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UN chief urged to visit Burma

Andrew Buncombe,Asia Correspondent
Tuesday 09 December 2008 18:21 GMT

Campaigners have called on UN leader Ban Ki-Moon to reverse his decision not to visit Burma, saying that a top level visit is essential if the country's military regime is to consider the release of political prisoners and halt the crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Ban, who visited Burma in the aftermath of the devastating cyclone earlier this year, had been expected to visit the country again to discuss various issues including the release of prisoners of conscience. Yet despite receiving a petition from more than 100 former presidents and prime minister urging him to make good his vow to return, Mr Ban announced at the weekend that he had decided not to go. He said he was frustrated by the lack of progress made in Burma and believed that in such circumstances a visit would not be appropriate.

Yesterday campaigners called on the UN Secretary General to rethink his decision, saying that his personal involvement was essential to win any progress. "It's something of a Catch 22 situation," said Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK. "Ban Ki-Moon says he will not go because of a lack of progress but there will not be any progress unless there is a high level visit."

Campaigners have been critical of the efforts made by the UN's leader's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, saying he has lost the respect of both the regime and the political opposition, whose imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi declined to meet him when he last visited the country. They say there have been 37 visits by special envoys in the two decades since the regime ignored the results of a election that the opposition won by a landslide.

The criticism of the UN leader's decision comes just weeks after the military junta concluded a judicial crackdown on the country's leading dissidents. At a series of staged trials held in secret inside Rangoon's Insein Jail, dozens of activists and political prisoners were sentenced to jail for terms of up to 65 years. Among them were members of the 88 Students Generation - activists who had led failed democracy uprisings in 1988 and who again organised protests last year ahead of wider demonstrations involving tens of thousands of the country's Buddhist monks. In the aftermath, the regime seized hundreds of monks and ordinary citizens. It is now estimated there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma.

At the time of last year's uprising, the UN Security Council called on Burma to release its political prisoners and when Mr Ban visited the country earlier this year after Cyclone Nargis left up more than 140,000 people dead it was understood he would return to press on the issue.

In their letter to the UN head, the former leaders, who also included Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, said: "We urge you to make it clear that all political prisoners in Burma must be released by the end of this year, regardless of whether you travel to Burma. If the Burmese junta continues to defy the United Nations by refusing to make these releases by the end of the year, we urge you to encourage the Security Council to take further concrete action to implement its call for the release of all political prisoners."

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