Dozens of associates of ousted moderate Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt have been given long prison sentences. This comes as the United Nations is pressing the military government for a timetable on democratic reforms. The situation in Burma will figure prominently at Sunday's meeting of Southeast Asian ministers.
Thirty-eight former military intelligence officers were convicted by special courts in Burma Friday on charges including bribery and corruption. They received prison sentences ranging from 20 to more than 100 years.
The officers are all associates of ousted Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who helped draft Burma's so called "road map to democracy," but was removed from office last year.
The sentences were announced as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan pressed Burma to clarify the timetable for introducing democratic reforms and releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under house arrest.
The U.N. secretary general urged the Burmese government to engage in "substantial political dialogue aimed at national reconciliation," and called for U.N. envoy Razali Ismail, to be granted access to Burma "as soon as possible" to support efforts to restart political dialogue.
Mr. Annan's call comes ahead of an informal meeting Sunday of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines. They are expected to discuss the controversy surrounding Burma taking over chairmanship of the group next year.
Debbie Stothard, spokeswoman for the human rights group, the Alternative Network on ASEAN, says ASEAN is divided over Burma's chairmanship.
"It's quite clear that Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia will be quite outspoken on the fact that the military regime of Burma has failed to deliver on promises since 1997, and that they will express their strong concern about the impact on ASEAN's credibility, and also the effectiveness of ASEAN, if Burma were to chair next year," she said.
Europe and the United States have warned ASEAN they may boycott meetings, if Burma takes up the chair.
But Burma shows no signs of hastening political reform. A national convention to draft a new constitution ahead of elections is in recess, and not expected to reconvene until late 2005.
The convention was part of the "road map to democracy" announced by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in August 2003, before he was removed from power.
Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win visited Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in the past week to confirm their support for the ASEAN chairmanship.
Burma's military has been in power since 1962. The last general elections were in May 1990, and the opposition National League for Democracy - NLD - led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. But the NLD was not allowed to take power, and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the past decade under house arrest.
Some legislators from within ASEAN have said releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and allowing the NLD to resume normal political activities are key, if Burma wants to chair ASEAN.