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Burma Government Creates Pessimism Amongst Democracy Hopefuls - 2003-11-09

A United Nations human rights envoy says Burma's military government shows little sign that it is ready to improve its record on human rights, and analysts are pessimistic about an early return to dialogue between Burmese leaders and the democratic opposition.

After his visit to Burma, U.N. envoy Paulo Sergio Pinherio says he saw little evidence the government is preparing to lift tight restrictions on the opposition National League for Democracy or to release hundreds of political prisoners from its jails.

At least 35 NLD officials, including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have been held since a violent clash between government supporters and NLD members on May 30. Mr. Pinheiro said Saturday that he was told by Burmese officials that Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest has been rescinded. But she told Mr. Pinheiro she would not take advantage of any privileges from the government until her colleagues were released, and she remains in her Rangoon residence.

Debbie Stothard, a spokesperson for the human rights group ASEAN Network in Burma, believes Aung San Suu Kyi's movements are still restricted, despite what Mr. Pinheiro was told.

"It's quite clear to us Aung Sung Suu Kyi is not free to receive visitors," said Ms. Stothard. "It's also an indication of Aung San Suu Kyi's grave concern for the well-being of her colleagues that she is insisting that they be released ahead of her."

Mr. Pinherio says Aung San Suu Kyi is calling for an independent investigation into the May 30 incident that led to her detention. He said his own request for an investigation into that violence was rebuffed by the government.

He said he also pressed the government without success to release the more than 1,200 political detainees still behind bars.

And he attacked the government over its continuing detention of elderly and ailing dissidents - some now in their late 70s - who have spent more than a decade in jail.

The new prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, has spoken of reform and released a "road map" to political dialogue, and some of Burma's neighbors have responded positively. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is due to visit Rangoon this week offering aid along with talks on trade. Aung Zaw, editor of the independent newspaper The Irrawaddy, says the Burmese leaders seem to feel they have won the flexibility to do as they please without having to make real concessions to the opposition.

"I'm pretty sure the Burmese leaders are pretty confident they could handle [the situation] and they might feel they can survive, so the dialogue process is dead," said Aung Zaw.

Mr. Pinheiro has been criticized by some American members of Congress for not wringing any concessions from the Burmese. He told reporters that he was not a "fairy with a magic wand" who can arrange the release of political prisoners, and he said it was "ridiculous" to have such high expectations of him.

He is due Monday in Bangkok, and will make a full report on Burma to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan later in the week.