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New International Pressure on Burmese Regime to Reform


Renewed international pressure is being put on Burma's military regime to release political prisoners, end oppression of minorities and institute democratic reforms. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer reports on Saturday's high-level meeting on Burma called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The U.N. secretary-general convened the first ministerial level meeting of the so-called "Friends of Myanmar" - the other name by which Burma is known.

Representatives of the five permanent Security Council members, as well as several Asian nations, the European Union, India and Norway attended the meeting, held in the margins of the General Assembly's annual debate.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters that the Security Council has spoken clearly in demanding the Burmese regime release political prisoners and initiate an all-inclusive dialogue between the government and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "That degree of cooperation has not been forthcoming from the Burmese regime and it remains the fundamental tenet of the Friends of the Secretary-General that the regime must work with the secretary-general and his representative Ambassador Gambari to achieve political and economic progress," he said.

The secretary-general's special envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has made four visits to that country in the last year. His most recent has been widely criticized for not achieving any gains. During that trip, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is under house arrest, did not turn up for a meeting with him, in an apparent show of frustration with U.N. efforts to move the political process forward in Burma.

Burma experienced a devastating cyclone in May of this year. Just days later the regime held a constitutional referendum that was widely derided as neither free nor fair. But the regime has countered that the new constitution has paved the way for multi-party elections in 2010.

Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, expressed concern about the form those elections might take. "The dice will be loaded in favor of the military, but I believe from a certain viewpoint that some progress is better than no progress. The problem is that the NLD [opposition] has not been part of the process, they may not participate in it, and if they do not the country will remain divided and the problem will remain unsolved," he said.

Secretary-General Ban visited Burma after Cyclone Nargis and met with top leaders. He is widely expected to return to the country at the end of this year. But some observers questioned under what circumstances he should go back. Minister Yeo said such a visit is a "move not to be lightly taken." "When he goes back, it has to be very carefully timed, because expectations must be calibrated. He should not go back unless there are clear signs of progress, but his intervention at an appropriate time can be critical," he said.

Mr. Ban did not stop to speak with reporters following the closed-door meeting. But in a statement, his spokesperson said the high-level participation at the meeting is a clear signal of the importance that the international community attaches to the situation in Burma, and encouraged the Burmese government to work more closely with the United Nations to address issues of key concern.