador Susan Rice, delivered the speech, indicating a lack of priority on this issue for the American delegation.
Predictably, China was the most conciliatory towards the Myanmar regime, even questioning why the internal affairs of Myanmar belonged on the Security Council agenda. The Chinese delegate dismissed the significance of Ban Ki-moon’s inability to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and praised Myanmar’s progress toward democracy. He called on all countries to lift their sanctions against Myanmar, which reflects China’s disdain for economic sanctions in general.
So there you have it. Another typical day at the United Nations Security Council – solemn declarations and a lot of speechifying but no real solutions to a human rights debacle. In short, a charade accomplishing nothing.
During a very brief press conference held after he delivered his report to the Security Council, the Secretary General was asked how he could believe Senior General Than Shwe’s pledge that the election next year will be free, fair and credible. He responded that he had “made it quite clear that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in particular should be released and free to participate in the election”. Otherwise, he said, “this election may not be regarded as credible and legitimate”.
I give Ban Ki-moon a C for effort, but an F for any concrete results. At minimum, he should have set a firm deadline for the junta to revise the constitution that it rammed down the throats of the people last year, with the threat that he would recommend much tougher sanctions to the Security Council if the deadline were not met. This constitution bars anyone who has previously been married to a foreigner to run for political office – the pretext being used to keep Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a now deceased British academic, out of the running. The UN has to date failed to take any position at all with regard to this sham document, much less press for its overhaul.
A deadline should also have been set for Aung San Suu Kyi’s unconditional release from prison along with the other political prisoners currently being detained for simply expressing their beliefs of conscience.
In a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the All Burma Monk's Alliance, the 88 Generation Students, and All Burma Federation of Student Unions implored him not to “mislead the international community by saying that the military regime will consider your proposals seriously”. The letter warned him that if he continues “to believe the empty assertions of Burma’s generals, you will be fulfilling the desire of Than Shwe and his generals, who want to buy time to finish their plan of legitimizing military rule in Burma through a sham election, scheduled for 2010”. Unfortunately, that is precisely what he has done, whether he meant to or not.
So far all we have seen is a charade of tough words but no action. The oppressed people of Myanmar will be watching to see what happens next.