Monday, December 8, 2008

Asian Lawmakers Push UN Chief on Burma

The Irrawaddy News
Monday, December 8, 2008

More than 240 Asian lawmakers have called for the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to press Burma’s junta for the release of all political prisoners in the country.

The Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), which organized this campaign, said in a press release on Monday that a total of 241 parliamentarians from Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have sent a public letter to Ban urging him to ensure the release of all Burma’s political prisoners by December 31.

It is believed to be the first time in history that a large group of Asian lawmakers have sent a public letter to the UN.

Roshan Jason, the executive director of the AIPMC, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the group of Asian representatives has chosen Burma’s political prisoner issue because it is an essential step in the process of national reconciliation in the country.

“The most important human rights issue is the release of political prisoners [in Burma] now,” he said.

In the letter to the UN secretary-general, the Asian lawmakers said that the Burmese junta has used prisoners of conscience as political pawns, releasing a handful during and after visits by UN envoys while avoiding a complete release that would allow pave the way for true national reconciliation.

“The suffering of the people must not be allowed to continue and the world can no longer sit idly by and only assist them when there is a devastating natural disaster,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, president of the AIPMC and a member of parliament for Thailand’s Democrat Party.

The Asian parliamentarians’ call followed a similar petition on December 3 by 112 former world leaders—including Corazon Aquino, Tony Blair, George H W Bush, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, John Howard, Chandrika Kumaratunga, John Major, Margaret Thatcher and Lech Walesa—to the head of the UN, calling for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

However, Ban told reporters on Friday that he will not visit Burma in the near future unless political progress is evident in the country.

“At this time, I do not think that the atmosphere is ripe for me to undertake my own visit there,” he said. "But I am committed, and I am ready to visit any time when I can have reasonable expectations my visit will be productive and meaningful.”

Commenting on Ban Ki-moon’s response, Roshan Jason said that he should reconsider his decision of canceling the trip.

“He should realize that he would perhaps create a greater impact and [bring discussions over the political prisoners to the forefront of negotiations] with leaders of the regime,” the executive director of AIPMC said. “It is better to see them (the Burmese generals) in person—there will be more opportunity to talk about this particular issue and he can show his commitment to making sure prisoners are released.”

Meanwhile, analysts are skeptical of the impact of the international campaigns to free political prisoners in Burma.

“The international community highlighting the Burma crisis, such as issuing statements and petitions, is good,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese commentator based in Thailand. “But the junta will think of this kind of action as just shooting them with flowers.”

Since early November, courts in Burmese prisons have sentenced more than 200 people—from pro-democracy activists to bloggers—with jail terms of up to 65 years imprisonment.

Aung Naing Oo said the junta often uses long-term imprisonment as a tool of “pre-emptive repression” to deter dissident movements.

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