Security Council laments lack of progress on Myanmar reforms

18 January 2008

[Source - AFP]

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — The Security Council has bemoaned the slow progress in initiating democratic reforms in Myanmar and pressed for an early visit to the country by UN mediator Ibrahim Gambari.

After huddling with Gambari, the 15 council members said in a statement that they "regretted the slow rate of progress so far toward" meeting objectives they set out last October, a month after Myanmar's military junta crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years.

Underscoring the importance of "further progress" toward the goal of reconciliation between the military regime and the opposition, they noted that "an early visit by Mr. Gambari could help facilitate this."

Gambari, the UN's point man in efforts to foster reconciliation between the military government and the Western-backed opposition, said all council members stressed, during closed-door consultation "the need to accelerate progress."

Gambari has visited Myanmar twice since the bloody military crackdown in September on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks.

The repression was sparked by protests against a steep rise in fuel prices a month earlier, which rapidly escalated into demonstrations against the military junta which has ruled Myanmar for decades.

Gambari said he asked to return to Myanmar this month but was told by authorities that an April visit would be more convenient for them.

He added that all council members supported an "early visit as a means to engage the government of Myanmar in all areas of concern."

Last October, the Security Council adopted a non-binding statement calling for "the early release of all political prisoners and remaining detainees," including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in 1990 elections, but the result has never been recognized by the junta which placed her under house arrest.

After Thursday's meeting, US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that "in order for success to be achieved, we need to increase the pressure" on the military regime.

He stressed the need to "reduce the gap between where things are and where they need to be" in terms of democratic reforms, full respect for human rights, an end to forced labor and to repression of ethnic minorities.

Khalilzad specifically urged countries with influence on Myanmar, such as China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to persuade the military regime to cooperate with Gambari.

China is a major supplier of weapons to Myanmar and has come under criticism for its policy of non-interference in the reclusive southeast Asian nation's affairs.

India has also cultivated close ties with Myanmar's military rulers in recent years, citing its huge energy requirements as well as its need to jointly battle separatist rebels who are active along the two countries' jungle border.

In Geneva, an international forum also urged Asian powers India and China to exert stronger pressure on the military junta in Myanmar to free its political prisoners.

"India and China should be more engaged and more involved in Myanmar," said Canadian senator Sharon Carstairs, the president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union's rights committee.

"India and China and in a certain measure Thailand, who are major trading partners with Myanmar, could be extremely helpful to intervene on behalf of their (detained) parliamentary colleagues."

The IPU is a Geneva-based forum that groups leading parliamentarians from 146 nations.

At least 31 people were killed, 74 went missing and 3,000 were arrested in the September crackdown, according to a UN report. The violence sparked worldwide condemnation of the regime, with the United States and the European Union tightening sanctions against the country's top rulers.

Last month, US President George W. Bush threatened to spearhead a global campaign to step up sanctions against Myanmar if it continued to ignore calls for a democratic transition.

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