UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon headed home empty-handed from a trip to Myanmar yesterday after the ruling junta brazenly snubbed his attempts to visit pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ban departed with a stern rebuke for military ruler Than Shwe, saying that the reclusive general had missed an opportunity to show the regime’s commitment to implementing democratic reform and to holding free elections next year.
His failure to extract even the smallest concession from the iron-fisted regime plays into the hands of critics, who warned him against visiting at the same time as Aung San Suu Kyi faces an internationally condemned trial.
The UN chief admitted that he was “deeply disappointed” by Than Shwe’s intransigence over visiting the Nobel Peace laureate. He was even kept waiting overnight in the capital Naypyidaw on Friday to hear about the refusal.
He said being able to visit her would have been an “important symbol of the government’s willingness to embark on the kind of meaningful engagement that will be essential if the elections of 2010 are to be seen as credible.”
Than Shwe had told the UN chief that he could not visit Aung San Suu Kyi in prison because she was still on trial for breaching the terms of her house arrest after a US man swam uninvited to her lakeside house in May, Ban said.
However, Ban defended himself against criticism that the two-day trip was fruitless, saying that the junta chief had not rejected any of his other proposals for reform, including the release of political prisoners.
His meetings with Than Shwe had allowed him to convey “very frankly” the international community’s concerns about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy.
“If you use the word reject, it’s only my request to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. For all my proposals, I believe they will seriously consider, they have not rejected any of what I proposed,” Ban said.
Rights groups and analysts warned that the junta could use the high-profile visit as a way of showing that it was listening to international concerns — while doing nothing about them.
“They [Myanmar’s ruling generals] brought Ban Ki-moon for public relations purposes,” said Zarni, a Myanmar analyst at the London School of Economics who goes by only one name.
The regime has faced a firestorm of international criticism over the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is being held in the notorious Insein prison in Yangon.
In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised the prospect of further sanctions against Myanmar following Ban’s visit, while US President Barack Obama has called the case against Aung San Suu Kyi a “show trial.”
The opposition leader has been either jailed or under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years since the junta refused to recognize her National League for Democracy’s victory in Myanmar’s last elections in 1990.
Critics have accused the junta of using her trial as an excuse to keep her locked up for next year’s polls. They also say the elections are a sham designed to entrench the generals’ power.
In a rare public speech to hundreds of diplomats and aid workers in the commercial hub Yangon before departing late on Saturday, Ban outlined his vision for a democratic Myanmar.
“I am here today to say: Myanmar, you are not alone. We want to work with you for a united, peaceful, prosperous, democratic and modern Myanmar,” Ban said.