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UN to Work Towards Release of Burmese Political Prisoners - 2002-02-13


U.N. human rights investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has promised leaders of Burma's ethnic communities he will work for the release of political prisoners held by the military government. Representatives from Burma's ethnic communities fear being excluded from national reconciliation efforts.

Mr. Pinheiro, who is currently on a 10-day visit to Burma, made the pledge in talks with leaders of Burma's Shan, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Karen ethnic leaders in Rangoon late Tuesday.

Dr. Naing Aung, coordinator for Burma's National Reconciliation Program, wants ethnic minorities to have a role in shaping the country's government. "They would really like to take part in the constitution-making process, to make a negotiated settlement for the future shape of the settlement of Burma," Dr. Naing Aung said.

International human rights groups say there are around 1,500 political prisoners in Burma. Mr. Pinheiro last year reported that 200 prisoners from the main opposition National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, had been released. The military government said Wednesday it had released five more political prisoners, including four NLD members.

The prisoners' release comes against a backdrop of secret reconciliation talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government. Progress has been slow, raising fears among observers the government is merely stalling to avoid change.

The military government has blocked the NLD, the landslide winner of the 1990 national elections, from taking office. Aung San Suu Kyi has been kept under house arrest for most of the past decade.

Dr. Naing says Burma's ethnic communities fear they are being excluded from talks. He says that, in the past, minority groups have been neglected. "They don't want to be excluded because of their being minority, or ethnic, because they are the historical stake holders. And they should be part of the dialogue process, in order to discuss the future union of Burma and the rights of the ethnic people, which basically the constitutional issue," Dr. Naing said.

Mr. Pinheiro's trip includes meetings with leaders of the military government, as well as a visit to an area largely populated by minority groups.