World

Burma dragging heels on democratic reform: UN

The United Nations Security Council expressed concern Thursday at Burma's slow progress in opening a dialogue with the opposition and called for the early return of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to help promote national reconciliation.

The United Nations Security Council expressed concern Thursday at Burma's slow progress in opening a dialogue with the opposition and called for the early return of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to help promote national reconciliation.

The council "underscored the importance of making further progress" on the objectives it set out in an Oct. 11 statement, which include protecting human rights and releasing all political prisoners and detainees.

The junta in Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been strongly criticized for sending troops to quash peaceful protests against a fuel price hike, initially led by students and then by Buddhist monks, in late September. The government said 10 people were killed, but diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Thousands of monks and civilians were arrested.

Gambari told reporters after meeting with Security Council members that he asked to go to Myanmar later this month but the country's military rulers sent word "that it's not convenient and they will prefer mid-April."

He said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the government "that's not acceptable, and I agree, so we are in the process of negotiating an early, rather than a later, return to Myanmar."

The Security Council on Thursday reiterated its support for Gambari's efforts and for the objectives in its Oct. 11 statement, which strongly deplored the government's crackdown and called for a "genuine dialogue" between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition.

Council members "regretted the slow rate of progress so far toward meeting those objectives," the council statement said.

The council's language was weak, but diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private, said there was opposition even to the word regret, led by South Africa.

Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers said "it's important that the council sets out that we can't go back to the situation before the demonstrations of last September and the brutal repression of the authorities."

Gambari said after his last trip to Myanmar from Nov. 3-8 that he was making progress in nudging the military junta toward meaningful dialogue with the pro-democracy opposition. But he acknowledged there were "serious concerns" about "the willingness of the government to move forward in a new direction."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said "countries with influence ... need to express their displeasure with the lack of progress and encourage progress."

Myanmar's junta took power in 1988 after crushing the democracy movement led by Suu Kyi. In 1990, it refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide election victory. Since then, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been in and out of detention, kept in near-solitary confinement at her home.