February 27, 2006

Red Cross says Myanmar junta stops prison visits

By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar's military junta has suspended
visits by the Red Cross to 90 prisons and labor camps across
the country, the humanitarian agency said on Monday.

"Basically, the situation is not very good," said Fiona
Terry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) in Yangon. "The government has not authorized us
to visit since the end of last year."

The military government in charge of the former Burma had
not given any specific reasons for the termination of the ICRC
prison visits, which had been going on since 1999, she said.

During that time, the ICRC had made 453 visits to
prisoners, as well as two to opposition leader and Nobel
laureate Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after she was detained
following clashes between her supporters and government backers
in 2003, she said.

Human rights groups say Myanmar, which has been under
military rule since a 1962 coup, has around 1,100 political
prisoners. The ICRC does not release such information, citing
the need for confidentiality.

Terry said the ICRC's ability to operate had become more
difficult since the purge of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in
October 2004, with the junta imposing unworkable conditions on
the agency, which visits prisoners in 80 countries and assesses
their detention conditions.

One of the most contentious conditions, Terry said, was
making the ICRC take local government-affiliated agencies such
as the Myanmar Red Cross or Myanmar Women's Federation on
visits to political prisoners or "security detainees," as it
calls them.

"We were willing to cooperate for a certain amount of
things. We were willing to share our knowledge. We were very
happy if some Myanmar groups got involved in the welfare of
detainees," Terry said.

"But obviously we are not able to visit with them. We have
to have an independent view of what's going on and to talk with
the detainees without any witnesses," she said.

Since Khin Nyunt's removal, travel and other curbs have
been placed on many aid groups, including the U.N. World Food
Program and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and
Malaria, which pulled out of Myanmar in August 2005.

The ICRC was trying to negotiate a solution, Terry said,
although the process was being hampered in part by the military
government's move to a new administrative center at Pyinmana,
200 miles north of the old colonial-era capital, Yangon.

"We are optimistic that things are going to be resolved but
I can't put a timeline on that," she said.

"We weren't just visiting detainees. We were also
delivering quite a lot of essential drugs and soap, so there
are obviously some grave humanitarian concerns the longer this
goes on."

Last week, the United Nations human rights envoy to
Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, cited the cessation of ICRC
prison visits as evidence of the worsening state of human
rights in the southeast Asian nation.