Ban in Burma

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seems to be having a better visit to Burma than last time he was there.

Thus far, Ban Ki-moon’s trip to Burma has proven surprisingly productive, and the U.N. chief has been far more vocal than on previous visits, when he deferred too readily to the then-military regime, and at times even seemed unprepared for the complexities of dealing with Burmese politics, including the tricky ethnic issues.

Of course, a lot is changing in Burma, opening up room for the United Nations to play a larger role, and the apparent retirement of former senior general Than Shwe, who appeared to have a visceral disdain for international institutions and outside interlocutors, also plays a role. But Ban seems better briefed, more comfortable and clearer in his view on Burma’s progress. For one, prior to his trip his staff clearly enunciated the enormous potential of Burma as a destination for investment, talking it up (over-talking it, in my opinion) in a way that surely pleased both the business community and allies of President Thein Sein, who need results from the reforms in order to stave off hard-liners.

Then, in the country, Ban Ki-moon struck a solid, thoughtful compromise position that, while hardly letting the government off the book, pushed the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi to begin moving away from being an opposition party in (internal) exile and toward becoming a working political party. Suu Kyi seemed to understand this, and gave up her protests over swearing in to the current wording of the Burma constitution, thus allowing parliament to open and the NLD to take its places and launch its agenda. “Politicians sometimes will continue to have differences of opinion, but real leaders demonstrate flexibility for the greater cause of people and for the country,” said Ban.

In addition, rather than simply praising Burma’s reforms while ignoring the continuing severe human rights abuses in areas like the Kachin State, Ban – who did call for all countries to end or suspend sanctions  – talked in a speech to parliament of the need for further serious shifts in the Tatmadaw, as well as (somewhat obliquely) the need for a more federal, representative government that is not heavily Burman dominated.

Although Burmese insiders say that Suu Kyi doesn’t yet have a warm relationship with the U.N. head, who was too willing to defer to the generals in the past, their interactions appear to be improving, which will be critical for a future in which U.N. agencies, the United Nations itself and, potentially in the long-term, peacekeepers, play a growing role in Burma.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick