Page last updated at 00:39 GMT, Sunday, 5 July 2009 01:39 UK

Scant results for Ban in Burma

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, Bangkok

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (right) shakes hands with Burmese general Than Shwe in Nay Pyi Taw, 4 July
Mr Ban (right) met Burma's military leader twice

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has just returned from Burma, where the ruling general, Than Shwe, refused to allow him to meet jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Not until last Sunday did Ban Ki-moon finally decide to accept this Mission Impossible, visiting Burma just as Ms Suu Kyi's trial was scheduled to resume.

Mr Ban and his aides carefully weighed up whether to go or not.

US officials warned Mr Ban privately that he could be used by the generals to endorse their treatment of Ms Suu Kyi, a concern forcefully stated by Human Rights Watch.

France was lukewarm. Britain, the most gung-ho of the major powers at the UN on this topic, suggested Mr Ban see if he could visit later in July.

Russia and China were supportive of the visit so the UN Security Council, unhelpfully but typically, was split.

Some UN officials were concerned that Mr Ban might repeat the experience of his recent trip to Sri Lanka, in the immediate aftermath of the government's victory over the Tamil Tigers.

There the government seemed to be using Mr Ban's visit to endorse their position, seeing him as a figure to be taken on a victory lap of the conflict zone.

He visited government-run camps for displaced Tamils but his attempt to improve conditions there had to compete with the government's insistence that all was well.

Elusive 'deliverables'

On the plus side, UN officials hoped the rapport built up between Mr Ban and Gen Than Shwe in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis last year might help produce something.

Mr Ban played a pivotal role in persuading Than Shwe to allow international aid workers into the worst-affected areas of the flooded delta region.

However the "deliverables", as diplomats call the possible results of meetings, remained annoyingly elusive.

UN officials hoped the Burmese generals might decide to release some of the 2,100 political prisoners in the country, and possibly allow Mr Ban to see Aung San Suu Kyi. But it was all up in the air.

Mr Ban met Than Shwe for nearly two hours on Friday, in the pristine new capital of Nay Pyi Taw, where they discussed political prisoners and the trial of Ms Suu Kyi.

Mr Ban asked to see her and the generals stalled.

On Saturday morning, another half-hour meeting, and Than Shwe told Mr Ban that he could not see the opposition leader.

The ostensible reason was that she was on trial for failing to observe her house arrest.

At that point it also became clear that no immediate releases of political prisoner were on the cards.

Even before Mr Ban had left Burma, his visit was being criticised.

Don McKinnon, the former secretary general of the Commonwealth, told the BBC going home empty-handed was bad for the UN and bad news for Mr Ban. He suggested the secretary general had been badly advised.

One senior UN official expressed frustration with the argument that visiting rogue governments legitimised their image: "The SG can't talk to questionable regimes without someone saying you're putting the nice label on them."

The generals' assurances

So what did Mr Ban achieve?

The generals have assured him they will conduct free, fair and transparent elections next year.

These will be the first elections for 20 years, since Ms Suu Kyi's party won and the generals annulled the result.

The generals' roadmap to what they call disciplined democracy has been widely criticised for underscoring their grip on power.

A quarter of the seats in the new parliament building which I saw under construction in the capital will go to the army.

Given what happened in 1990, assurances about the conduct of an election have to be carefully monitored.

Than Shwe did tell Mr Ban that when he came next, the generals would be ordinary citizens, because the handover of power to a civilian government would have taken place.

Some analysts say Than Shwe is genuinely thinking about the succession and how to hand over power, and Mr Ban could be the person to help bring Than Shwe and Ms Suu Kyi together.

The generals are seriously considering whether to release political prisoners before the election, reported Mr Ban. Another one to watch, but will they?

Senior UN officials say the secretary general did speak truth to power, both when he met Than Shwe and when he delivered a speech in Rangoon's drug elimination museum in public.

He laid it on the line, said one source, and told them what is required of them for international respectability.

Western diplomats say Mr Ban has kept the spotlight on the situation in Burma and this is a process which has some way to go.

The worry is that a UN process is exactly what the generals want, since they can look as though they are engaging with the outside world while actually doing very little.

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