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Military Officers Go on Trial in Burma

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Burma has begun holding trials of associates of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. Most of the defendants are accused of corruption and economic crimes. The trials are expected to last six weeks.

The trials of dozens of officers from the disbanded military intelligence unit, led by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, began this week in the high-security Insein prison north of Rangoon.

Family members and outside representatives and news media have been barred from the hearings, although defendants have been given the right to legal representation. More than 20 judges and lawyers are handling the cases.

The trials, expected to last about six weeks, follow the purge in October of Khin Nyunt - who remains under detention at an undisclosed location. He is accused of corruption and high treason.

Several members of Khin Nyunt's family, including his two sons, were detained and are reported to be among the dozens of people on trial. In addition to members of the military, some police officers are being tried.

Aung Zaw, editor of the independent Burmese magazine, The Irrawaddy in Thailand, says the defendants are likely to face long prison sentences if found guilty. "This is a procedure to legitimize their rule and to make sure these people - Khin Nyunt and his men - are safe in prison," he said. "So I'm quite sure that Khin Nyunt and his people will be serving quite a long term imprisonment."

Western diplomats in Rangoon say the hearings were "part show trial," although significant amounts of evidence alleging corruption would be presented.

Burma's military, in power since 1962, have built up extensive ties and influence within the economy over the years. The government is considered by outsiders to be widely corrupt.

Last year's purge followed repeated reports of a power struggle between the head of the government, Senior General Than Shwe, and Khin Nyunt, who was considered a reformer.

Aung Zaw says there are signs that some of the defendants have been abused during interrogations, and there are reports that at least one high-ranking officer has died while in prison. "I think there has already been misconduct, some sort of abuses going on against Khin Nyunt and his people," he said. "And the trial itself obviously won't be transparent and open."

Khin Nyunt, appointed prime minister by General Than Shwe in August 2003, had promoted what he termed a road map to democracy. Its aim was to draft a constitution and then eventually hold parliamentary elections. A constitutional convention opened last July, but then halted. It is to re-open next month.

The military leadership refused to hand over power to the opposition National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi when the party won national elections in 1990.

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