Mission failure?


UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has returned from Myanmar empty handed. He had gone there to persuade the junta to release jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 2,000 other political prisoners, and pursue political dialogue and reconciliation with the opposition. The junta rejected all his requests. What is more, his request to meet Suu Kyi too was flatly turned down. The UN Secretary General has come in for much criticism for having failed in his mission. Critics have accused him of according the junta legitimacy by visiting Myanmar and meeting with Senior General Than Shwe, without achieving any of his goals. They have pointed to UN special rapporteur to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari’s eight visits to that country which have achieved little. Engaging with the generals, these critics have said, is of no use. It is not the way to deal with Myanmar.

A change in approach is  required but not in the way these critics say. What is needed is more engagement with the generals, not less.

Western sanctions on Myanmar have not put the regime under pressure or forced it to yield ground. It has only brought economic devastation and misery to millions of ordinary people. Proponents of sanctions point out that it was this approach that pushed the apartheid regime in South Africa to relent. Myanmar is not South Africa. Its ruling elite, unlike the whites in South Africa, do not look to the west for social or cultural approval.

Myanmar’s military is comfortable with the isolation the west is imposing on it. Last year, western calls for military intervention in Myanmar grew and veiled threats to use force on Myanmar were issued. These have only intensified the siege mentality of Myanmar’s reclusive generals.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in May that the sanctions policy hadn’t worked in bringing change in the junta’s thinking. The Obama administration must review this policy that hasn’t worked. Hardliners will point to Ban’s ‘failed’ mission to push for tougher sanctions. But the Obama administration should recall the co-operation, albeit limited, that the junta extended to the international aid community last year when Cyclone Nargis struck. That co-operation was perhaps small and reluctant but it isn’t without significance. It is an opening that the international community must work on.

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