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Rights Groups Call on UN Chief to Press Burma on Reforms

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, center left, and his wife Yoo Soon-taek, center right, receive flowers from a staff upon their arrival at a hotel Sunday, April 29, 2012 in Yangon, Burma.

Human rights groups are calling on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to further press Burma’s military-backed civilian government to stay the course with reforms.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said upon his arrival that Burma has entered a critical moment against the backdrop of a series of political and economic reforms undertaken over the past year.

Ban, who is to meet with Burma’s President Thein Sein Monday in the administrative capital Naypyidaw, had earlier acknowledged reform in Burma - also known as Myanmar - remained fragile with challenges ahead.

“Myanmar (Burma) is only at the beginning of its transition. Many challenges lie ahead. Many concerns have yet to be addressed," Ban said. "Yet I am convinced that we have an unprecedented opportunity to help the country advance toward a better future.”

Ban is also to meet with opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Tuesday. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party won a landslide victory in recent by-elections but boycotted the first sitting of parliament last week over wording of the swearing-in oath. Mr. Ban says he is hopeful the problem will be quickly resolved.

Ban’s visit comes as European Union policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is also on an official visit to Burma. She says international business is still looking for further reform before making major investments in Burma.

The EU suspended economic sanctions in place over Burma’s past human rights record. Several countries have eased sanctions, including Canada, Australia and Japan. But the U.S. says key sanctions will remain as a leverage to press the government on reforms.

Debbie Stothard, spokesperson for rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, says substantive reforms are still required in areas such as legislation, as well as institutional and policy changes.

Stothard says Ban needs to press Burma’s government to move ahead with reform.

“It’s very important that Mr. Ban Ki-moon is not swept up in the euphoria and he should actually be looking at the situation with a lot of logic and stone-cold sober look at whether there is indeed reform in the country and what needs to be done; that Mr. Ban tells the Burmese authorities that this is a good start but much more needs to be done and much more quickly,” said Stothard.

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB) joint secretary Bo Kyi says the U.N chief should call for the release of all political prisoners and an end to army operations in ethnic border areas.

“His visit is very important. Maybe the need to discuss with the solving the problem of Burma, especially to stop the war on the Kachin state and the release of political prisoners and other human rights situations; those three issues are really important in the solving those problems Burma will not get peace,” said Bo.

The government has so far released 659 political prisoners but as may as 900 remain detained.

Ban is also set to travel to northern Shan state, a key opium growing region where a U.N. poppy eradication program has been under way. Aid agencies also expect further international aid and donor funds to flow into the country following Ban’s visit.