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UN Chief Begins Talks with Burmese Military Rulers

  • Daniel Schearf

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is meeting with Burma's top military ruler, General Than Shwe. He is urging the general to release political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr. Ban met Friday with General Than Shwe to push for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Mr. Ban told journalists before arriving in Burma that he would ask to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and urge General Than Shwe to release her.

"This is going to be, I know, a very difficult mission," he said. "I know that to bring changes … we need to do our best."

In the past two years, Burma's military government has almost doubled the number of people locked up for opposing military rule.

Benjamin Zawacki, a Burma researcher in Bangkok for Amnesty International, says they face harsh conditions.

"For most political prisoners, torture is endemic, the food is below standard and medical care is extraordinarily limited," he said. "There has been, I believe, 41 political prisoners if I'm not mistaken, who have died in the prison system essentially as a result of poor medical conditions, poor medical treatment, etc."

Rights groups have warned the U.N. chief's visit could be used by the military as propaganda.

Zawacki says Burma's military rulers, officially called the State Peace and Development Council, are well-versed in manipulation.

"I think Ban Ki-moon needs to be quite careful in his visit. But, I do think if he focuses on his agenda and sends a very clear signal, then the ball is in the court of the SPDC to respond or not to respond adequately," said Zawacki.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won Burma's last elections in 1990. But the military refused them power and has locked the democracy icon in her house for most of the time since.

They are now seeking to put her in jail for up to five years for allowing an uninvited man who snuck into her house to stay without official permission.

On Friday, Aung San Suu Kyi's trial was delayed for a week. It has been internationally condemned as an excuse to keep her locked up through next year's elections.

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