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UN Chief to Travel to Burma

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is traveling to Burma later this week to observe the country's transition from military dictatorship to democracy.

Ban told reporters at the United Nations in New York late Monday that he will visit Burma on the invitation of President Thein Sein.  The U.N. chief said his visit comes at a "critical moment" as Burma - also called Myanmar - begins to embrace a series of democratic reforms introduced by the new civilian-led government.  He warned that Burma's "fresh start is still fragile."   

"Myanmar is only at the beginning of its transition. Many challenges lie ahead, many concerns have yet to be addressed," he said. "Yet I am convinced that we have an unprecedented opportunity to help the country advance toward a better future."

This will be Ban's third trip to Burma, and his first since the new government launched its political reforms.  He will hold talks with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a seat in parliament during by-elections earlier this month.

Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 others in her National League for Democracy refused to take their seats at Monday's opening session in a dispute over the wording of the oath of office.

They said they want the oath changed to say parliamentarians will "respect" rather than "safeguard" the constitution, which was drafted by the former military government. But the ruling government party, the USDP, has so far refused.

Ban said he hoped the two sides would find a "mutually agreeable, harmonious way" to resolve the dispute.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed the U.N. leader's wishes during a news briefing Monday in Washington.

"Our understanding is that the NLD is in discussion with the government and with other parties with regard to this issue, and we are calling on everybody to try to work this through in a manner that will allow the NLD to take its seats," she said.

The European Union announced Monday that it was suspending most sanctions against Burma for a year.  The temporary suspension gives the 27-member bloc leverage to pressure the Burmese government to adopt more reforms.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that Burma has made "great progress," but he noted ongoing human rights issues, including political prisoners and fighting in Kachin state.  

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she will travel to Burma later this week to deliver the messages from the European Council and also to open the European Union office there.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.

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