UN envoy hints at freedom soon for Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi

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Speculation is rising that Burma may be preparing to release the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest after remarks by a senior United Nations official that the regime might be ready to ease its isolation from the rest of the world.

Ibrahim Gambari, the under secretary general for political affairs, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that after visiting the secretive country last week he had come away feeling its ruling clique of generals were ready to "turn a new page".

Among those he met was the regime's reclusive leader, General Than Shwe. The visit drew widespread attention and raised the hopes of campaigners for human rights in Burma after he became the first high-level international visitor in two years to be granted a meeting with Suu Kyi. Technically, the order for her to remain under house arrest expires tomorrow.

But UN officials said when Mr Gambari voiced optimism about the possibility of a change in direction from the regime, he did not mean to forecast the release of Suu Kyi. "He hopes that happens, but he is making no predictions," one senior source said.

The next step at the UN is likely to be the delivery of a formal briefing by Mr Gambari of his findings in Burma to the Security Council. No date for that has been set, and such a session could be blocked by either China or Russia. Both countries have resisted allowing the council to take up Burma as an issue for formal debate.

But Western diplomatic sources seemed confident that Mr Gambari will be invited to address the council next week, even if it has to happen informally under "any other business".

For the UN, the main priority will be to prod the junta into allowing a UN team already in Burma to resume assisting displaced persons in the eastern part of the country and restarting its programme to combat HIV/Aids among its population. The secretary general, Kofi Annan, on an official visit to neighbouring Thailand, also hopes to apply pressure on the regime to relaunch a stalled constitutional conference ostensibly aimed at opening the path towards democratisation. That would require renewed contacts between the junta and Suu Kyi's NLD party.

Khin Yi, Burma's chief of police, who was at a conference of South-east Asian countries in Malaysia, did not deny that Suu Kyi could be released. But he played down the significance of such an event.

"I think there will not be rallies or riots in Myanmar if Suu Kyi is released," he said. "Our police force can handle everything. There is peace and tranquillity in Myanmar. I don't think there are a lot of supporters for her. Some members of the NLD have resigned."

A spokesman for Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group in Washington for democracy in Burma, warned against viewing Suu Kyi's release as an act that would absolve the junta of its wider record of repression, particularly attacks on members of the Karen minority, and denial of human rights.

"They have used Aung San Suu Kyi in the past as a trump card to deflect international pressure," said Jeremy Woodrum, a director for the group. "The UN Security Council must act now to stop these senseless attacks on innocent civilians."