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High level UN talks set to push for Myanmar reforms

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September 27, 2008

High level UN talks set to push for Myanmar reforms
Ministers from UN Security Council permanent member states and mostly Asian nations are to hold their first meeting Saturday aimed at pushing for reforms in military-ruled Myanmar, reported AFP.

UN Secretary Genereal Ban Ki-moon called for the informal talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly amid little signs the military rulers will embrace political reforms, one year after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Yet, officials said the first ministerial meeting of Ban's so-called "group of friends on Myanmar" would raise the profile of the longstanding internationl demand for the junta to hold a dialogue with the democratic opposition and polish up its human rights record.

"The fact that these countries are attending at the ministerial level and have agreed to this meeting shows that they are putting the Myanmar issue as a high concern," Ban's spokeswoman Choi Soung-Ah told AFP.

The group's envoys at the UN headquarters in New York had met several times since its first meeting in December last year.

The group comprises permanent Security Council members United States, Britain, France, Russia and China as well as Australia, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

An observer from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will also be present.

Since Myanmar's violent military crackdown pro-democracy protests in September last year, repression "has increased and the military government has failed to deliver on promises it made a year ago, despite international efforts at mediation," said Human Rights Watch, an independent US group.

The crackdown left 31 people dead, including a Japanese journalist who was shot at close range, according to the United Nations. Another 74 people remain missing and thousands more were arrested.

Ban's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has made four visits to the country since the bloody uprising but failed to restart a dialogue between detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta or achieve significant gains.

While he came under criticism from disgruntled dissident groups, Choi cautioned: "That's the only window we have and let's not shoot the messenger."

The Security Council is divided on the issue, with China and Russia having vetoed a previous moves urging Myanmar to swiftly return to democracy and free all political detainees.

Last Tuesday, the junta freed seven political prisoners and members of the Aung San Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy, including the well-known journalist Win Tin, 79, who had been imprisoned since 1989.

But a day later, one activist was rearrested according to Myanmar exiles in Thailand.

Human Rights Watch said 39 political arrests had been made in August and September alone, bringing the total number of political prisoners to more than 2,100.

The military junta, which has ruled the country since 1962, was criticised for holding a referendum in May, just days after a cyclone left 138,000 people dead or missing across the country.

Pro-democracy activists said the vote was neither free nor fair, but the military said a new constitution issued after the referendum has paved the way for multi-party elections to be held in 2010.

The rules render Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible to stand for election. Her party won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.

Meanwhile, Thai and Myanmar activists have organised a series of events in Thailand to commemorate the first anniversary of the junta's crackdown on thousands of Buddhist monks protesting against sharp rises in the price of food and fuel in Myanmar, local daily the Bangkok Post reported Saturday.

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