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World News

U.N. chief told Myanmar supremo of worries about vote

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday he sent a letter to Myanmar’s junta chief to voice concern about the credibility of this year’s nationwide election, the country’s first in 20 years.

Myanmar's Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, Senior General Than Shwe, wipes his head as an aide fans him in the museum attached to the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, in Kandy, November 13, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

Ban said he wrote to Senior General Than Shwe 10 days ago “expressing my concern about this lack of progress” on democratic reforms and emphasizing the importance of ensuring that this year’s vote is “most credible, inclusive and transparent.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has long been the focus of global pressure for detaining pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Human rights groups say there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar, but the military junta says those held are common criminals.

Myanmar’s rulers have also been accused of persecuting the country’s ethnic minorities, sparking a continuing exodus. Some 140,000 refugees live in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, according to a U.N. refugee agency.

Ban urged the junta to empty the country’s jails of political dissidents so they can take part in a nationwide election planned for this year.

“All the political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, (should be) released as soon as possible, so that all of them can participate,” he told reporters in New York. “That will make the election an inclusive and credible one.”

DOUBTS ABOUT ELECTION

The election, a date for which has yet to be revealed, has been widely derided as an attempt by the junta to make the country appear democratic, with the military pulling the strings behind a civilian-fronted government.

The secretary-general was asked about official Myanmar news reports that the southeast Asia country had finally adopted a long-awaited election law. Ban said only that he “took note” of the announcement and was seeking details.

“Without participation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all key political prisoners this election will not be an inclusive one,” Ban said.

Myanmar’s Supreme Court last month rejected an appeal by pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi against her house arrest, a ruling that U.N. officials said privately only cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the planned election.

Suu Kyi, detained for 15 of the past 21 years, was sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest in August 2009 for allowing an uninvited American to stay in her lakeside home after he swam over to see her.

Ban said at the time that he was “disappointed” that the appeal of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been rejected.

Suu Kyi won the country’s last election in 1990, but the junta leaders ignored the results.

Last week a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners and rights campaigners said they were urging the U.N. chief to push for Myanmar’s leaders to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Ban cannot make such a referral himself. That would have to be done by the U.N. Security Council, a body that diplomats say has been unable to take a strong stance on Myanmar because China, a veto-wielding permanent member, is determined to avoid damaging its lucrative commercial ties with its neighbor.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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