UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a landmark visit to a fast-changing Myanmar yesterday to encourage its government to carry out more democratic reforms and shore-up peace deals with ethnic rebel groups.
Ban’s trip was his first since a reformist, quasi-civilian government took office a year ago, ending five decades of authoritarian military rule and frosty ties with the international community.
His trip coincides with a visit by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton to open a “new chapter” of relations as European firms seek a share of Myanmar’s vast untapped natural resources.
Myanmar, which is still led by remnants of the former junta, has stunned the outside world with economic reforms and unprecedented engagement with the West, the political opposition and ethnic minority rebel groups, moves Ban said were encouraging, but still not enough.
“We see Myanmar is reopening to the world,” he said earlier in New York, adding that “the fresh start is still fragile.”
A string of Western politicians, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, have traveled to Myanmar in recent months to encourage it to stay on the path of reform.
Ban arrived in the commercial capital Yangon and will see a country that has undergone astonishing changes since his last visit in July 2009 on the invitation of former Myanmar junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, which was widely seen as a stunt to boost the regime’s credibility at home.
Ban left frustrated, describing it as a “very difficult mission” after having failed to convince Than Shwe to release political prisoners and being denied access to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in detention at the time, but was released 15 months later.
Since Than Shwe stepped aside on March 30 last year, four months after an election seen as rigged, its former fourth-in-command Thein Sein has become president and has brought Aung San Suu Kyi into the political fold.
His government has started overhauling the tattered economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests, freeing political prisoners and agreeing ceasefires with more than a dozen ethnic rebel armies.
Thein Sein is planning to restructure negotiating teams after a failure to make a breakthrough in six rounds of talks with Kachin rebels and their political leaders, two sources close to the peace effort said.
Ban was due today to meet Thein Sein and other former generals who were part of Than Shwe’s inner circle, but now seen as key drivers behind Myanmar’s stunning facelift, which has led to an easing of some sanctions this month by the EU, US, Australia and Canada and a resumption of aid and debt relief by Japan.
Ban was scheduled to fly to the remote capital Naypyitaw later yesterday. His visit will include a trip to northern Shan State, one of the world’s biggest opium-growing regions, where the UN has started poppy eradication program it says has seen significant progress.
Ban is also due to discuss a census the UN is helping Myanmar to compile by 2014, its first in more than 30 years, and is scheduled to address Myanmar’s parliament today.