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(New York) - The Burmese government’s arbitrary extension of the detention of a prominent opposition party leader highlights the country’s lack of commitment to political change, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Tuesday, the Home Ministry of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) extended the house arrest of U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Burma’s military junta barred the NLD from taking power after the party overwhelmingly won the 1990 general election.

U Tin Oo, a former Army Chief of Staff who was purged in the late 1970s and helped form the NLD, was arrested on trumped-up charges of disturbing public order on May 30, 2003, after pro-government militias attacked the convoy carrying him and other opposition leaders near Depayin in upper Burma. An unknown number of opposition supporters were killed in the attack, in which NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was also injured.

In January, China and Russia nonetheless vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at taking steps to address the dire human rights situation in Burma.

“The Burmese government relies on China and Russia’s backing to flout the international community’s demands to free political prisoners like U Tin Oo,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The continued detention of the leaders of the party that won the last election in Burma shows how the military junta is fearful of political dissidents striving for democracy.”

U Tin Oo and Aung San Suu Kyi have been held under house arrest for more than three years and are allowed almost no visitors. In May 2006, the detention order for Aung San Suu Kyi was extended by a year, one day after she met with UN Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari, the first international visitor she had been permitted since late 2003. She is currently allowed no visits except for a monthly visit from her doctor.

Today the Burmese government is holding more than 1,000 known political prisoners held in dozen prisons and almost 100 labor camps throughout the country. Many are held in desperate conditions and tortured by prison and military authorities. Many are also held far away from their homes to make it difficult for family and political supporters to visit them or provide food and medicines.

The SPDC regularly arrests opposition political figures and extends the detention orders of those already imprisoned to keep them from participating in politics. For example, in February 2005 the SPDC arrested nine leaders of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), led by Hkun Tun Oo, the party that gained the second-highest number of votes in the 1990 elections. In previous years the SNLD had participated in the National Convention to write a new constitution, but consistently complained about the restrictive process. As a result, the party’s leaders were arrested and the party outlawed. In secret trials in 2005, all the leadership was sentenced to life imprisonment with terms of 97 years. One of the leaders, U Myint Than, died in custody on May 2, 2006 at age 55.

“Burma’s military government is using its detention and harassment of political activists to smooth the way toward writing a new constitution that would allow it to stay in power,” said Adams. “Burma’s leaders are trying to make the public and the world community forget that there are many Burmese voices demanding political change.”

Since late 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not been permitted to conduct unsupervised visits to political prisoners, one of their core mandates for operations in Burma. Recently, the government announced that visits could resume if accompanied by members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass-based social movement organized and controlled by the SPDC, which would be contrary to standard protocol that ICRC follows around the world.

The USDA perpetrated the 2003 attack in Depayin on the NLD convoy of Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo and other opposition leaders. It has also been involved in numerous other attacks and demonstrations against opposition political figures. As part of the SPDC’s sham political reform process, the USDA is being groomed as a political organization that will assume power once the long running constitutional process concludes and elections take place. USDA officials are slowly taking over control of local government responsibilities from military officials, a key step in institutionalizing their nationwide control.

“The military is trying to subcontract power to the same thuggish elements who violently attacked Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo in 2003,” Adams said. “It’s time for China and other international supporters of Burma’s military junta to say enough is enough and stop supporting repression in Burma.”

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