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UN chief urges Myanmar to free prisoners before vote

world Updated: Oct 31, 2010 13:05 IST

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called on military-ruled Myanmar on Friday to release political prisoners before its first election in 20 years, saying it still had time to allay concerns.

The polls are the first in Myanmar since 1990, when an opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi swept to victory. The military ignored the result and has kept Suu Kyi in detention for most of the time since then.

Myanmar and its bleak human rights record are a divisive issue in the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose leaders are meeting in Vietnam hoping to push forward a plan for economic and political unity by 2015. Ban is scheduled to meet ASEAN leaders, including Myanmar's prime minister, on Friday in Hanoi.

Ban told a news conference he had hopes and concerns about the November 7 vote and that ASEAN and the United Nations agreed on the need for a credible democratic transition and national reconciliation and that Myanmar still had time to act.

"It is not too late, even now. By releasing all political prisoners, the Myanmar authorities can help open the way for national reconciliation," he said.

ASEAN has repeatedly called for a "fair and inclusive" vote but critics say that is impossible while Suu Kyi, and more than 2,000 other political prisoners, are in detention. They denounce the vote as a ploy to seal the military's grip on power beneath a veneer of civilian rule.

Some ASEAN members, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, have been pressing Myanmar to reform. Others, like Vietnam and Cambodia, which both come under criticism on human rights, insist on respect for ASEAN's long-held principle of non-interference, while Philippines has denounced the vote as a "farce to democratic values".

Myanmar had raised the prospect of Suu Kyi's release from house arrest next month, when her sentence is due to expire, officials said.

Ban reiterated that the post-election period would be a test. "The period after the election will also be important, a chance for the authorities to signal that they are open to real change," he said.