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Ban Ki-moon’s Trip to Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 1, 2012

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) after their news conference at Suu Kyi's home in Yangon May 1, 2012. Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) after their news conference at Suu Kyi's home in Yangon May 1, 2012. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

Thus far, Ban Ki-moon’s trip to Myanmar has proven surprisingly productive, and the UN chief has been far more vocal than on previous visits, when he deferred too readily to the then-military regime, and at times even seemed unprepared for the complexities of dealing with Burmese politics, including the tricky ethnic issues. Of course, a lot is changing in Myanmar, opening up room for the UN to play a larger role, and the apparent retirement of former senior general Than Shwe, who appeared to have a visceral disdain for international institutions and outside interlocutors, also plays a role. But Ban seems better briefed, more comfortable, and clearer in his view on Myanmar’s progress. For one, prior to his trip his staff clearly enunciated the enormous potential of Myanmar as a destination for investment, talking it up (over-talking it, in my opinion) in a way that surely pleased both the business community and allies of President Thein Sein, who need results from the reforms in order to stave off hard-liners.

Then, in the country, Ban ki-Moon struck a solid, thoughtful compromise position that, while hardly letting the government off the book, pushed the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi to begin moving away from being an opposition party in (internal) exile and toward becoming a working political party. Suu Kyi seemed to understand this, and gave up her protests over swearing in to the current wording of the Myanmar constitution, thus allowing Parliament to open and the NLD to take its places and launch its agenda. “Politicians sometimes will continue to have differences of opinion, but real leaders demonstrate flexibility for the greater cause of people and for the country,” said Ban.

In addition, rather than simply praising Myanmar’s reforms while ignoring the continuing severe human rights abuses in areas like the Kachin State, Ban —who did call for all countries to end or suspend sanctions —talked in a speech to Parliament of the need for further serious shifts in the Tatmadaw, as well as (somewhat obliquely) the need for a more federal, representative government that is not heavily Burman dominated.

Although Burmese insiders say that Suu Kyi does not yet have a warm relationship with the UN head, who was too willing to defer to the generals in the past, their interactions appear to be improving, which will be critical for a future in which UN agencies, the UN itself, and, potentially in the long-term, peacekeepers, play a growing role in Myanmar.

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