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Burmese Opposition Calls For Release of Political Prisoners - 2002-05-17

Burma's pro-democracy opposition National League for Democracy - led by Aung San Suu Kyi - wants the military government to release more political prisoners as a step toward resuming political dialogue.

NLD secretary and spokesman U Lwin tells VOA that the release of political prisoners is the party's main priority before it talks with the military. U Lwin says too few have been freed.

"I think … for the releasing [of prisoners], the timing was rather slow and the number was also little," he says. " That is a problem but it is going on."

The government released the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest on May 6. She has spent most of the past 14-years under house arrest.

The National League for Democracy won Burma's 1990 elections by a landslide, but the military government never allowed it to take office. Instead, the government harassed and arrested hundreds of party members, decimating its ranks. With Aung San Suu Kyi now able to help, the party is starting to rebuild.

Human-rights organizations estimate 1,500 political prisoners are being held in Burma. About 260 have been released during the past 18-months a result of secretive talks between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. But U Lwin says that is not enough.

"We are now sticking to our first proposal to release all the political prisoners - and so far that is the main [item] - the only one; the rest it can be discussed on the table," he said.

U Lwin is reluctant to give details of other issues the NLD wants to raise with the government once negotiations are underway. He says only that party has no other conditions for talks.

U.N. envoy to Burma Razali Ismail is calling for Rangoon to maintain the momentum set by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Burmese officials have told correspondents the government is committed to political reconciliation.

But Aung Zaw, editor of the opposition Irrawady magazine, says the NLD wants proof of that commitment.

"My reading is the NLD wants the junta [military government] to release quite a large number of political prisoners including prominent leaders," he explained. "If the junta starts to take that step they could go into another more serious [round of] political talks and dialogue, and gain the trust of the NLD."

Aung Zaw says the international community will look for progress towards talks during the next three to six-months. If there is no progress, he warns that the gains made so far will be undermined.