British minister demands Myanmar prisoner release

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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 on Tuesday and is to hold talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday, 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 on Tuesday 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 saying.

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.

On Wednesday Mitchell travelled to visit health projects funded by Britain in the central city of Mandalay, where five monks staged a rare protest on Tuesday 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 on Tuesday 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 300.

© 2011 AFP

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