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UN Special Envoy Fails to Secure Release of Burma's Democracy Leader - 2003-10-03


The United Nations envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, failed to secure the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a recent visit. But he says he has at least re-established contact between the military government and the opposition.

Razali Ismail completed his 11th visit to Burma at the request of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. He says, although the visit failed to free democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, his talks with military leaders left him cautiously optimistic about political reform.

Mr. Razali spent three days in Burma, meeting with high-ranking military leaders. On Wednesday, he met Aung San Suu Kyi at her heavily barricaded residence, where the 1991 Nobel laureate is under house arrest.

International and regional pressure has been building on Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi, and begin the process of political reform.

Early signs of progress have been emerging since August, when senior general Than Shwe reshuffled his Cabinet and appointed General Khin Nyunt as prime minister. General Khin Nyunt has since announced a seven-step plan toward elections. On Friday, Burma's state media reported that plans for a new constitutional convention are underway.

The seeds of Burma's political problems were sown in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in national elections. But the military refused to hand over power. Since then, Burma's opposition parties have been subject to bloody crackdowns, and the military government has maintained strict control.

In May, government supporters attacked Aung San Suu Kyi's convoy. She was then detained at an undisclosed location, and only officials from the International Red Cross and Mr. Razali were allowed to see her.

High-ranking international visitors to Burma have been urging the junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi. In an unusual step, members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have joined the call for her release.

Debbie Stothard of the human rights group ASEAN Network in Burma, says the international community is looking for the government to make good on its reform promises.

"I think, the onus is totally on the military regime itself, on whether they are willing to commit themselves and implement a road map that has an actual timetable, that has the actual participation of not just the National League for Democracy, but also the ethnic nationality groups," she said.

Prime Minister Khin Nyunt will face fellow leaders of ASEAN next week, when they meet in Indonesia. Several members, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Cambodia, are pressuring Burma's military to release Aung San Suu Kyi and resume political dialogue.

Aung Zaw, editor of the independent online news service, The Irrawaddy, says ASEAN leaders will be disappointed, unless General Khin Nyunt gives details about reform.

"If Khin Nyunt goes there, and Khin Nyunt has some sort of proposal to try to talk to ASEAN leaders, who want to hear from him. But if he keeps repeating the same old sound, then that will be a big disappointment for the ASEAN leaders," she explained.

In addition to ASEAN members, Burma is being pressured by the United States and the European Union. The United States has imposed hard-hitting financial and trade sanctions against a military government in power since 1988.

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