UN Chief Speaks Out Against Lack of Human Rights

Using the power of his office, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon achieved a rare diplomatic feat during his recent visit to military-ruled Burma. He broke a taboo by delivering a public speech about the lack of democracy and human rights in the country.

So far, the notoriously prickly regime, which controls the South-east Asian nation with an iron grip, has accepted Ban’s verbal thrust without an outburst. But Burma watchers wonder how long that silence will last, given the regime is known to lash out at U.N. officials who have made public statements in the country about the debilitating effects of ignoring political and civil liberties.

“Neither peace nor development can thrive without democracy and respect for human rights,” the world body’s top diplomat said over the weekend to an audience of diplomats, U.N. officials and staff from aid agencies in Rangoon, the former capital. “Peace, development and human rights are closely inter-related.”

“Myanmar’s human rights record remains a matter of grave concern,” Ban added, using the name of the country that the junta opts for, instead of Burma. “Myanmar’s way forward must be rooted in respect for human rights.”

Ban’s speech, on the last of his two-day stay in Burma, also touched on the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has spent over 14 years either under house arrest or in Rangoon’s Insein Prison. He called for the release of the Nobel Peace laureate and the over 2,100 political prisoners languishing in Burmese jails.

“Aung San Suu Kyi must be allowed to participate in the political process without further delay,” Ban said after being denied a chance to meet the 64-year-old Suu Kyi, currently being held in the Insein Prison as part of a bizarre trial after a U.S. citizen showed up as an uninvited guest in her home in early May after he swam there across a lake.

Little wonder why Ban’s critical comments – which shatter the illusion being created by the regime that it is on the right track as part of its “roadmap to democracy,” including a planned general election in 2010 – is being welcomed in some quarters.

In the past, the junta has not been kind to the far less provocative and milder comments about the shortcomings of the regime’s model for democracy and the humanitarian situation made by Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. special envoy to Burma, and Charles Petrie, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the country.

Gambari was given a dressing down by Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan in March last year for comments the Nigerian diplomat made about flaws in the “democratic” political process being pushed by the junta. Gambari said that the U.N. wanted this push, including the new constitution, to be inclusive, accommodating the opposition.

Petrie paid a different price for speaking his mind in a press release issued in October 2007. The junta refused to renew his visa, prompting an early departure from his post, after the head of the United Nations Development Programme deplored the “deteriorating humanitarian situation” in the country

The regime described that statement as “unprecedented” and “very negative.”

But by going many steps further, Ban’s speech is being described as “encouraging” by the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratically elected government forced into exile after the regime refused to recognised the results of the 1990 general elections.

“This is the first time that someone has been so openly critical about the reality in Burma,” says Bo Hla Tint, the foreign minister of the NCGUB. “It was important for Mr. Ban to tell the regime how the U.N. sees the problem in Burma.”

“The U.N. secretary-general’s role is important to bring change in Burma,” the minister in the exile government told IPS. “It has to be part of a long serious political process, and not just a one-time event.”

The personal commitment shown by Ban to usher in an open and inclusive democratic culture in Burma is being well received by the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc of which Burma is a member.

“The prime minister, as the chair of ASEAN, supports the U.N. secretary-general’s trip to Myanmar and he wants to ensure that the U.N. keeps engaging the Myanmar government,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, the acting spokesman for the Thai government. “We will see from this point onwards what more can be done now that the U.N. secretary-general has delivered his message.”

Such a regional response marks a departure from the harsh comments by Western governments that saw Ban’s trip as a failure, achieving barely any concessions from the junta. A key to this dismissive stance was Ban being denied access to meet Suu Kyi.

“Although we know that expectations among some in the international community was very high and they wanted the secretary-general to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, it is not fair to say the mission was a failure because the meeting did not take place,” added Panitan in an interview. “The issues are much more complex and beyond this single issue.”

But for the current U.N. engagement to achieve political reform in Burma more is required, say human rights groups that have continued to expose the litany of abuse in a country that has been under the grip of successive military regimes since a 1962 coup.

“Setting the standards through a speech is the easiest thing to do; achieving the standards is the difficult part,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global rights watchdog. “That is where the hard work and effort is going to be.” “The average person in Burma will find Ban’s speech patronising,” Mathieson told IPS. “They expect more from the U.N.”

Marwaan Macan-Markar