July 13, 2009 / 4:52 PM / 9 years ago

Myanmar says to amnesty prisoners before elections

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Myanmar is planning to amnesty prisoners to enable them to take part in national elections next year, at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the country’s U.N. envoy said on Monday.

Activists from Myanmar shout slogans during a rally demanding the release of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in front of the Myanmar embassy in Seoul, July 7, 2009. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

But, addressing the U.N. Security Council, Ambassador Than Swe did not say how many prisoners would be released, or when, or whether they would include key figures like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

During a July 3-4 visit to Myanmar, Ban pressed the ruling Myanmar junta to free all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, who is on trial on charges of breaking the conditions of her house arrest.

“At the request of the secretary-general, the Myanmar government is processing to grant amnesty to prisoners on humanitarian ground and with a view to enabling them to participate in the 2010 general elections,” Than Swe said, speaking in English.

He said the Myanmar government “intends to implement all appropriate recommendations that (the) secretary-general had proposed.” But during Ban’s visit the junta refused to allow him to meet Suu Kyi, saying this could influence her trial.

Rights groups say there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar. If the government releases a significant number of them, the move could be seen as justifying Ban’s trip, which many analysts have so far portrayed as a failure.

CAUTIOUS REACTION

Ban himself reacted cautiously to Than Swe’s comments. The U.N. chief, who earlier briefed the Security Council on his visit, told reporters: “This is encouraging, but I will have to continue to follow up how they will implement all the issues raised during my visit in Myanmar.”

“I am not quite sure ... who will be included in this amnesty,” he added.

The Myanmar government has amnestied prisoners before. It freed 19 political detainees in February as part of a release of 6,000 prisoners after a visit by a U.N. human rights envoy.

Critics say next year’s elections, the final part of a seven-step “road map” to democracy, will be a sham designed to give legitimacy to the current authorities and entrench nearly half a century of army rule in the former Burma.

In his report to the Security Council, Ban said the Myanmar government needed to deliver on promises to make next year’s elections free and fair and to free prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition “in the very near future.”

“The choice for Myanmar’s leaders in the coming days and weeks will be between meeting that responsibility ... or failing their own people and each one of you,” he told the 15 council members.

Most council envoys supported Ban and deplored the Myanmar junta’s refusal to let him see Suu Kyi.

British envoy Philip Parham said the move demonstrated “the regime’s fear of a free and fair political process, and its unwillingness to engage with international opinion.”

If there was an “unjust outcome” in Suu Kyi’s trial, “the international community will need to follow the secretary-general’s lead and respond robustly,” he said.

But in a strongly pro-Myanmar speech, Chinese envoy Liu Zhenmin said the junta’s refusal to let Ban see Suu Kyi was “totally understandable.” The international community should treat Myanmar with “less arrogance and prejudice,” he said.

Liu said China, which has blocked substantive council action on Myanmar in the past through its veto, remained opposed to any sanctions. Myanmar’s Than Swe also said that “no Security Council action is warranted.”

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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