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ICRC Delegation to Meet with Senior Burmese Opposition Members - 2003-06-21

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross was preparing to leave Rangoon to meet with senior members of Burma's opposition, who have been held in detention for the past three weeks, but they won't be allowed to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is among those in government custody.

The Red Cross team will leave Rangoon Sunday, after being given the go-ahead to see leaders of the democratic opposition, who have been held in an undisclosed location for the past three weeks following a violent clash with supporters of the government.

The team will be able to meet with senior party members, such as National League for Democracy Vice Chairman Tin Oo, who was accompanying Aung San Suu Kyi during a political tour in northern Burma last month when their entourage was attacked.

But Michael Ducreaux, the Red Cross representative in Burma, says the government has refused the team access to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

The refusal comes at a time when Burma's military government is under unprecedented international pressure to free Aung San Suu Kyi. Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the human rights group Amnesty International are among those who have lent their voices this week to the call for her release.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo joined in the call on Saturday, saying that she was praying for Aung San Suu Kyi's early release from what she called "the custody of government forces."

It is highly unusual for members of ASEAN, which groups the countries of Southeast Asia, to comment on each other's internal affairs.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff was another calling for an end to Aung San Suu Kyi's detention. He says the release should be just one step towards broad political reform in Burma.

"In addition to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi we would want to see the immediate release of the 1200 political prisoners held by the regime," he said. " We would want to see the re-opening of the NLD offices and a genuine commitment of the part of the regime to the reconciliation process and embarking on a path to the restoration of democracy."

Britain and human rights groups say Aung San Suu Kyi is being held at Insein prison outside Rangoon, under a law that allows for detention without trial for up to five years.

She was freed from in May of last year after 18 months of house arrest. She has been in and out of detention since 1990, after her party won national elections and the military refused to recognize the vote.

Burma's government says it remains committed to restoring democracy and resuming a dialogue with the opposition. But in the past year there have been few signs of progress, and what dialogue there had been now seems to have been derailed.