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Human Rights Groups Appeal For More International Pressure on Burma - 2003-03-26

The discovery that a United Nations envoy's private interviews with Burmese political prisoners were being bugged could undermine efforts to promote political reform. Human rights groups are calling on the international community to pressure the military government to begin substantive dialogue with the opposition.

United Nations envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro abruptly left Burma after discovering that someone was spying on his private interviews with Burmese political prisoners a few days ago.

Debbie Stothard, with human rights group, ASEAN Network in Burma, says the bugging incident has damaged ties between the Burma's military government and the United Nations. "The only friend the regime had in the U.N. system is actually Mr. Pinherio," she said. "So it's not only embarrassing, it's incredibly damaging to the military regime's relationship with the U.N., that their one friend has stormed off upset and shocked that he was being bugged."

The U.N. human rights envoy arrived in Burma last week for his fifth visit to assess the situation of political prisoners. He left Monday, after finding the listening device a few days earlier. He is to report on Burma to the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission on March 31.

Ms. Stothard says the bugging incident undermined the Burmese government's efforts to improve its international image. In the past 18 months, Burma's leaders have released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and up to 600 other political prisoners.

Ms. Stothard says the international community must push the Burmese government harder to bring about political reform. "This is a wake up call for the international community to understand that the military requires a mix of firmness and persistence to be applied before any genuine change can happen in Burma," she said.

Diplomatic sources in Rangoon say the incident has embarrassed the government. The government later denied it was involved in the placement of the device.

Diplomats are now waiting on the military government's response.

A United States Embassy spokesman expressed regret over the incident and called for a full investigation.

Aung Zaw is the editor of Irrawaddy magazine, which is published in Thailand and covers Burmese political developments. He says the incident endangered political prisoners who had spoken to Mr. Pinheiro, thinking their comments would be kept confidential.

Aung Zaw expects Mr. Pinheiro to request a new location for the interviews so they will be carried out freely. He says there are signs the envoy is growing frustrated over the failure to make progress on political dialogue. "We are reaching to the point where people express deep, deep frustration and mistrust toward the national - so-called - national reconciliation process," he said.

Since late 2001, the U.N. has been promoting talks between the opposition and the government that would open the way for reconciliation.

U.N. envoy Razali Ismail played a key role in orchestrating the talks between the government and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). But Mr. Razali's visit last November year appeared to make little progress toward reconciliation.

In a recent interview with VOA's Burmese Service, the NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, called for speedy progress in political change rather than incremental steps. She said had been no progress toward reform in Burma.

The Irrawaddy's Aung Zaw says the international community, including the U.S. government, may now consider increasing sanctions against Burma's government because of the lack of progress. The U.S. and the European Union maintain tough sanctions against Burma in a bid to press for political reform.

But other analysts warn that tightening the sanctions may simply lead Burma's government to refuse to talk with the National League for Democracy.

The NLD won a landslide victory in elections in May 1990, but the government has refused to hand over power and has since stalled on political reform.