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Ban must go to Burma

An opportunity will be wasted if the UN secretary-general does not visit the rogue state while in the area

Published on December 10, 2007

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Bangkok yesterday for a three-day stay. Apart from meeting Thai luminaries and having an audience with His Majesty the King, he must take this opportunity to go to Burma and demonstrate his seriousness and interest in the situation there. He must show that the United Nations, which he leads, is following up on the developments there closely. If he does not go to Burma, this could be an opportunity lost.His visit to Bangkok also coincides with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch. It reveals the harsh reality facing the Burmese people and the lies perpetuated by the junta. According to the report, many more Burmese were killed and imprisoned in the violent crackdown on monks and protesters in September than the junta has admitted.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that at least 20 were killed and thousands jailed. UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro put the number at 31 killed, 74 still missing and 650 in custody. The junta said that only 15 people were killed in the crackdown.

The HRW report, which was based on more than 100 interviews with eyewitnesses in Burma and Thailand, concluded that the junta's security forces shot into crowds using live ammunition and rubber bullets. They beat marchers and monks before dragging them onto trucks and throwing them in jail. In addition to the monks, many students and other civilians were killed, although without full and independent access to the country, it is impossible to determine the exact casualty figures.

One of the latest developments the report did not touch on was the increase in the number of arrests and torture of journalists and stringers working for foreign news organisations or news organisations set up by Burmese in exile. Over a dozen Burmese journalists are now behind bars. Several more are currently in hiding. Some journalists were exposed by the junta's militia and volunteers working for the Union of Solidarity and Development Association, and were taken into custody and tortured. These thugs continue to identify persons working for the pro-democracy movement and media organisations.

Therefore, it is imperative that Ban take up this matter with the junta. Since he is in Bangkok, it would not much time for him to travel to Burma. Any resistance on the part of the junta to his visit would be condemned. After all, the junta has pleged to cooperate with the UN, especially its special envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari. The presence of Ban in Rangoon would boost the UN's role and make a strong impression internationally of the UN's seriousness and conviction in seeing this dialogue on national reconciliation proceed.

After a strong show of enthusiasm among members of the UN Security Council and an international outcry, the Burmese junta is buying time, hoping that the will of the international community would soon wane. Meanwhile, the junta is betting on its democratic process, known as the seven-point road map. But this process is not acceptable because the junta is determined to exclude opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the constitution-drafting process. Current consultations, which started last month, continue to be limited and sluggish.

The UN process must be accelerated otherwise it will be stalled and would eventually play into the junta's hands as in the past. As always, the junta is trying to undermine Suu Kyi's role. In the beginning, the junta preferred to deal with pro-democracy students, who turned out to be more lethal and unyielding. Then the junta played the ethnic card against Suu Kyi, trying to drum up support from minority groups that struck cease-fire agreements with the government in exchange for agreeing to turn against her. So far, all of these attempts have proved ineffective. Rangoon is now looking for a way to woo millions of Burmese expatriates living around the world to return and help prop up the regime. It will be a hard sell.

Obviously, the junta is betting that playing the UN card is the best way for it to buy time at this juncture. China and Russia, its allies on the security council, continue to play the role of saviour, no matter what happens. Therefore, it is incumbent on Ban to change the current equation by throwing the UN's weight on the junta.

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