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Burma Frees Five More Opposition Members - 2001-10-09

Burma has freed five more opposition members from jail as a team of U.N. experts arrives to assess the human-rights situation in the country. Burmese officials say the releases are a goodwill gesture.

The team, led by the U.N. special rapporteur for human-rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, arrived for a nearly two week visit.

The team is expected to meet with senior members of the Burmese military government, pro-democracy opposition leaders, and travel outside the capital to assess the human rights situation in the country.

Mr. Pinheiro paid a first visit to Burma last April, shortly after his appointment, but did not travel outside Rangoon.

Burmese officials have said Mr. Pinheiro will be given full cooperation. The government also released five more members of the opposition National League for Democracy as a positive gesture.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission has criticized Burma's record on human rights, expressing concern over what it calls a systematic policy of persecuting the political opposition. The Burmese government rejects the charge.

Other human rights organizations have also criticized Burma for human-rights violations and say it has 1,500 political prisoners.

The military has ruled Burma since taking power in a coup 13 years ago. It organized elections two years later. The opposition National League for Democracy party won the poll, but was never allowed to govern.

About one year ago, representatives of the government and the opposition began a series of secret meetings, reportedly aimed at leading to some form of political transition. Neither side has commented publicly on the talks, but more than 170 opposition leaders have been released since they began.

There have also been numerous visits in recent months by Burmese officials to neighboring countries. Regional leaders say this part of an effort to reduce the isolation of the Burmese leadership and engage it in a process of political liberalization.

A team from the International Labor Organization last month spent three weeks in Burma, meeting with government and opposition leaders and travelling extensively in the countryside. The team was studying whether the Burmese government has implemented promises it made to end forced labor in the country. The team is currently visiting Burmese refugee camps in Thailand.

ILO officials have refused to comment publicly on the trips. The team is to present its report next month at the organization's general assembly.