UN chief in Burma mission to free Suu Kyi

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Burma on Friday on a difficult mission to press the chief of the ruling military junta to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

Ban touched down in the commercial hub of Rangoon on the day the detained Nobel Peace laureate appeared at a prison court for the latest hearing in her internationally condemned trial.

The UN chief said he would directly urge regime leader Senior General Than Shwe for permission to visit the 64-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi in jail, but admitted the scale of the challenge he faces to win her freedom.

“It is a very tough mission,” he told reporters shortly after his arrival on a commercial flight from Singapore.

“One of my objectives is to obtain the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, adding that he was also going to “convey the concern of the international community” and press for reconciliation and democracy.

Ban immediately transferred to a Rangoon hotel and was to fly later on Friday to the remote capital, Naypyidaw — purpose-built by the ruling generals in 2006 — to meet Than Shwe.

Rights groups have warned that the trip will be a “huge failure” if he does not secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last two decades in detention.

The pro-democracy icon was transferred from house arrest to Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison in May for trial on charges of breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American man swam to her lakeside home.

She faces up to five years in jail if convicted and critics have accused the junta of using the trial to keep her locked up for elections that the ruling generals have promised in 2010.

She appeared in court on Friday but the trial was adjourned for a week because judges had not received a Supreme Court judgement barring two defence witnesses, said Nyan Win, spokesperson for her National League for Democracy (NLD).

In a meeting between Suu Kyi and her lawyers at the jail on Thursday, Nyan Win said she called on Ban to take Than Shwe to task over “the release of political prisoners, dialogue with the opposition and free and fair elections”.

Ban earlier made an apparent reference to concerns over the timing of his visit while her trial is still under way, saying he was aware that he was coming to Burma “under certain uncertainties”.

“I will try to meet with representatives of all registered political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s my hope. But I have to raise this issue with the senior general directly, in person,” he said in Singapore on Thursday.

As well as Than Shwe, Ban said he will also meet with Prime Minister Thein Sein and representatives of all registered political parties and former armed groups.

Ban has faced recent criticisms for his softly-softly approach to the job of secretary general, but diplomats say he is hoping his quiet brand of diplomacy will pay dividends with Burma’s generals.

The visit is Ban’s first to Burma since he persuaded the junta to accept international aid in the wake of devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which killed about 138 000 people.

He is set to visit the region hit by Nargis on his latest trip.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been in detention or under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years since the junta refused to recognise the NLD’s landslide victory in Burma’s last elections, in 1990.

Human Rights Watch said Ban should not accept the apparent concession from the junta of returning her to house arrest, instead of imprisoning her, as a sign of a successful visit.

Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. — AFP

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