Political analysts and international journalists have criticized the visit of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Burma last week. Various observers have described it as ill-advised and fruitless. Some have remarked that Ban risked his reputation to achieve nothing.
What was striking about his visit was the level of negativity that accompanied it from the moment it was announced, not only among overseas pundits but also among people in Burma and political opponents of the military regime abroad.
Most speakers on Burmese radio programs and writers of commentary on news websites and blogs predicted that the generals would thumb their noses at the U.N. secretary-general irrespective of whether he was sitting in New York or in front of them. As expected, he made no discernible progress on any substantive issues and was unable to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
Perhaps at no other time in the last two decades have people been so pessimistic about the role of the United Nations in pressing for political change in Burma. This is in stark contrast to a few years ago, when exiles and many in the country nursed ridiculously high hopes that the international community could somehow sweep in and clear things up if only enough important people would take an interest.
For this reason, Ban’s trip is a watershed moment. Thanks to him, most folks now understand that the United Nations isn’t going to appear magically and hold the regime to account for its multifarious wrongs.
But this needn’t give rise to the high level of cynicism about the U.N. failure to promote change in Burma. The current stasis is as much a result of domestic as it is international affairs, and everyone shares some responsibility for it, even if many people would prefer to just blame Ban and the body that he represents.
For one thing, by its standards the United Nations has in recent years done quite a lot on Burma. If it hasn’t been able to achieve anything, this is as much a result of its own impediments as it is a consequence of circumstances in a country where social and political life has been profoundly damaged by half a century of military rule.
For another, Ban’s critics need to consider their own failings. For too long too many advocates of political change in Burma have followed one-track strategies that all led to the doors of international agencies, only to be disappointed when they didn’t get what they wanted.
The secretary-general’s visit should give cause to these groups and individuals to reexamine their own methods, and consider how else to express themselves and adjust their work so as to have some effect and keep up solidarity with the people in Burma without having to get a response from a multilateral organization.
It also gives the holders of international offices and mandates an opportunity to reappraise their roles and consider how they can approach their work from new angles, free from the expectation that they come up with quick fixes to intractable problems.
And if nothing else, Ban’s visit has thrown into plain light the vast distances separating Burma’s military government from the dreams of its citizens and the realpolitik of the international community. If awareness of the size and nature of these distances could be put to good use, then the visit might not have been a waste of time after all.
See also: Burma’s general objectives (Nicholas Farrelly/Inside Story)