Fears increase amid clashes in Myanmar

Buddhist monks lead the peaceful protest against Myanmar's military regime Keystone

Riot police in Myanmar have beaten back protestors as demonstrations continue against military rule, prompting increasing concerns in Switzerland.

This content was published on September 25, 2007 - 20:56

Thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians marched on Wednesday in the city of Yangon in defiance of the authorities' new ban on assembly and crackdown on demonstrators.

"We are closely watching developments in Myanmar," said Swiss foreign ministry spokeswoman Carine Carey in the Swiss capital, Bern on Tuesday.

"Switzerland urges the authorities in Myanmar to engage in dialogue, cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN over human rights," she told swissinfo.

"The human rights situation is particularly alarming and the lack of progress towards democracy is very serious," added spokesman Lars Knuchel.

He said Switzerland had repeatedly called for the release of the detained pro-democracy leader and Peace Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their words echo a statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly meeting in New York.

Major nations, as well as the European Union and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called on Myanmar to show restraint in handling the protests.

They began last month over shock fuel price rises and has developed into a wider movement against the military rulers.

China said it would not interfere and hoped to see stability in Myanmar.

Prisoners

On Monday a senior Swiss foreign ministry official called on the authorities of Myanmar to allow inspections of its detention centres across the country.

In his address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Blaise Godet said no progress had been made in response to a request by Switzerland more than six months ago.

The ICRC says increasingly severe restrictions imposed by the government have made it impossible for staff to move about independently in conflict-affected areas and have hampered the delivery of aid.

Since late 2005 the authorities have also prevented staff from visiting places of detention in accordance with its usual procedures.

Fears

For its part, the non-governmental Association Switzerland-Burma criticised the Swiss authorities for not doing more in the past to publicly promote democracy in Myanmar.

"Political refugees were even sent back where they were put into jail and tortured," said the Association's Matthias Huber.

He fears for the worst for the country if tensions continue to rise.

"We are concerned that the situation could turn violent because the troops are poorly trained to cope with protests and there's a risk that the demonstrators could be provoked," Huber told swissinfo.

On Tuesday tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians staged new anti-government protests, defying a warning by the military authorities.

Some demonstrators called for democracy and dialogue as they marched through the streets of Yangon.

Sanctions

The authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Yangon and the second city Mandalay after pouring troops and police in to end the biggest demonstrations against military rule in nearly 20 years.

In another sign of a looming confrontation, Suu Kyi was reportedly moved from her villa in Yangon to a notorious prison.

Meanwhile the United States has announced new sanctions against Myanmar. President Bush urged all nations "to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom".

He imposed financial sanctions and extended a visa ban on members of the military regime of Myanmar.

Switzerland tightened sanctions against Myanmar in June last year because of the "precarious human rights situation" in the country.

swissinfo, Luigi Jorio and Urs Geiser

In brief

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been under military rule of one form or another since 1962.

Its economy has collapsed and dozens of ethnic militias have waged civil war against the Burmese-dominated central government.

The UN says the junta has more than 1,100 political prisoners under lock and key.

Nobel peace laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 11 of the past 17 years.

ICRC staff have not visited her since September 2003.

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Swiss Aid in Myanmar

Myanmar is not a priority country for Switzerland in terms of development cooperation, but the Myanmar/Thailand region is a priority field of operations in Asia for Swiss humanitarian assistance.

In recent years the Swiss government has mainly helped internally displaced persons.

It has earmarked SFr3.6 million ($3.1 million) for humanitarian aid to Myanmar this year - up from SFr2.9 million in 2006.

Switzerland tightened sanctions against Myanmar in June last year because of the "precarious human rights situation" in the Southeast Asian country.

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