Friday, July 3, 2009

UN Chief Denied Suu Kyi Visit

The Irrawaddy News

NAYPYIDAW—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that Burma’s junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe rejected his initial request to meet jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a rocky start to what he has called "a very tough mission" to win her freedom.

Ban emerged from a two-hour meeting with Than Shwe, saying he still hoped to meet the 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate before he leaves the country on Saturday.

"I told him that I wanted to meet her, but he told me that she is [on] trial," Ban told reporters afterward. "But I told him that this is my proposal, and this is important, and I'm waiting for their reply."

The two met in an ornate reception hall with a colonnaded walkway and an indoor waterfall in Naypyidaw, the junta's remote administrative capital.

If Ban is allowed to meet with Suu Kyi, he will be the first UN secretary-general to do so since her first period of detention started in 1989.

Suu Kyi has been in detention for nearly 14 of the past 20 years, mostly under house arrest.

In May, she was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest when an uninvited American man allegedly swam to her lakeside home in May and stayed for two days. She has pleaded not guilty and faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The trial has sparked outrage from world leaders, Hollywood celebrities, other Nobel laureates and human rights groups who say the military-controlled government is using the bizarre incident as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi behind bars through elections scheduled for 2010.

The elections are part of the junta's "roadmap to democracy," which critics say is a sham designed to cement the military's four-decade grip on power.

Ban said he also urged Than Shwe to "accelerate the process of democratization" and reiterated calls for the junta to free its estimated 2,100 political prisoners ahead of the elections.

"I was assured that the Myanmar authorities will make sure that this election will be held in a fair and free and transparent manner," he said, without elaborating.

Shortly after the UN chief arrived on Friday, the court presiding over Suu Kyi's widely criticized trial announced an adjournment until July 10. The trial had been set to resume after a month-long delay during which lawyers appealed the court's decision to ban three key defense witnesses, one of whom was reinstated by an appeals court.

Defense witness Khin Moe Moe — a lawyer and member of the NLD— was due to testify on Friday, but the presiding judge told lawyers that the case file had not yet been returned by the appeals court that had ruled to reinstate the witness, said attorney Nyan Win.

Suu Kyi is being detained at Burma’s notorious Insein Prison, as is 53-year-old John William Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri, the intruder who is charged with trespassing.

Suu Kyi's opposition party won national elections in 1990, but Burma’s generals refused to relinquish power. Her latest six-year round of house arrest was to expire last month.

Her supporters fear that Suu Kyi will be found guilty because the courts are under the influence of the ruling junta and usually mete out harsh punishment for political dissidents.

Ban was also scheduled to meet ethnic minority groups and leaders of political parties, including senior members of the NLD, who were driven to Naypyidaw, government officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the itinerary.

Ban had previously said his talks would focus on "three of the most important issues for the future of Myanmar." They are gaining the release of all political prisoners including Suu Kyi; resumption of dialogue between the military government and its opposition; and creating conditions for credible elections.

Human Rights Watch urged Ban to make the trip "meaningful" after years of failed UN attempts to win Suu Kyi's freedom and promote democratic reforms.

"Time and again, the UN has politely requested Aung San Suu Kyi's release, but her 'release' back to house arrest would be a huge failure," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "He should make it clear that the time for stalling and playing games is over and that real change is needed now."

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