Rights Group Urges Ban Ki-moon to Visit Burma

A Christian human rights group is urging U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to maintain his plan to visit Burma next month in light of the junta's recent arbitrary imprisonment of dozens of pro-democracy activists.

Several U.N. envoys have visited the country in the past but failed to bring about any change, U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted.

"[N]ow it is time for the Secretary-General himself, with the full weight of his office, to visit Burma and seek to facilitate change," CSW's chief executive, Mervyn Thomas, said in a statement Monday.

Thomas highlighted the recent "desperate deterioration" of human rights in Burma and argues it is "essential" that the secretary-general does not cancel his trip because of lack of progress.

This past week, Burma's military regime jailed more than 80 pro-democracy activists, including a poet, a blogger, musicians and several Buddhist monks. At least 65 dissidents were sentenced to 65 years in prison for their participation in the massive peaceful demonstration in Burma last September.

Among those imprisoned are Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, the latter of whom is the most famous Burmese political prisoner following opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The pro-democracy activists, who have spent many years in prison and are currently detained, continue to face another 21 charges that could extend their prison sentence to as much as 159 years in some cases.

Many of those sentenced last week were transferred on Sunday and Monday to prisons in remote areas hundreds of miles from the capital city of Rangoon, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. The long distance makes it impossible for the prisoners' families to visit them.

The isolation also means a greater likelihood of harsher prison conditions, including torture, and denial of medical treatment.

Former political prisoners say that without supplies from relatives, such as malaria and vitamin pills, the detainees will face much higher risk of dying in prison, according to Reuters.

The White House has denounced Burma's military rulers for what it calls "arbitrary sentencing" of dissidents and "persistent repression of its people."

"The international community and the United Nations Security Council must not remain silent as the regime demonstrates yet again its contempt for universal freedoms and its disdain for the international community's calls to release all political prisoners," the White House said, according to Reuters.

Rights groups believe the junta's crackdown on dissidents is a campaign to wipe-out all political opposition ahead of the 2010 election.

CSW urges Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to make the release of political prisoners in Burma a priority during his visit next month.

Besides political prisoners, CSW also voiced concern about the continued military offensive of the Burma Army against civilians in eastern Karen State.

One villager in Karen State, which is over 90 percent Christian, was killed on Nov. 4, and over 1,971 people were displaced following attacks in Mon Township.

Christians make up just four percent of the country's overall population and have come under persistent and brutal persecution by Burma's military force. Persecution comes in the form of church burnings, forced conversion to the state religion of Buddhism, and banning children of Christians from school.

In eastern Burma, over 3,000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned in the past 10 years, according to human rights group WITNESS. In 2006, an estimated 27,000 members of the predominantly Christian Karen tribe were forced from their homes in eastern Burma, according to U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper.

According to the Free Burma Rangers, at least 12 villages have been looted, destroyed and abandoned, rice fields and food stores have been destroyed, and civilians have shot at the villagers taken for forced labor.

CSW's Thomas calls on the U.N. secretary-general to set up some specific benchmarks for progress with deadlines that the regime must meet. He recommends that immediate release of political prisoners be the first deadline, followed by an end to the military offensive against civilians in eastern Burma.

"The regime's crimes against humanity have gone unchallenged for too long. We believe the international community should seriously consider invoking the principle of the 'Responsibility to Protect' with regard to Burma," Thomas said.

Human rights groups estimate that the junta detains more than 2,100 political prisoners, a sharp increase from nearly 1,200 in June 2007, before the nationwide democracy demonstrations.