October 29, 2010 / 8:27 AM / in 9 years

U.N. chief urges Myanmar to free prisoners before vote

HANOI (Reuters) - U.N. 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.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) and his wife Yoo Soon-teak arrive at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi October 28, 2010. Ban is in Hanoi for the ASEAN and related summits from October 28 to 30. REUTERS/Kham

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 Nov. 7 vote and that ASEAN and the United Nations agreed on the need for a credible democratic transition and national reconciliation.

Ban said 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.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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.

The 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 said 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.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi was found guilty last year of breaking a security law by allowing an American intruder to stay at her home.

(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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