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Opening up ICRC to resume Myanmar prison visits

Myanmar President Thein Sein (l) and ICRC President Peter Maurer in Myanmar

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer says the agency hopes to resume visits to detainees in Myanmar's prisons next week after a seven-year stoppage.

The Swiss, who heads the Geneva-based humanitarian organisation, made the announcement in Yangon on Thursday after meeting Myanmar President Thein Sein and other top officials in the southeast Asian nation this week.

“We warmly welcome this declaration,” the ICRC president said.

The ICRC had been prevented from visiting prisoners in December 2005 after restrictions were imposed by the junta. Prior to suspending its work, the agency regularly met detainees at dozens of jails and labour camps nationwide where they checked on inmates' health and treatment and provided them with soaps and medicines.

Myanmar has witnessed huge changes over the past two years. The junta handed power to an elected government in 2011 that has made a series of democratic reforms since then. Western countries subsequently suspended most sanctions.

For years the junta had been accused of mistreating detainees, in particular an estimated 2,000 political prisoners. But over the past 18 months the majority of political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties.

In November last year for example, Myanmar released dozens of political detainees during a historic visit by US President Obama.

Conflict areas

Ahead of Maurer’s visit, the ICRC said it was also seeking broader access to provide aid to conflict areas such as Kachin and Kayin states, which border China and Thailand, respectively. It is unclear whether such access was granted.

However, Maurer was due to make a trip on Thursday to western Rakhine state, which has been torn since last June by ethnic and sectarian violence that has driven more than 100,000 people from their homes.

Clashes have pitted the Buddhist Rakhine against a largely stateless Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, who comprise the majority of the displaced. The ICRC has been providing assistance to the sick, wounded and displaced people caught up in sectarian violence. and agencies


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