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UN Officials to Visit Burma to Speed Up Political Reconciliation Process

Diplomatic efforts aimed at speeding up the political reconciliation process in Burma are set to resume in coming weeks. Two U.N. officials are scheduled to make return visits to Rangoon in February. At the end of last year, U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail said he wanted to see a roadmap for progress in the long-running political talks between Burma's National League for Democracy party and the military government.

"I can tell you to be optimistic about the eventual outcome," Mr. Razali said after meeting the NLD and representatives of Burma's ethnic groups.

Since the talks began in the year 2000, the military has released about 200 NLD members, and allowed a number of party offices to re-open.

However, human rights groups say as many as 1,500 political prisoners remain in Burma's jails. Aung San Suu Kyi, the key figure in the democracy movement, effectively remains under house arrest.

The Nobel laureate told a visiting Japanese lawmaker in December that the talks had yet to be transformed into a full dialogue. She said political prisoner releases had to be speeded up. An NLD statement said the talks needed to be upgraded to, what it called, meaningful talks with political substance.

Mr. Razali is expected to return to Rangoon in February to resume his efforts.

Josef Silverstein is a Burma specialist at Rutgers University. He says that in order to bring more credibility to his mediation efforts, Mr. Razali needs to persuade the military government to make public statements about the status of the talks: "One of the criticisms of his so-called six visits is that we hear all kinds of optimistic conclusions, but we don't get any hard data, and this has led to a loss of status for him among people in Burma, who have been looking forward to him moving things ahead and telling them. So, the breakthrough would be if he could have a statement about something on the discussions that would give him leverage to continue talks," he says.

But Josef Silverstein says Burma's military is likely to do everything it can to avoid having to adhere to any strict timetable that might be proposed as a result of Mr. Razali's efforts.

The U.N. special human rights representative on Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, will also be back in Burma. Since his appointment by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Mr. Pinheiro has gained the trust of both sides, although his last visit was cut short due to illness.

The United Nations has not yet announced Mr. Pinheiro's return to Rangoon. However, some reports suggest he will focus on the case of Min Ko Naing, a student leader jailed for more than 12 years. Josef Silverstein says this may well be a crucial test of the negotiations: "If there is really going to be an effort to get at serious problems, and in particular, prisoner problems, then this is the man that has to be discussed, and some decisions to be arrived at," he says. "So, if Pinheiro is really going to take up Min Ko Naing, that could either be his last visit to Rangoon, or it could be a tremendous breakthrough for him, if he is successful."

Thaung Htun is a spokesman for Burma's government-in-exile. He says it will also be essential to transform the talks into tripartite negotiations, involving all of Burma's key ethnic groups. :The ethnic nationality leaders will be able to find a compromise solution with all the political players, if there is a chance for them to participate in the dialogue process," he says. "So it's very important to ensure their participation, at least in the constitution-making process."

Burma's military government has repeatedly said it is not attempting to slow down the negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi. Earlier this month, foreign minister Win Aung said the time would come when all political prisoners are released, but declined to discuss any timetable.