Jul 1, 2009

UN chief urges Myanmar to release Suu Kyi

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Myanmar on Tuesday to free all political prisoners, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, days ahead of a visit to the military-ruled country.

Ban is due to arrive in Myanmar on Friday for rare talks with the military junta, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s party says he must also meet her if he hopes to make real progress toward democratic reforms.

“They should release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Ban, who was in Japan en route to Myanmar where the Nobel Peace laureate has been detained for 13 of the past 19 years.

“They (the junta) should immediately resume dialogue between the government and opposition leaders,” he added after talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone.

His diplomatically risky two-day trip starts on the day a Myanmar court is due to resume its trial of the 64-year-old on charges of violating her house arrest after an American man swam to her lakeside home.

“We welcome Mr Ban Ki-moon’s visit,” Nyan Win, the spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and a member of her legal team, told AFP.

He said the visit would focus on three issues: “to release all political prisoners, to start dialogue, and also to ensure free and fair elections in 2010.

“Regarding these three things, he needs to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.”

A UN statement said Ban looked forward to meeting “all key stakeholders,” but did not specify whether he would meet the woman he described in May as an “indispensable patron for reconsidering the dialogue in Myanmar.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is currently being held at Insein prison in Yangon where her internationally condemned trial is taking place alongside that of American John Yettaw. She faces up to five years in jail if convicted.

Her NLD won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s last election in 1990, but it was never recognised by the military and she has spent most of the intervening years in detention.

Ban decided to go ahead with his mission after being briefed Sunday by his special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, who paid a short preparatory visit to the country last week.

Gambari met twice with Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win in the generals’ remote administrative capital Naypyidaw before holding talks with Singapore’s ambassador and UN staff in Yangon, but did not meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

The UN statement said Ban would highlight a resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition as a necessary part of reconciliation.

He would also focus on “the need to create conditions conducive to credible elections,” as well as on the release of political prisoners, it added.

The junta has vowed to hold elections in 2010, but critics say they are a sham designed to entrench its hold on power and that Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial is intended to keep her behind bars during the polls.

Diplomats at the United Nations said Ban had faced a dilemma in responding to the invitation from Myanmar’s rulers.

Refusing to visit would be seen as not fulfilling his role as UN secretary general, but to accept and return empty-handed would be seen as a slap in the face, said a diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Other diplomats said Ban faced conflicting pressures.

Veto-wielding China, a traditional ally of Myanmar, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, were pushing Ban to go without setting conditions, they said.

But Western nations were pressing him to secure at least some concessions from the military regime.

Ban’s last Myanmar trip was in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May last year, when he visited devastated regions and pressured the junta into allowing foreign aid workers into the hardest-hit areas.

He was the first UN chief in 44 years to visit Myanmar but was effectively barred from bringing up issues of political reform.