The head of the United Nations urged Burma on Friday to release all political prisoners to improve the climate ahead of national elections. His call came as Burma's top court heard an appeal from lawyers of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi against her house arrest.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday it is not too late for military-ruled Burma to make a "credible, democratic" transition.
"By releasing all political prisoners, the Myanmar authorities could help open the way for a national reconciliation," he said. "The period after the elections will be especially important. It is a chance for the authorities to signal that they are open to real change."
He relayed his concerns to reporters at a Southeast Asian summit in Hanoi. At the same event this week, Burma's foreign minister, Nyan Win, said the country's most prominent political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, could be released, but only after the November 7 vote.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley responded with unusually strong criticism.
"This is a craven manipulation by Burma. How convenient that they are hinting that she might be released after an election that is unlikely to be fair, free, or credible," said Crowley.
Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won Burma's last election in 1990, but the military government refused to hand over power and has kept her in detention for much of the past two decades.
Burma's Supreme Court on Friday heard an appeal by Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyers against her house arrest, which is due to end on November 13. It did not say when it would announce a verdict.
Aung San Suu Kyi's party was dissolved after it refused to register for the elections. Although splinter opposition groups are participating, observers say they do not have the political clout to make a difference.
Larry Jagan, a Bangkok-based journalist who has been covering Burma for years, says by snubbing the government's political process, the democracy leader is limiting Burma's opportunities for change.
"One of the issues has always been for Aung San Suu Kyi that she believes that she is right and that she takes the high moral ground and that if you stick to your principles, don't compromise, you will win in the end and in fact the quickest way to win is not to compromise, and I think this is perhaps a case where she ought to have considered compromise," said Jagan.
Several senior officials have left the military to contest the elections as civilian members of a pro-government party. The government calls this part of its roadmap to democracy. Critics call it a sham.
Still, some rights advocates hope the government will free Aung San Suu Kyi after the elections to improve its international standing.
Exiled dissident Muang Zarni is a research fellow at the London School of Economics. He told the Associated Press Television News that Burma's leaders would be taking a risk by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, because even though the political opposition has been neutered, the 65-year-old democracy leader still has great political potential.
"As long as Aung San Suu Kyi walks the streets of the Burmese cities there's always a possibility that she will find herself in a situation where she can mobilize the public opinion against the regime. That is actually something that cannot be discounted," said Zarni.
With or without public opinion on the government's side, there are few signs Burma's leaders are ready for change. Rules governing the country's first elections in 20 years ensure that most of the seats in parliament will go to the pro-government party.
Timeline of Major Political Events in Burma: