Bangkok: A British government minister has
called for the release of all political prisoners in army-dominated Myanmar during his first visit to the country, reports said.
International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell met
President Thein Sein and other senior government members
yesterday and is to hold talks with democracy icon Aung San
Suu Kyi tomorrow, embassy sources in Yangon said.
Myanmar has hosted a slew of high-profile international
guests in recent months, including European, US and UN
officials, but a diplomatic source told AFP this was the first
formal visit by a British minister "in many years".
Hopes for change in Myanmar have grown recently following
a series of tentative reformist steps but Mitchell told the
BBC yesterday that freeing the country`s political prisoners
remained a key demand.
"We need to see actions, and in particular, we need to
see these political prisoners released," he was quoted as
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was ruled by Britain
from the 19th century until independence in 1948.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar said Mitchell held a
"cordial discussion" with senior government figures.
Today Mitchell travelled to visit health projects funded
by Britain in the central city of Mandalay, where five monks
staged a rare protest yesterday demanding the release of all
prisoners of conscience and an end to conflict between the
army and ethnic rebels.
Myanmar`s nominally civilian government, which replaced a
long-ruling military junta eight months ago, has surprised critics by holding direct talks with Suu Kyi and freezing work on an unpopular mega-dam.
It freed some 200 political detainees last month but
caused disappointment by leaving many figures behind bars, and
another mass release expected for Monday has been delayed for
reasons that remain unclear.
Mitchell told the BBC yesterday that "enough had changed
to justify a visit and engagement like this" and said there
were grounds for "cautious optimism".
"On the one hand, there is now proper dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government and they have released some of the political prisoners," he said.
"But, on the other hand the ethnic conflicts which
besmirched Burma continue and we`ve also seen a failure to
release a large number of political prisoners, some of whom
are key to Burma`s future."
Rights groups have long said there are about 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar, but Suu Kyi`s National League
for Democracy party on Monday put the figure at 591, while the
government`s human rights panel said the number was around