United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is arriving in Myanmar today. He will be here for 24 hours. He will land in Yangon with his entourage of about thirty people at around the same time that the court will reconvene for Aung San Suu Kyi and John Yettaw’s trials. Details of the UN Chief’s jam-packed schedule are unavoidably murky. Insider sources confirm that within his short time in Myanmar, Ban Ki-Moon intends to:

  • Visit Senior General Than Shwe in Naypyidaw;
  • Fly down to the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region to assess humanitarian relief efforts one year after Cyclone Nargis;
  • Visit Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Insein Prison / possibly in court;
  • Attend an event in Yangon to commemorate Nargis and thank the Myanmar community for their contributions to relief and humanitarian aid.

Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Myanmar comes, of course, with the inevitable criticism from the Burma watchers and members of the exile community who promote isolationism as a strategy. An article in the Times quotes Zoya Phan of Burma Campaign UK as saying:

We have had 20 years of UN envoys going back and forth to Burma and nothing to show for it…We need Ban Ki Moon to personally take the lead, but he must deliver practical results, such as the release of all political prisoners. Talking to the generals is a means to an end, but so far the UN seems to treat talks alone as a success.

I disagree with this type of attitude. Talks alone are a success. While there have indeed been a series of UN envoys to Myanmar, a visit by the Secretary-General is a considerably more substantial engagement. When Ban Ki-moon arrived in Myanmar in May 2008 just after Cyclone Nargis hit, he was the first Secretary-General to visit Myanmar in 44 years. During that visit, he managed to convince Than Shwe to ease restrictions and allow international aid to pour into Myanmar to help survivors of the cyclone.

The idea that “talks” shouldn’t begin until all political prisoners are released and the Lady is allowed to campaign freely around the country is unrealistic. Negotiations are presently non-existent. At this stage, we don’t know who would be sitting at the table, where that table might be, what size the table is, and even what shape the table will be. It might sound silly, but these are important factors. Conditioning talks (about the conditions of talks) on large political concessions is not a smart way to deal with the generals who run Myanmar.

If they don’t get to see The Lady proselytizing in the streets and democracy flourishing overnight, the detractors and isolationists will surely claim that Ban Ki-moon’s visit only “legitimized”‘ the government. While after tomorrow there may not be large explicit agreements, what goes on behind closed doors will certainly be significant.

Ban Ki-moon is coming off some recent criticism for being “too soft” in tricky diplomatic situations in Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Last week, his Special Envoy to Myanmar, Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, was in country to prepare for this upcoming trip. Mr. Gambari would not have advised the Secretary-General to visit Myanmar unless if he was positive that there would be positive outcomes.

We will have to wait until at least Sunday to find out…

UPDATE (3 July 2009): Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial is adjourned until 10 July, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrives in Yangon. The trial was set to resume today after a month long delay.