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Burma Renews Red Cross Access to Prisoners

  • Daniel Schearf

Burma's President Thein Sein with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer during their meeting at Presidential residence in Naypyitaw, Burma, January 14, 2013.

Burma's President Thein Sein with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer during their meeting at Presidential residence in Naypyitaw, Burma, January 14, 2013.

Burma has promised the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons for the first time in seven years. The head of the ICRC also pushed for access to Kachin state on the border with China, where a military campaign against rebels has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, told journalists in Rangoon Thursday he was promised access to Burma's prisons after meeting with President Thein Sein. Maurer said authorities declared two weeks ago their intention to allow the ICRC back into its prisons.

Access for the Geneva-based medical aid organization was suspended by the previous military government in 2005.

But Maurer said his visit, the first by the head of the ICRC, signals a new start to cooperation with the reform-minded government.

"We welcome very much this declaration and so this visit has been an opportunity to be clear on operational modalities which ICRC works alongside all over the world where prison visits takes place," he said.

Maurer said they want to see prisoners indiscriminately, make repeat visits and have individual and confidential exchanges with prisoners.

The ICRC hopes to resume work in Burma's prisons, including water, sanitation, medical and health issues, as early as next week.

In addition to the president, Maurer also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's home affairs and defense ministers.

He said they discussed access to north Kachin state, where the Burmese military in recent days launched air strikes against ethnic rebels.

"Here, again, I emphasized that the situation in Kachin is typically a situation to which ICRC, with its core mandate of dealing with violent conflict is an appropriate actor to bring in," said Maurer.

Maurer said there was positive feedback but no indication of when the ICRC might be allowed into Kachin state.

Fighting between Burma's military and the Kachin Independence Army broke out in 2011, ending a 17-year cease-fire and displacing an estimated 75,000 people.

Heavy fighting in the last week included air strikes on rebel territory by jet fighters, helicopter gunships and artillery.

The KIA claims at least three civilians were killed and China says several shells landed across the border into China.

Burma has allowed foreign humanitarian aid to government-controlled areas of the state, but has restricted aid deliveries to rebel-controlled territory.

Nonetheless, Maurer said discussions with Burmese authorities on potential access to Kachin state were substantive and encouraging.

The ICRC head was due later Thursday to visit Rakhine state, where communal fighting last year between Buddhists and Muslims left close to 200 people dead and 100,000 others displaced.
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