In a high stakes diplomatic mission, the UN secretary general is today due to press Burma's military leaders to release all its political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi – even as the widely condemned trial of the imprisoned opposition leader resumes.
On a controversial visit to the regime's secretive jungle capital, Naypyidaw, Ban Ki-moon will call on the head of the military, General Than Shwe, to release more than 2,000 detainees and to hold credible elections next year. Many diplomats have urged him not to go, saying his presence in Burma will be seized on by the regime as some sort of endorsement.
But the UN chief, facing recent criticism over his low-key approach to handling events, has said he is determined to make clear to the junta the view of the international community over the continued detention of so many prisoners. "I will try to use this visit as an opportunity to raise in the strongest possible terms and convey the concerns of the international community to the highest authorities of the Myanmar government," he said this week.
The timing is not good. His arrival in Burma will coincide with the resumption of the trial of Ms Suu Kyi, 64, who has been charged with violating the terms of her house imprisonment after a US man swam across a lake and spent the night in her house. The trial of the opposition leader, who on Sunday will have spent 5,000 days in detention, has been almost universally condemned as a ploy to find another reason to keep the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) out of the way until after next year's scheduled elections.
Mr Ban appears to believe his brand of quiet diplomacy might bring success. Last year, during a personal visit to Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, he was able to persuade the anxious junta to allow in aid supplies.
Some campaigners have welcomed Mr Ban's involvement but fear that after 40 visits from UN envoys over the past 20 years and with nothing to show for them, the UN chief ought to be looking for concrete results. "It's not enough for him to come back and say that his visit marks the start of a process," said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK. "He needed to be building international support before he went."
Mr Farmaner said it was understood that Mr Ban must have been told that the junta was ready to make some sort of compromise if he visited in person. He said it was possible this could be in the form of a "lenient" sentence for Ms Suu Kyi or an agreement to have some sort of international monitoring of next year's election.
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