The last time a UN head arrived in Myanmar he ignited bloody riots in the streets — even though he was dead.
The clashes in 1974 between students who welcomed home the body of Myanmar-born former UN secretary-general U Thant as a national hero and soldiers of a government leery of the UN are part of the long history of tensions between Myanmar and the world body.
That history, rife with suspicions and failures, forms the backdrop as current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits on a trip aimed at opening the country to more international aid for its cyclone survivors.
Trying to take a lead role, the UN has repeatedly announced “breakthroughs” in its efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar, improve human rights and free detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The isolationist generals, in turn, have enticed the UN’s procession of special envoys with vague promises, then slammed the door behind them and continued marching to their own tune. Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and political prisoners languish in jails.
The last envoy, UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari, remains the butt of jokes among many in Myanmar, also known as Burma, after his futile attempts to revive a moribund dialog between Suu Kyi and the generals late last year.
Ban arrived in Myanmar yesterday hoping to persuade the ruling junta — deeply suspicious of all outsiders — to allow the international community greater access to hundreds of thousands of victims of a cyclone increasingly at risk from disease and starvation.
The UN’s mission this time may be humanitarian, but the military men have always viewed relations with the world through a dark, political prism. Ban’s effort, therefore, may yield limited results.
“I hold serious doubts that any demonstrable, long term benefits will flow to the Burmese people from the secretary-general’s visit except that Burmese people are delighted with the international awareness of their plight,” said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University.
UN agencies have in the past few years been able to bolster aid to Myanmar and gain some measure of trust at the local level. A basic humanitarian infrastructure built by the UN was able to go into action when Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2 and May 3 despite obstacles thrown up by the regime.
But the nation’s rulers view the UN as having shed its neutrality and now marshaled against them through the lobbying efforts of the US and other powerful Western nations.
“The generals think the UN is deeper in the US’ pocket than ever before. They are fearful that UN aid agencies are there in camouflage for the regime-change agenda,” says Thant Myint-u, a former Myanmar UN official and grandson of U Thant, whose international and domestic popularity aroused jealousy in then-dictator Ne Win.
Ne Win’s refusal for a state funeral when U Thant’s body arrived in Myanmar in 1974 sparked angry students to snatch the coffin. In an ensuing confrontation with troops a still unknown number of protesters were gunned down.
“The UN has been so locked into this political change that it doesn’t have a more general relationship with the government which could have been so valuable at a time like this,” Thant Myint-u said.