Hague calls on Burma to free more prisoners during historic visit

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Foreign Secretary meets opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein

William Hague marked a milestone visit to Burma yesterday and a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi by promising the regime that further democratic reform, and in particular the release of political prisoners, could transform Rangoon's relationship with the West.

Mr Hague, the first British foreign secretary to visit Burma in more than 50 years, said that in meetings with president Thein Sein and his counterpart Wunna Maung Lwi he had placed a strong emphasis on the hundreds of dissidents still behind bars. He said that Wunna Maung Lwi had “reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners".

Later those remarks were somewhat undercut by the Burmese foreign secretary’s insistence that those in jail were not political prisoners but criminals, and that there freedom was a matter solely for the country’s president.

Despite that disagreement there were other signs of the country’s gradual movement away from military rule. Opposition leader Suu Kyi said that she was set to participate in upcoming by-elections – personally contesting a constituency located south of Rangoon. She told reporters she was optimistic her country would have fully democratic elections in her lifetime. “I don’t know how long I’m going to live,” she added. “But if I live a normal lifespan, yes.”

Meanwhile, on the day that the Burmese authorities handed official permission to the National League for Democracy to allow it to contest in the battle for 48 seats, a party spokesman said the Nobel laureate would be its candidate in the Kawhmu township, an area close to the former capital that was badly damaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“The government registered our party today. We can stand for the up-coming by-election,” spokesman Nyan Win told The Independent. Asked about Ms Suu Kyi’s role in the contest he said she would contest in Kawhmu for a seat in the lower house of the parliament.

The progress towards the 66-year-old participation in an election – something that just 18 months ago would have seemed barely possible – came as a welcome fillip for Mr Hague, whose visit, prompted by the surprising reforms that Thein Sein has enacted since he came to office in March last year, follows in the footsteps of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own trip to the country.

Most important of the reforms has been the engagement with Ms Suu Kyi, who was freed after more than seven years of house arrest following a controversial election in 2010 which her party decided to boycott. Thein Sein has also released some political prisoners and reduced restrictions on the media and trade unions.

The sort of relationship Ms Suu Kyi has been able to develop with Thein Sein, a former general, was not possible under the military leader General Than Shwe, who stood aside to allow a nominally civilian government to take charge last year. Yesterday the NLD leader told the BBC: “The most important thing about the president is that he is an honest man... He is a man capable of taking risks if he thinks they are worthwhile…I trust the president, but I can’t yet trust the government for the simple reason that I don’t yet know all the members of government.”

For Thein Sein, the decision to allow Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD to participate in the elections does carry some risks, not least giving the opposition a base from which to build for future elections.

But as it is, while 48 parliamentary seats are to be contested, even if the NLD won each of them it is unlikely to make an immediate difference. The military is guaranteed 110 seats in the 440-seat lower house, and 56 seats in the 224-seat upper house, and Thein Sein’s pro-military party now occupies 80 percent of the remaining 498 elected seats. Beyond that, the NLD’s participation will help give the government greater legitimacy, both at home and internationally. It will hope it will help convince the West to start lifting sanctions.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner and now executive director of the USA Campaign for Burma, last night voiced the concern of several activists about whether real progress had been made. He said: “If the authorities want to convince the people that they are genuinely interested in change, they should release all political prisoners unconditionally, end wars in ethnic areas and expedite a peace process with all ethnic armed groups for real national reconciliation, conduct by-elections free and fair and continue to co-operate with Aung San Suu Kyi.  So far, the people of Burma haven’t seen the regime’s sincere commitment to reform, except some half-baked measures.”

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