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Evelyn Leopold

Evelyn Leopold

Posted: July 15, 2009 08:32 AM

China Mounts Defense of Myanmar after Junta Pledges to Free Some Political Prisoners

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United Nations - Beijing broke from its usual uncontroversial statements on Myanmar (Burma) and told the West to stop "picking" on the ruling junta and stop treating it with "arrogance and prejudice."

In a U.N. Security Council session on Myanmar, China's deputy U.N. ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, made clear that Beijing, a major trading partner of Burma, would not use its influence to bring about any major change in the isolated southeast Asian nation.

The meeting on Monday was called so U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could report on his July 3-4 trip to Myanmar, where he met with the country's leaders, opposition figures and gave a public speech on democracy and human rights. But Ban was unable to see Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years and now in prison on trumped up charges.

China's Liu said it was "totally understandable" that Ban was refused a meeting with Suu Kyi because of "legal complications" and that this should "not be used as a criterion" on the success of Ban's visit. Rather the government should be treated "with less arrogance and prejudice."

"It would be unfair to turn a blind eye to the progress Myanmar has made and instead always focus on picking at its government," he said.

The reason for China's criticism, which also emphasized non-interference in the internal affairs of a country, was not immediately clear. Some observers speculated that Beijing was warning Security Council members not to bring up recent clashes between Muslim Uighurs and China's Han ethnic majority that left at least 184 people dead.

Prisoners freed?

The U.N. ambassador of Myanmar, Than Swe, told the 15-nation Security Council that his government was planning to release prisoners before the country's elections next year. But he did not say how many of the more than 2,000 political inmates would be freed.

Than Swe said his country was willing to implement "all appropriate recommendations" of the secretary-general, who went to Burma in an effort to get the ruling junta to release political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, publish an election law and allow opposition groups to open offices nationwide.

"At the request of the secretary-general, the Myanmar Government is processing to grant amnesty to prisoners on humanitarian grounds and with a view to enabling them to participate in the 2010 general elections," Than Swe said.

Ban reacted with caution to the offer: "This is encouraging but I will have to continue to follow up how they will implement all the issues raised during my visit to Myanmar," he told reporters.

The junta intends to organize multi-party elections for 2010. But the military will have an automatic 25 percent of the seats in parliament, control of key ministries and the right to suspend the constitution.

Fear of Suu Kyi?

However, a charter governing elections bans Myanmar nationals from political office if they have foreign spouses or children with foreign passports. The rule appears deliberately aimed at Suu Kyi, whose husband, now dead, was British. The couple also had two sons.

Her National league for Democracy won a landslide election in 1990 but the military refused to let it take office and has ruled the country since a 1962 coup.

Suu Kyi, 64, and in fragile health, was jailed after John Yettaw, an American , swam to her home, saying he had a vision that she would be assassinated by terrorists. She had never met him but is accused of violating terms of her house arrest.

There was no let up from many other Security Council members on Suu Kyi's captivity, which France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert called "intolerable and illegal." British envoy Philip Parham called for "robust" action if there was an "unjust outcome" in Suu Kyi's trial.

Rosemary A. DiCarlo, a deputy U.S. ambassador agreed, saying the "authorities are clearly not respecting that popular will by putting the leader of the country's democratic opposition on trial for spurious charges of violating a house arrest that was illegitimate to begin with."

"We are also troubled that the authorities continue to resist addressing the grave human rights challenges facing the country. For example, recent attacks by the Burmese Army and its proxies have forced more than 3,000 ethnic Karen to flee across the border into Thailand."

Some experts believe that engaging the government on humanitarian assistance and other economic development projects might produce more results than the Western-imposed sanctions, which China, backed by Russia, would prevent from being adopted worldwide by the Security Council. Others believe that unless factions within the military rebel, the junta will keep its grip on the country for the foreseeable future.

(The military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989. The United Nations recognizes that name but the United States and several other countries call the country Burma as does the Burmese democracy movement.)