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UN Official Postpones Visit to Burma - 2002-03-19


The United Nations has confirmed the postponement of a visit to Burma by a special U.N. envoy working on reconciliation talks between the military government and the democratic opposition. The announcement in New York comes amid continuing speculation about the aftermath of an attempted coup. Burma's military government alleges the attempt was planned by family members and relatives of former dictator Ne Win.

There had been hope in Burma that the military government probe into the alleged coup attempt would have minimal impact on the political reconciliation talks between the military and the main democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Some diplomats and analysts even suggested that the events of the past two weeks might give the military an opportunity to ease restrictions on the NLD, which has not been implicated, and accelerate discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi — possibly even approve her release from effective house arrest.

But there has been no sign of that. And now, it appears events have brought about at least a temporary setback in the mediation efforts of the special U.N. envoy for Burma, Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail.

Mr. Razali had been scheduled to arrive in Rangoon Tuesday for his seventh visit to the country since taking over the job of mediating Burma's political reconciliation process. The visit had been formally announced by the United Nations only last week.

However, on Monday, news agencies quoted unidentified government sources as saying Mr. Razali's visit had been postponed. There were conflicting reports as to the reason, with one report saying Mr. Razali had requested the postponement.

Later Monday a U.N. spokeswoman in New York said the request for postponement came from Burma's government. The reason, said the spokeswoman, was the illness of Burma's deputy foreign minister Khin Maung Win, who was to have hosted Mr. Razali.

However, diplomats and other analysts say it is unusual that this should have forced a postponement. Observers also note that Mr. Razali was due to meet Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, a powerful member of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and a key player in the reconciliation process. With rumors still swirling in the wake of the alleged coup attempt, observers say Mr. Razali may have decided to wait until the situation stabilizes.

Josef Silverstein is a noted Burma watcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It strikes me that this is a quick decision by the men in power, that they are not ready to talk," he said. "None of them wants to be the person identified as holding up the talks, so you pick a name out of some bureaucratic wheel and you say that person is ill and therefore we have to delay the whole thing."

The events in Burma come as the international community again focuses attention on the state of human rights in the country. In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which began its annual session Monday, is to hear a report from Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the special U.N. rights envoy for Burma.

Mr. Pinheiro visited Burma in February and said afterward that Burma's military government needs to speed up the reconciliation process and release more political prisoners. Mr. Pinheiro is due to address the commission on specifics of his latest mission.

Burma is also under continuing scrutiny by the International Labor Organization, ILO, which has been examining forced labor. An ILO team visited Burma in February to assess Rangoon's compliance with demands to end forced labor. The ILO governing body is meeting in Geneva this week.

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