Myanmar's ruling junta wanted Ban Ki-moon
to go into a grandiose drug museum through the back door to prevent
the U.N. secretary-general from making a rock-star entrance.
Ban eventually did walk through the front door - a small victory
after he had lost far bigger battles, notably a hoped-for meeting
with jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong sahn
After a two-day visit in which the generals tried to
stage-manage the world's top diplomat at every step, Ban left the
country with few prospects of even slightly loosening the iron grip
on power held by military regime and its junta chief, Senior Gen.
If people saw Ban acting independently in Myanmar "that would
cause Than Shwe to lose face," said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar
expert at Japan's Meio University. "So they want to manipulate
By snubbing Ban, the country's military rulers lost an
opportunity to improve its standing among many of the world's
nations that view the struggling country with rich reserves of gas
and minerals as a pariah.
Inside Myanmar, Suu Kyi's opposition party said Than Shwe
(pronounced TAHN SHWAY) showed he is unwilling to permit real
change ahead of the 2010 elections, which would be the first in two
Ban had asked to make his closing speech to diplomats and
humanitarian groups Saturday at a hotel, but the junta refused and
forced him to instead speak at the government's Drug Elimination
Ban's staff didn't want his presence there - where a wax figure
depicts a military intelligence chief chopping opium poppies, which
Myanmar views as a scourge introduced by colonialists - to appear
like another prop furthering the government's agenda
"They fought us over every last detail," said a U.N. official
who took part in organizing the trip, speaking anonymously and out
of protocol because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Ban - whose mild-mannered facade belies a toughness and
occasional temper - would have preferred a tete-a-tete with Than
Shwe to having note-taking aides around, an example of his belief
in his ability to sway recalcitrant world leaders if only he can
get them alone in a room.
But Than Shwe's idea of a tete-a-tete was to pit himself and the
other four generals who together make up the ruling State Peace and
Development Council against Ban and some high-ranking U.N. deputies
in the rarely visited capital of Naypyitaw, according to U.N.
The 76-year-old Than Shwe suggested that Ban might not be
invited back until after the elections.
Ban said Than Shwe promised to hand over power to civilians
after the elections. But the generals refused to follow U.N.
recommendations intended to prevent sham elections, including
publishing an election law and freeing Suu Kyi and 2,200 other
political prisoners to ensure general participation.
"Only then will the elections be seen as credible and
legitimate," Ban told reporters Monday in Geneva, Switzerland.
The government refused to honor the results of the 1990
elections after Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide. The junta
tolerates no dissent and crushed pro-democracy protests led by
Buddhist monks in September 2007.
At the end of the trip, Ban tried to defuse the notion he was
He said the visit was an opportunity to plant seeds that could
blossom later and that he was dutifully relaying the international
community's message the elections must be seen as credible.
In the meantime, Ban said he will keep talks alive with Than
Shwe through the so-called Group of Friends on Myanmar.
That approach hasn't nudged Myanmar on key issues. Nor have
eight previous visits by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban's top envoy to
Myanmar, produced many results.
"Than Shwe is using the United Nations as a way of buying time
or distracting people from the main issues, so it isn't very
constructive," Seekins said. "I don't think Than Shwe is willing
to make political concessions, especially concerning Aung San Suu
Kyi. I think he would really like to put her away in jail and not
have to worry about her."
In the absence of Suu Kyi, it was left to Ban to deliver
unusually stinging remarks about the government, its pummeling of
human rights and the urgent need to set a new course.
When he took the stage at the museum, it was a rarity in the
military's half-century of dominance - an outside political figure
allowed to say what he wants.
And after much haggling, Ban's black Mercedes was allowed to
pull up to the front door of the museum. There, his motorcade
disgorged a small entourage of aides and a half-dozen international
journalists. Local press awaited him inside.
That also ensured an audience for him in Myanmar and beyond -
another small victory.
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