Thursday, March 04, 2010

Ban on Asia

Ban tells it like it is
By Ian Williams
Asia Times 5 March 2010

NEW YORK - When Ban Ki-moon went to Myanmar last July, he was the first United Nations secretary general to enter since his Asian predecessor, U Thant, whose body was taken home after he died in New York in 1974. On that occasion, the military dictatorship of Ne Win provoked massive riots with its funereal disrespect for the country's most famous international figure.

South Korean Ban, 66, came under criticism for speaking to Ne Win’s successors, but was praised for his courage in risking a likely snub. In an interview with Asia Times Online, Ban said his visit was the first in 42 years for a living head of the UN, and he considered it well worthwhile. "I was able to speak to the general public there in an open dialogue. I was told it was the first time that any foreign dignitary had been able to speak to the diplomats, citizens, students of Myanmar."

He added, "I gave them the same message I left for the generals and the rest of the leadership - and hope they will implement it. I am still working very hard: most recently I have communicated again with Senior General Than Shwe, I left a strong message for those leaders. The release of the number two in Aung San Suu Kyi's party was very encouraging, but they must do much more to ensure the credibility of the electoral process," said Ban, in reference to the release last month of U Tin Oo of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The leader herself remains under house arrest.

"This year there will be an election and it is extremely important, crucial, [that it is an] inclusive, transparent and credible one, for that we are working very hard to get Aung San Suu Kyi released and all political leaders released," said Ban.

The junta has said there will be elections this year as a part of a so-called roadmap to democracy, but no date has been set.

Ban's visit to Myanmar summed up his distinctive approach. Despite his low-key public delivery, he claims - and others who have witnessed him do too - that he is firm and principled in private when meeting leaders, whether Sudanese, Israeli or Burmese. "My meetings with those leaders have been quite straightforward and very vocal, and the record will show,'' Ban said. "Most of my senior advisors were quite surprised by how outspoken I was - because I was speaking from my own conviction.''

Ban, who assumed office on January 1, 2007, said: "Normally, diplomatically speaking one should be nice and indirect, but I believe in being straightforward with leaders who are very difficult to deal with, regardless of whom, but I am still able to maintain a relationship with them. Because you know what, I was speaking officially, but at the same time I was trying to tell them of my own experience, what I have witnessed of the Korea experience of the transition to democracy, and the process of economic development from the ashes of the Korean War [in the early 1950s]. And so I have been able to establish some working relationships with those leaders, but I am always straightforward."
So he can talk to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan, even while welcoming the International Criminal Court's 2008 warrant for Bashir's arrest on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Ban can secure "reimbursement" from Israel for damage to UN property in Gaza and issue statements calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza, while still having his calls answered in Israel - and getting calls to answer.

Indeed, he is about to stick his head into another potential hornet's nest - North Korea. "The last visit from my predecessors to Pyongyang was in 1993 by Boutros Ghali. Before him, it was 1979. This is not desirable. I looked through this historical chronology, and I think we need to have stronger and better relations with North Korea. That is why I dispatched Lynn Pascoe [the UN special envoy] to Pyongyang to open a high-level dialogue where they touched upon all aspects of UN/DPRK relations. If I am invited, I will be prepared to go ... [if] I feel that there is a role I can play.''

It would be interesting to hear what he would say to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, but it would be in Korean and in private. The UN-imposed sanctions on North Korea after its long-range missile test and then nuclear tests last April and May. Six-party denuclearization talks remain stuck on North Korea's insistence on conditions that have no immediate chance of acceptance, including the demand for a Korean War peace treaty.

Ban has grown beyond the suspicions of some that his orientation is, well, Oriental, although he confesses he began his diplomatic career thinking, "What should I do for my country, totally devastated by war and very poor?'' He said he thought he could help enhance the status and prestige of Korea. "And so my major in college was in international affairs.''

Ban received a bachelor's degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970 and earned a Master of Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1985.

"It came to our attention that when SG [secretary general] Kofi Annan's term was over [in December 2006], that it was Asia's turn,'' Ban added. "So the Korean government considered the possibility of a Korean being elected, and at the time I was FM [foreign minister] and I was regarded as one of the most suitable.''
Ban was a suitable candidate not only because he was foreign minister. He had worked in Korea’s UN mission as director of the UN department and as chef de cabinet for the Korean president of the General Assembly from 2001 to 2002.

"The dream came at a late stage,'' he said. "But I really believed in the enormous work of the United Nations and its mission and what it could do for world peace and security."

The UN, he says, "Has been and continues to be a beacon of hope. It was the United Nations which really saved Korea. Sixteen countries came to the aid of Korea when North Korea attacked [South Korea in 1950].'' As an aside, he adds, "It was the first enforcement action under the UN charter. The first after only five years of existence."

Indeed, it is often forgotten that technically the Korean War was fought under UN auspices and the flag that flies at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is the UN’s blue flag. "It still does," Ban said, pointing out that "the United Nations command does not report regularly to me, but to the Security Council".

Former secretary general Dag Hammarskjold risked big problems with the US by going to Beijing in the 1950s, when Taipei represented China in the UN. Had Ban considered now going to Taiwan to help negotiate, since possibly the biggest threat to peace in Asia is the confrontation over the strait?

A visit by him would be unnecessary, he said. "I know that there is tension between China and Taiwan but I am also encouraged by what China has been doing by encouraging exchanges and cooperation, trying to free [up] investment both ways. Through these exchanges and cooperation I am more or less optimistic that there will not be too much mounting tensions.'' Reminded that the mainland showed no sign of moving its missiles, Ban was understandably unwilling to be drawn. "I hope they will overcome this problem,'' he said.

He is equally unwilling to be drawn on the question of whether he would expect a second term when his five-year spell runs out in two years. "I have been working very hard over the last three years because I believe in the ideals and mission of the United Nations. I will continue to do that, but now we at the UN are facing unprecedented challenges, multiple challenges facing us all at once,'' he said. "So I am very much preoccupied in trying to coordinate the UN’s response. In time I will have an opportunity to consider this issue."

When asked if his answer appeared to be him reverting to his alleged "slippery eel" mode of evading a question, he countered, "First I have to work harder and harder'' before giving thought to a second term. "I am very humbled every day by knowing that there are so many challenges facing us, and I know I am one of the world leaders that has to work very, very hard in close coordination with the others to address those issues. So I begin every day as if it is the first day of my mandate.''

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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