By THE IRRAWADDY
BANGKOK — The release of political prisoners is still the key to progress in Burma, Britain’s ambassador to the country, Mark Canning, told an audience during a panel discussion hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Wednesday.
Citing the ruling junta’s intensifying crackdown on dissent over the past two years, Canning described Burma as “one of the most repressive places in the world,” with more than 2,100 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
At the panel discussion to discuss developments in Burma since Cyclone Nargis hit the country almost exactly one year ago, Canning said that the international response to the deadly cyclone has done little to change the regime’s attitude, but there is still hope that it could have some positive effect in the long run.
However, the ambassador said that the signs are not encouraging as the junta prepares for national elections to be held sometime next year. Critics say that polling is unlikely to be free and fair because the junta is intent on eliminating any genuine opposition ahead of the vote, which will be based on a constitution approved last year in a referendum widely dismissed as a sham.
Although he stressed the need for a political solution to ease the country’s deepening social and economic woes, the ambassador also said that it was important for the international community to continue assisting people inside Burma.
Canning, who has served as the UK’s ambassador to Burma since 2006, was joined on the panel by Chris Kaye, the World Food Program’s country director for Burma, and Frank Smithius, the country director and medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Holland).
The panel discussion was recorded for broadcast by the BBC program “Question Time” to mark the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis. Organizers said that Burmese aid workers declined an invitation to take part in the discussion after learning that it would air on the BBC.