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UN chief walked diplomatic tightrope with junta
Myanmar Diplomatic 5940083
In this May 22, 2008 file photo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, second left, talks with a displaced family in their tent on in the Kyondah village, Myanmar, on a tour to view conditions in cyclone-damaged areas and to meet with Myanmar government officials. The United Nations said Thursday, May 29, 2008, that the last 45 pending visas for Myanmar were granted to U.N. international relief workers _ but at the cost of temporarily ignoring Myanmar's latest crackdown on dissent. - photo by Associated Press
    BANGKOK, Thailand — No mention of Myanmar’s detained pro-democracy leader. No talk of holding a controversial vote despite a catastrophic cyclone. Not a word about the military regime’s history of human rights abuses.
    Those were the issues U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon avoided in talks with Myanmar’s junta leader. It appeared to pay off with dozens of visas issued for U.N. relief workers — but at the high cost, say critics, of ignoring Myanmar’s latest crackdown on dissent.
    ‘‘What everyone recognized was that the scale of this disaster was so enormous that all efforts had to be focused on the emergency relief effort,’’ Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian effort, said Thursday.
    With so many lives at stake, he said there was simply no room for politics to be discussed at this time.
    Ban’s main mission was to ease access for hundreds of foreign aid workers who had been restricted from entering cyclone-affected areas. He also oversaw a conference that raised up to $150 million in emergency relief funds.
    Critics call the rare sit-down last week with Myanmar’s reclusive leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, a missed opportunity because it avoided pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued house arrest and a referendum vote on a constitution some say will only perpetuate the military’s grip on power.
    ‘‘I think it’s fair to say there was a conspiracy of silence about Suu Kyi, the referendum and political reform,’’ said Brad Adams, Asia director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
    Ban took a calculated risk by avoiding talk about politics but said he felt that was the only way to get results on the more pressing issue of helping the more than 2 million people left homeless by the May 2-3 cyclone.
    ‘‘That is why I believe I was able to get agreement from Myanmar authorities,’’ Ban told reporters Sunday. ‘‘Different circumstances, different situations, require different skills or approaches. In the case of talking with a certain ... country or people who have been isolated a long time, then you need special care and sensitivity.’’
    But Ban was also careful. He toured Myanmar for two days, then left before the second phase of voting on the constitutional referendum to avoid appearing to give it his implicit endorsement, U.N. officials said. After the polls closed, Ban flew back to Yangon for the donors conference.
    The regime has been widely criticized for going forward with the referendum while hundreds of thousands suffered from the cyclone, which left more than 134,000 people dead or missing.
    But Ban also played along with the junta to a certain extent, when Myanmar authorities tried to save face by showing him a tidy aid distribution center and a postcard-perfect refugee camp. He asked to be flown farther south to tour areas harder hit by Cyclone Nargis, but let it drop after authorities demurred.
    The only time Ban even indirectly referred to Suu Kyi or the referendum was during a private meeting with Myanmar’s prime minister. He told the leader that the country’s rebuilding should also extend to democratic initiatives, according to U.N. officials.
    On a rare diplomatic trip to Than Shwe’s military compound in Naypyitaw, the nation’s newly built capital, Ban negotiated greater access to the delta, including flying in more helicopters from outside Myanmar. Again, he didn’t bring up Suu Kyi.
    Ban waited until after his return to New York, when Than Shwe extended her house arrest for a sixth-straight year Tuesday, to comment on Suu Kyi.
    Myanmar’s rulers consider Suu Kyi, who is widely popular, their biggest threat. Her party won elections in 1990, but the military refused to accept the results. A year later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent attempts at promoting democracy.
    Ban expressed some regret at having his hands tied during the trip, saying he felt ‘‘very much concerned and troubled by not being able to address completely’’ Suu Kyi’s house arrest while meeting with Myanmar’s leaders.
    Even so, he has continued to walk a tightrope with the regime. He took care Tuesday while criticizing Suu Kyi’s continued arrest to praise the ‘‘new spirit of cooperation’’ between the junta and the international community.

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