U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Myanmar's top military ruler Friday but apparently failed to win any concessions or to gain permission to visit opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in jail.
Ban talked for two hours with reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe in an ornate reception hall — complete with an indoor waterfall — in Naypyitaw, the junta's remote, newly built capital.
It was a rocky start to what the U.N. chief predicted would be "a very tough mission" to win freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong sahn SUE CHEE), the 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been detained by the junta for nearly 14 of the past 20 years and is now on trial charged with violating her house arrest.
The U.N. chief will press again Saturday in another private meeting, a U.N. spokeswoman said. He also will continue to seek various other reforms that include democratization, fair elections, economic cooperation and freedom for her and all other political prisoners.
Ban emerged from Friday's meeting saying he still hoped to meet Suu Kyi before he leaves the country on Saturday night.
"I told him that I wanted to meet her, but he told me that she is (on) trial," Ban told reporters after meeting with Than Shwe. "But I told him that this is my proposal, and this is important, and I'm waiting for their reply."
It was Ban's second visit to Myanmar since Cyclone Nargis devastated much of the country last year. His first visit managed to persuade the military government to ease access for hundreds of foreign aid workers who had been restricted from entering cyclone-affected areas. He also oversaw a conference that raised up to $150 million in emergency relief funds.
However, the U.N. has been unable to budge the junta on its refusal to free its estimated 2,100 political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
Shortly after the U.N. chief arrived Friday, the court presiding over Suu Kyi's widely criticized trial announced an adjournment until July 10. The trial had been set to resume after a monthlong delay.
In May, she was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest when an uninvited American man swam secretly to her lakeside home in May and stayed for two days. She has pleaded not guilty and faces five years in prison if convicted.
Suu Kyi is being detained at the compound surrounding Myanmar's Insein Prison, where 53-year-old John William Yettaw of Falcon, Mo., the intruder who is charged with trespassing, also is being held.
The trial has sparked outrage from world leaders, other Nobel laureates, human rights groups and Hollywood celebrities who say the military-controlled government is using the bizarre incident as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi behind bars through elections scheduled for 2010.
The elections are part of the junta's "roadmap to democracy," which critics say is a sham designed to cement the military's four-decade grip on power.
Ban said he also urged Than Shwe (pronounced TAHN SHWAY) to "accelerate the process of democratization."
"I was assured that the Myanmar authorities will make sure that this election will be held in a fair and free and transparent manner," he said, without elaborating.
'Back and forth'
Senior U.N. officials who participated in Friday's talks described them as far-ranging, with "a lot of back and forth" between the world's top diplomat and the military rulers.
Than Shwe was accompanied by four other generals and the foreign minister, among others in his entourage. Ban kept a few aides by his side, though he prefers one-on-one talks with world leaders in contrast to Than Shwe — who also refuses to take Ban's phone calls.
Suu Kyi's opposition party won national elections in 1990, but Myanmar's generals refused to relinquish power. Her latest six-year round of house arrest was to expire last month.
Her supporters fear that Suu Kyi will be found guilty because the courts are under the influence of the ruling junta and usually mete out harsh punishment for political dissidents.
Ban also met with ethnic minority groups and leaders of 34 political parties, including senior members of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, who were driven to Naypyitaw, senior U.N. officials said.
Human Rights Watch urged Ban to make the trip "meaningful" after years of failed U.N. attempts to win Suu Kyi's freedom and promote democratic reforms. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962.
"Time and again, the U.N. has politely requested Aung San Suu Kyi's release, but her 'release' back to house arrest would be a huge failure," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "(Ban) should make it clear that the time for stalling and playing games is over and that real change is needed now."