YANGON - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon rebuked Myanmar's generals on Saturday for denying him a visit to see detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and said she should be allowed to take part in politics before 2010 elections.
The U.N. Secretary-General expressed deep disappointment at the end of a two-day visit to the military-ruled state.
In a rare speech in Yangon to a crowd of about 500 diplomats, state officials, non-governmental organisations and opposition politicians, Ban sharply criticised Myanmar for its human rights record and its failure to free political prisoners.
Allowing a visit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been an important symbol of the government's willingness to embark on the kind of meaningful engagement that will be essential if the elections in 2010 are to be seen as credible, Ban said.
I'm deeply disappointed that they rejected my request. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be allowed to participate in the political process without further delay.
There was no applause during Ban's speech but his rebuke of the generals in front of a local audience prompted murmurs throughout the crowd at Yangon's Drug Elimination Museum.
Criticism of the authorities is rare in Myanmar and dissent is harshly dealt with by the generals, with rights activists, politicians and even comedians among those given long jail terms.
Ban waited overnight in Myanmar's isolated new capital Naypyidaw only to have junta supremo Than Shwe shoot down his request, saying Suu Kyi was on trial and the country's rulers did not want to be seen to interfere with the judicial process.
Suu Kyi, who has spearheaded the campaign for democracy for two decades in the former Burma, is on trial for breaching terms of her house arrest by allowing an American intruder to stay at her home on May 4.
The trial was adjourned on Friday until July 10 because of a clerical error by the court, according to her lawyer.
Critics have dismissed the process as a show trial and an attempt by the generals to keep her out of multi-party elections to be held next year.
Ban said Myanmar's human rights record was of grave concern and said its people would suffer if the regime continued to be isolated as a result of its failure to initiate meaningful, inclusive democratic reforms.
The question of today is this: How much longer can Myanmar afford to wait for national reconciliation, democratic transition and full respect for human rights? he told the crowd.
Ban is expected to receive criticism for what he had said would be a very tough mission, since he left without any guarantees from the generals that Suu Kyi and the more than 2,000 political prisoners would be freed.
He said being denied a meeting with Suu Kyi did not mean the visit was a waste of time, however, and said he believed the junta would seriously consider his proposals.
My meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi or not meeting with her should not be the benchmark of success or failure of my visit, Ban told reporters.
I believe they will seriously consider my proposals and I believe they got the message.
(Than Shwe) was saying that after (an election) he will hand over power to civilians. He said when I come back he may be a civilian...That means he's committed to hand over all power.
Ban, one of the few top world figures the Myanmar supremo is willing to meet, had hoped he would have some sway with the reclusive 76-year-old general, having convinced him last year to allow humanitarian aid groups to enter Myanmar to help with post-Cyclone Nargis recovery efforts.
Ban had expressed concern his trip could be used by the generals as propaganda to legitimise Suu Kyi's trial and next year's elections, which critics say will entrench nearly 50 years of military rule.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)