History is Made in Burma
United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki moon, was this week in Myanmar, or Burma as Western and some domestic opponents continue to call the country. It is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, yet Ban’s visit is likely to be recalled as being the most constructive so far by any international figure. Lest it be forgotten, Ban ki moon has quietly encouraged and cajoled the military junta that has run the country for much of the period since independence from the British at the end of the Second World War, and gradually quiet diplomacy and pressure behind the scenes has begun to pay off. Many observers have been genuinely surprised at the speed in which the Generals have moved the reform process forward; after all it wasn’t that long ago that tanks and guns were being used to crush protesting monks. Of course realpolitik has had a great part to play in the ‘Myanmar Spring’ too. It seems that the Military Junta finally began to realise that their country and people risked being left isolated somewhere in the mid 20th century, unless some efforts were made to open up to the rest of the World and to engage with it.
Ban ki moon and the UN were often criticised for reaching out, making contact and quietly pushing for reform at a time when the military junta appeared to be one of the most obstructive forces on the planet. When tropical cyclone Nargis devastated the country in 2008, Ban and the UN were on hand to offer desperately needed aid and shelter to a population who had never experienced a cyclone of such ferocity. His reward and that of the UN, was often to be refused access to people and to refuse those same people the aid they desperately needed. The Secretary General took it upon himself to visit Myanmar at that time, and despite the obvious attempts of the junta to turn Ban’s visits into propaganda that they could use, he insisted on meeting some of the displaced people. He also persisted with a course of dialogue, offering the carrot of international recognition.
So the Secretary General was this week the first foreign dignitary to address the country’s parliament. In doing so he urged Western countries to further relax sanctions. The mood music for further progress on this front is improving all of the time, because recent visitors to the once isolated country have included US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton and British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Sadly, missing from Parliament and from Ban ki moon’s groundbreaking address was Myanmar’s long suffering and heroic Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy won a landslide election in the first countrywide polls for decades at the beginning of April. She and her party continue to protest signing an oath to ‘protect the constitution’. Unsurprisingly, she and her party are unprepared to enshrine the military’s role in the country, after all of the years of dictatorship. When asked about this, Ban said “I’m sure they will find a solution using their wisdom”, which on recent form is not too overly an optimistic statement to make.
Critics of the United Nations often fail to take the long view. And so the fact that a process of exponential diplomatic pressure is actually having quite profound results is often ignored. And yet the historical significance of what is happening in Myanmar should not be overlooked. For Myanmar/Burma has a record of producing inspirational leaders and surprising the rest of the World. Leading newly independent Burma was one U Thant, who later in the 1960s became a quiet, yet inspirational Secretary General of the United Nations. Ban ki moon will be aware of whose footsteps he has been following in these past few days, and the World should be content, that for once there is a happier story to be told and one that the late U Thant would most likely applaud.