Who’ll gain from UN envoy’s Burma visit?

While they welcome the return of a UN human rights envoy to Burma, political exiles from the country are asking pointed questions such as who stands to gain most from the high-profile visit. The concerns of groups like the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a network of former Burmese political prisoners who have fled the country, are with reason. After all, nearly a month after the Burmese junta mounted a brutal crackdown on unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians protesting on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere, Burma still remains gripped by fear.

“For whose benefit is this visit? Is it to help the people of Burma who have been victims of the military regime’s crackdown or to help restore the regime’s image?” asks Bo Kyi, a

former political prisoner and a senior member of AAPP, which is based in Mae Sot, a town near the Thai-Burma border. “I am worried that this visit will help to ease the international pressure on the regime and nothing more.”

Others who represent the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratically elected government forced into exile since 1990, have similar reasons to be sceptical. “We don’t want this to be another attempt by the junta to buy more time for its own political agenda. The military regime always offers such gestures when under tremendous international pressure,” says Zin Linn, information director of the NCGUB.

Such comments follow the junta’s decision on Monday to lift a four-year ban on Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat, enabling him to return to Burma in the coming weeks. The UN human rights envoy was last in the country in Nov. 2003, a visit that gained notoriety after Pinheiro discovered that a room he was talking to political prisoners had been bugged.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is formally known, has come under a wave of international criticism for the harsh measures used to stifle street protests that first began over the sudden spike in fuel prices and then mushroomed into an anti-government demonstration. In late September, the generals conceded some ground by permitting a special UN envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to visit the country on a political mission.

But such a concession did not stop the junta, which has renamed the country Mynamar, from going after dissidents, Buddhist monks and any suspected opposition sympathiser with force. Sources in Rangoon say that the regime’s recent lifting of a curfew at night has given little comfort, since families fear a knock on the door after dark followed by arrests.

Even an announcement by the SPDC in early October that it has appointed a deputy minister to serve as an intermediary between the leader of the junta and the head of the pro-democracy opposition has not been translated into action.

Pinheiro’s visit is being viewed as a litmus test of how open the junta is towards engagement with the international community. “His visit should not be limited to a diplomatic exercise of only meeting officials, but he should be permitted to conduct an investigation on all human rights violations that took place,” Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional rights body, said.

“We would like Pinheiro to speak to the monks and other victims who were detained to find out what happened to them.” — IPS