Burma's defiant reception of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last
week underscored the military government's self-isolation from the international
community. At the same time, Burma's improved relations with another isolated
nation, North Korea have raised eyebrows. Burma's military rulers appear to be
digging in more than just their heels to maintain their grip on power.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had high hopes that his visit to Burma would help win the release of political prisoners and push the military government to allow democratic elections next year.
Mr. Ban sought the release of more than 2,000 jailed for opposing military rule, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
But after twice meeting with Burma's ruling general Than Shwe, Mr. Ban was told he would not even be allowed to meet with the democracy leader, let alone see her released.
The U.N. chief expressed his frustration. He said Burma's government failed to take an opportunity to show a new era of political openness.
"I am deeply disappointed that Senior General Than Shwe refused my requests," Ban said. "Allowing a visit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been an important symbol of the government's willingness to embark on the kind of meaningful engagement that will be essential if the elections in 2010 are to be seen as credible."
Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won Burma's last elections in 1990, but the military did not allow the NLD to take power.
The Nobel Prize winner has been held under house arrest for most of the time since.
Disregard for international community
Rights activists say the government's dismissal of Mr. Ban's request has demonstrated its disregard for the United Nations and the international community.
Debbie Stothard is the coordinator for the Alternative ASEAN network on Burma, a regional rights group.
"We really do hope that this is a wake-up call that diplomacy is not going to work on this brutal dictatorship," Stothard said. "It's pressure, and it's leverage. And, it's time the regime was held accountable for their crimes. That's what they are afraid of. They are afraid of economic sanctions and they are afraid of prosecution for their crimes."
Rights groups say the U.N. should investigate Burmese authorities for crimes against humanity and move for a global arms embargo.
But China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, rejects sanctions against Burma.
Relations with N. Korea improving
While Burma's dealings with the international community appear to be slipping, Burmese exiles and analysts say its relations with North Korea are improving.
Burma cut off relations with Pyongyang in 1983 after North Korean agents bombed a South Korean delegation visiting Rangoon, killing more than 20 people.
But, the two countries have found themselves drawn back together.
Bertil Lintner is a journalist and author in Bangkok who has followed Burma for more than 20 years.
"The leaders of the two countries discovered that they had a similar mindset," Lintner said. "They were both worried about the outside world, about being pariah states, about being condemned by the United Nations. They felt that they were more or less alone in a hostile world. And so, it was not surprising that they sort of began a much closer cooperation in a number of fields, including military matters, way back in the late 1990s."
Lintner says the two countries have become close allies.
He says Burma's military leaders are particularly impressed with North Korea's nuclear diplomacy.
"They do admire the North Koreans because the North Koreans, because they have a bomb, have been able to stand up to the United States. And, Burma would like to be able to do the same," he noted.
Lintner says it would take years for Burma to develop its own nuclear threat, even if North Korea defied U.N. sanctions by helping.
But, North Korea does appear to be helping Burma's military government prepare for survival.
Photos leaked by dissidents appear to show North Korean experts giving advice on the construction of massive underground tunnels in Burma's capital, Naypyidaw.
In addition to meeting and storage rooms, the photos, dated a few years ago, show underground parking spaces for tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Lintner says the tunnel network appears designed for the military to protect itself from attack.