Hague calls on Burma to free more prisoners during historic visit

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent