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Ban Ki-moon Goes to Myanmar: What He Should Be Looking For

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 25, 2012

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Myanmar later this week to observe the country's democratic transition. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Myanmar later this week to observe the country's democratic transition. (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters)


The UN secretary general is shortly headed to Myanmar to observe the country’s reforms, and ahead of his visit his special advisor on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told the press that the country had the potential to be the next Asian tiger, as it emerges from its hibernation and begins to attract significant investment. But Ban, who in the past has taken a relatively meek approach to the Myanmar government and military, should be coming in this time more empowered, able to go where he wants, and able to try and answer some of the big questions about the reform process. During his visit, he should try to address the following themes:

  • Who is in charge of the conflict in the Kachin area? While the government has worked effectively and promisingly toward ending, for good, many of the conflicts in ethnic minority areas, the conflict in the Kachin area continues to spiral downhill toward full-scale war. Some Burmese officials suggest that the president does not support the way the military has handled the Kachin conflict. Is this true —which would suggest that the military has an enormous amount of freedom still in its regional commands? Is it false, and is Thein Sein just being used as reformist cover? Either way, some clearer answers need to emerge, as well as a comprehensive policy for handling Kachin refugees.
  • Is the international community going to have any coordination in how it handles the reforms, as well as new investment going into Myanmar? During the past two decades, most major democracies, including the United States, Japan, Australia, Europe, and Canada operated relatively cohesively in dealing with Myanmar. Sure, there were divisions on Myanmar policy —Japan often wanted to engage more, and at times so did Australia and several European nations. The types of sanctions differed somewhat; the type and nature of aid differed among democracies. But overall, a general consensus held. Now, with reforms happening quickly, sanctions being suspended or lifted, and aid and investment beginning to flow in, any consensus seems to have been lost. The problem could arise as has happened in Cambodia, where savvy prime minister Hun Sen has learned to play different donors off of each other, with the result of him almost always getting his way —to the detriment of Cambodia’s rule of law and approach toward corruption. Some more effective consensus needs to arise on Myanmar among the major Western democracies, in order to avoid aid duplication, provide channels for effective investment, coordinate policies on refugees and rights, and other issues. The UN would be the obvious player to lead that coordination.
  • What are the new red lines in Myanmar for civil society? Until two years ago, the red lines were pretty clear: There was basically no freedom of the press, assembly, speech, etc, and there was no allowed opposition to government. Now, the red lines have become blurrier — and in some ways, harder for Myanmar civil society to interpret. The press is freer, and yet officials are still pushing editors to censor some publications, and still arresting some journalists. As a result, as in China, journalists in Myanmar now do not know what will or won’t get them in trouble. The same blurriness applies to union protests, political campaigning, NGO work, and other types of civil society actions.
  • How engaged will China be with the leading democracies during the reform process?  In some other countries, China has participated in donor groups, even if it has not been willing to coordinate its aid with other countries. China also has an enormous stake in Myanmar’s stability and prosperity, more so than any other country except Thailand; I do not believe that China necessarily prefers an authoritarian government in Myanmar, especially if that authoritarian government pursued policies that led to poverty and conflict. A stable, democratic government would, I think, be fine with China, but in the period between authoritarian rule and a stable democracy (a period which could be a long, long, long time) will China be a net positive actor pushing toward that democracy, even if that push leads to instability for a period of time? Or will it prove nostalgic for the more closed, authoritarian Myanmar during the reform period, and its instability?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Ye Soe

    Thank you first of all for using our country’s rightful name” Myanmar”. Please allow me to comment on Kachin issue. You should not overlook the fact that Kachin insurgents are aided and protected by Chinese and they are residing in China. Even the initial peace talks were held inside China’s territory. China will never wish to see peaceful Kachin – a resource-rich region already considered as an appendage of Southern China and from which jade, timber, minerals are being siphoned out in huge scale. Although it was not featured in western media, in 2009, a number of ammunition factories set up by China were discovered in Kokang, north eastern Shan State. The attempt by the government security forces(police) were fiercely resisted by Chinese. After exchange of fire which dragged on for some days, Chinese, Kokang insurgent leader , his family and some troops retreated into China. China refused to repatriate those insurgence until now. In the 50s and until now, Burmese Communist Party supported by China has been operating inside China and BCP Chairman resides in Beijing. China has always used dual policy towards Myanmar- on one hand, it portrays itself as “good neighbour” in the international arena, on the other hand, it stages and funds the insurgents so that the conflict areas will remain as “no man’s land” to their maximum benefit.

  • Posted by Po Thikyar

    After I read Joshua Kurlantzick articles and Ye Soe’s comment about Chinese involvement I iwant to discuss the four questions put up by Joshua Kurlantzick
    (1).Who is in charge of the conflict in the Kachin area?
    North eastern part of Myanmar is always a hot spot within Myanmar for China . They always want to keep an armed proxy in this area..BCP, Wa and now they choose the Kachin.The solution is not only military, but the first step is Military, stop fighting. It will take a long time to regain the trust of Kachin,if Army continues fighting, Kachin will look across borders for their same ethnic people, then China will involveKachin will have to pay back in some ways. Kachin leaders recently challenge that they will secede if Federal constitution is refused. Even in 1962 the pioneers of Federalism did not openly threatened to secede Don;t take it as only a word.They have brothers and Sisters across the borders. If seceded China will be their natural and only one choice.Myanmar will lost a oone buffer teritory. There is a Myanmar saying “don’t slash a thin dog at the corner” Myanmar Army is very proud of their might over the ethinic army. Don’t forget that the would be big brother is standing behind..

    Look back at the history CCP fully support the BCP at the Borderline with arm, uniforms, trainings. Only after death of Mao policy changed to noninterference and BCP weakened. Even Myanmar Army sacraficed thousands of lives to fight the BCP without support.
    (2).Is the international community going to have any coordination in how it handles the reforms, as well as new investment going into Myanmar?
    (3)..What are the new red lines in Myanmar for civil society?
    (4).How engaged will China be with the leading democracies during the reform process?

    Comments to Question no (1) Min Aung Hlaing is in charge, but he should think as a Politician and Statesmen rather than the plain Soldier. He can killed as many Kachins and win the battle, but he can’t win the total war . He is the one to whom Ban Ki-moon should talked to.

    Comments to Question No (2) Don’t let loose the rein of coordinated control because of greed for investment. Kachin case is the meter. International community should pay according to the meter.

    Comments (3) Don’t worry, I think Myanmar media and Government can managed themselves.

    Coments to Question no (4) China is no more an isolated Hermit. It has Globalized rapidely during the last two decades.It is the moral obligation of the democratic countries to persuade China to adopted less profit oriented policy towards Myanmar and Myanamar would established a political balanced, environmentally balanced and non-totally dependent trade with China.

    I hope Ban’s visit will embrace most of my comments.

  • Posted by Unitarist

    All Burmese or Myanmars must stop sleep walking. Because of the Panglong legacy Burma had to suffer so much. SuuKyi is either ignorant of it or simply in denial of it.
    What a tragedy! So-called democracy activists want federalism; so very blind to the implications. Burmese army must be very strong and play the most important role in protecting the sovereignty of Burma.
    All these so-called democracy activists completely failed to appreciate the legacy of colonialism and the Panglong timebomb it left behind. What do they want? To turn the so-called kachin State into a second Tibet?
    Only unity can save Burma. So stop talking about federalism and start talking about United Burma! One for all and all for one.

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