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This past weekend, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited Burma for a second time. During his first trip there in May of 2008, he was highly successful in paving the way for humanitarian assistance to flow into the cylone-ravaged delta region. This second visit was less successful, and the only big “ask” made by Mr. Ban – to speak with imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – was denied. I believe that the key reason for his failure lies in his straying from a growing international consensus the best way to engage the Burmese government is to discuss to a broad range of issues, including humanitarian ones,instead of focusing solely on human rights.
This is not to say that the international community should shy away from a discussion of political and human rights issues with Burma. Their track record on these issues is one of the worst in the world, and continued political pressure is a necessary component of any engagement strategy. The only way to truly improve the conditions for millions of Burmese is through political transition.
However, the Burmese generals remain highly suspicious that this is exactly what the international community wants, and Mr. Ban’s focus only reinforces these attitudes. Over the past decade, many people have begun to believe that we must engage the government on a range of issues to demonstrate a multi-faceted interest in Burma. And experience has shown that the Burmese are most willing to be engaged, and talk seriously, around issues of humanitarian assistance. Most importantly, the international community has demonstrated that regardless of its differences with the Burmese regime on political issues, it will continue to engage on humanitarian concerns.
There are many things that can be discussed in the realm of aid that will have an immediate benefit to the Burmese people. Access to many parts of the country is still limited, and increasing the presence of international aid agencies would be an important step forward. Allowing the international community to plan its humanitarian interventions with the government nationwide would also be a welcome step. They do this now in the Delta through the so-called “Tripartite Core Group” where ASEAN, the UN, and the Burmese government work out problems relating to international aid on a regular basis. Easing visa restrictions, lifting restrictions on international staff movements throughout the country, and other practical steps would similarly have a big impact on humanitarian operations, and therefore on the lives of ordinary Burmese.
Mr. Ban’s biggest mistake on this recent mission was going in to Burma with only a political message and political ask. Had he engaged the government on a range of issues – including humanitarian access, economic reform, and natural disaster preparedness to name a few – he would have been much more likely to leave his trip having made progress on at least one issue.
Unfortunately, in the run-up to national elections in 2010, we are unlikely to see any significant changes in the political situation. So why aren’t we doing more to engage on humanitarian issues, where we are pretty confident that progress can be made? This is a question Mr. Ban should answer as he looks back on his most recent visit.