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World's top envoy entreats Burma (Myanmar)

United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon arrived Thursday and hopes to meet Burma's leader Gen. Than Shwe today.

By Christopher JohnsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2008

ON TOUR: Ban Ki Moon, UN secretary- general, talked with a displaced family in Burma on Thursday.


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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon flew into Burma's (Myanmar's) disaster zone Thursday, in a visit that could be a tipping point for international attempts to deal with Burma's reclusive military, which has shunned most world leaders since taking power in 1962.

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Mr. Ban met with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein for 90 minutes in Rangoon (Yangon), and also with the heads of international aid agencies seeking permission to deliver aid directly to desperate survivors in remote coastal areas of the Irrawaddy Delta.

"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said after his arrival. "The main purpose of my being here is to demonstrate my solidarity."

The success of Ban's mission will largely depend on whether he can meet reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe on Friday in his new capital, Naypyitaw. Such a meeting would vindicate efforts by the UN and Asian leaders to rely on diplomatic avenues to pry open doors to much-needed aid and relief workers. A rebuff could cloud prospects for an international aid conference, planned for Sunday in Rangoon, and embolden calls, mainly from Europe, to deliver aid by force from four US warships and others from France and Britain waiting off Burma's southern coast. It could also further anger Burmese citizens squeezed by skyrocketing prices and military crackdowns since monk-led protests last September.

Until now, General Shwe has refused to answer Ban's calls or letters, and in the past has also snubbed Ibrahim Gambari, Ban's special envoy to Burma.

Shwe made his first public appearance early this week, more than two weeks after cyclone Nargis flooded a region that is home to an estimated 3.5 million people and 30 percent of Burma's rice production.

Pressure from Burmese leaders?

"There's tremendous pressure from within his own group," says Josef Silverstein, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "There are senior officers who may be quietly trying to get him to open up in certain ways. These men are not idiots. They have radio and TV. They know what's going on.

"They have this delusion of grandeur, and they are being called all kinds of names, people with no heart or sympathy," he continues. "I believe there's an internal pressure in the ruling group. More importantly, I think they're getting pressure from China. China has quietly been trying to act as intermediaries to get them to open up."

Professor Silverstein says that while foreign pressure is working "in a Burmese way," he expects the Burmese will follow their pattern of appearing to listen and "cave in" to criticism, and then do little or nothing after the world looks away.

Ban, a career diplomat and former South Korean foreign minister, appears to be using the Asian style of avoiding public threats and confrontation to solve problems behind closed doors.

"The secretary-general has learned that if you want to get information, you have to go right to the top yourself," says Silverstein, reached by phone in Princeton, N.J.