/ 5 July 2009

Ban leaves Burma ‘disappointed’ with junta

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ended a mission to Burma on Saturday saying he was ”deeply disappointed” that the isolated nation’s top military ruler denied him a visit to jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In two days of rare talks with Senior General Than Shwe, the UN chief urged the reclusive 76-year-old autocrat to release Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and embark on democratic reforms ahead of elections scheduled for next year.

But their meetings on Friday and Saturday in Naypyitaw, the junta’s remote administrative capital, left Ban saying that his diplomatic gambit had produced no immediate results and amounted to ”a setback to the international community’s efforts to provide a helping hand to Myanmar”.

”I am deeply disappointed that they have missed a very important opportunity,” Ban said.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained by the ruling generals for nearly 14 of the past 20 years and is now on trial charged with violating her house arrest. The 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate faces five years in prison if convicted in a trial that has sparked global outrage.

”I pressed as hard as I could” to see Suu Kyi, Ban said after meeting with Than Shwe. ”I had hoped that he would agree to my request, but it is regrettable that he did not.”

Still, the world’s top diplomat disputed the notion he was returning empty-handed or had handed the junta an opportunity to appear as if it was engaging more with the outside world without having to change.

He suggested the trip may have planted seeds that could blossom later, when Than Shwe no longer believes it will appear as if he were acting under pressure.

Ban said Than Shwe expressed a commitment to hold credible elections sometime in 2010.

”He was saying that after that he will hand over power to civilians,” Ban said on Saturday in the Rangoon airport to a handful of reporters travelling with him. ”What he told me was that when I come back again he may be a civilian.”

Opposition activists have said the generals intend to keep Suu Kyi behind bars through the 2010 polls and ban her party from contesting them.

A senior UN official told the Associated Press the idea of involving UN observers in the election next year was raised, and Than Shwe seemed somewhat receptive. But the official said that would only be done if the election seemed credible, since ”we won’t take part in a farce”.

Suu Kyi’s opposition party won national elections in 1990, but Burma’s generals refused to relinquish power. Burma has been under military rule since 1962.

Ban said the junta chief told him repeatedly that ”he really wanted to agree to my request” but because Suu Kyi was on trial he did not want to be seen as interfering with the judicial process — which he nevertheless oversees — or being pressured by the outside world.

It was Ban’s second visit to Burma, which he visited a year ago in the weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit, killing 138 000 people.

On his first trip he managed to persuade the military government to ease access for hundreds of foreign aid workers who had been restricted from entering cyclone-affected areas.

However, the UN remains unable to budge the junta on its refusal to free its estimated 2 100 political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.

In May, Suu Kyi was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest when an uninvited American man swam secretly to her lakeside home and stayed for two days. Suu Kyi’s trial was set to resume after a monthlong delay on Friday, the same day the UN chief arrived. But the court met for a brief session to adjourn until July 10.

In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that Ban was right to make the trip to Burma, but he condemned the response from the government.

”I hope that there is still the possibility of a change of approach from Burma,” Brown said. ”But if not, my sad conclusion is that the Burmese regime has put increased isolation, including the possibility of further sanctions, on the international agenda.”

On Saturday afternoon, Ban returned by helicopter to Kyon Da Village, in the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta, which he first visited a year ago.

Residents there spoke of improved health conditions — fewer cases of diarrhoea and several new clinics nearby.

Gone were the single-family blue plastic tents and postcard displays of emergency supplies that had once proliferated to impress the UN chief. In their place were neat rows of 15 square-metre homes built of dry palm leaves and bamboo matted walls on stilts.

Still, the UN says a half-million people are in immediate need of sustainable shelter and 600 more schools are needed by next April.

”I’m glad to see their living conditions have improved, but this is temporary after all. They have to be resettled,” Ban said. – Sapa-AP