Thursday, February 05, 2009

Burma: Unless prisoners are freed, Ban's visit pointless - Aung San Suu Kyi

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

A United Nations special envoy ended his seventh visit to Burma this week facing a tall order: secure freedom for some 2,100 political prisoners in the military-ruled country as preliminary to meaningful political reform.

If not, Ibrahim Gambari was told that a planned visit this year by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would be pointless, reports from within the South-east Asian country reveal.

This challenge before Gambari, the envoy, cannot be sidestepped easily, since the demand reportedly came from Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy icon who has spent over 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest.

It was one of four daunting terms placed before the Nigerian diplomat during a rare meeting he had on Monday with the opposition leader Suu Kyi and senior members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

‘’The landscape of his (Gambari’s) current trip has changed. It is the first time that the NLD’s CEC (central executive committee) had held talks with Gambari and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,’’ Nyan Win, the NLD’s spokesman was quoted as having told ‘The Irrawaddy’, a current affairs magazine published by Burmese journalists living in exile.

The other conditions are for the junta to recognise the results of the 1990 parliamentary elections, where the NLD won a massive 392 seats in the 485-seat legislature but the elected ‘’people’s parliament’’ was banned from governing. Once convened, for this elected body to appoint a committee to review the military-sponsored constitution, which was endorsed during a rigged referendum in May 2008.

It is only after that, Gambari was told, that the opposition in Burma, or Myanmar, will begin a dialogue with the junta aimed at prodding the South-east Asian country towards a free and open democracy.

The tough demands placed by Suu Kyi prompted a predictable response from the junta in a local newspaper. ‘’A dialogue will be practical and successful only if the discussions are based on the reality of the prevailing conditions,’’ the ‘New Light of Myanmar’, the regime’s mouthpiece, quoted Information Minister Kyaw Hsan as having said. ‘’I would like to emphasise that there will be no success if it is based on idealism and unrealistic conditions.’’

Similar comments may follow from a regime that has a reputation of barely giving an inch if it fears a threat to its grip on power. ‘’The military regime is not under any pressure for it to listen to the U.N.,’’ Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst, told IPS. ‘’It doesn’t cost them much if Gambari does not come back. They couldn’t care less.’’

Gambari, who left Burma on Tuesday following his four-day mission, has failed to make any headway towards political reform since he began his special mission for the world body in May 2006. Even Ban, who visited the country for the first time following the devastating cyclone that flattened Burma’s south-western coastline in May, has not impressed.

The junta’s contempt for the U.N. was confirmed this week when Senior General Than Shwe, the military regime’s strongman, refused to meet Gambari in a replay of what happened during previous visits. Ban was subjected to a different insult when the junta went back on its promises towards openness for cyclone relief efforts barely weeks after the U.N.’s top diplomat met Than Shwe in 2008.

The opposition’s frustrations with U.N. efforts towards political reform burst to the surface during Gambari’s last visit to the country in August 2008. Suu Kyi refused to meet the U.N. envoy, denying the latter the only proof that talks had had taken place - the photo opportunity.

‘’Political activists inside and outside the country have no confidence in Gambari’s missions,’’ says Khin Ohmar, head of the Network for Democracy and Development (NDD), a group made up of Burmese political exiles. ‘’They have even stopped releasing statements making specific demands just before he arrives.’’

‘’The four conditions made to him are tough and consistent with what the NLD has been saying,’’ Khin Ohmar explained during a telephone interview from Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burmese border. ‘’We have little hopes it will produce any change. There is little room for optimism.’’

‘’The pressure is now on Ban,’’ she added. ‘’He needs to make a personal commitment to secure a meaningful breakthrough if he wants to visit Burma again.’’

But Ban faces a stubborn adversary. The junta is pressing ahead with its own idea of reform, to create a ‘’discipline flourishing democracy,’’ according to a political roadmap it is sticking to. After having won the endorsement of a military-sponsored constitution at the flawed referendum last year, it has set its sights on a general election in 2010.

The political roadmap is a brazen effort by the junta to cement the power of the military, continuing its grip on a beleaguered people who have endured an oppressive culture since the military grabbed power in a 1962 coup.

‘’The NLD’s calls for the release of the political prisoners is an effort to make sure that talk of democracy and reform are meaningful,’’ says Zin Lin, a former NLD member and a former political prisoner now living in exile.

‘’Without releasing the political prisoners there cannot be legitimate elections because the good people who can contest are in jail,'' Zin Lin said.

‘’It is also important for national reconciliation,’’ he asserted in an interview. ‘’Trust between all sides can only be built with the release of all those arrested for their political beliefs.’’
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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