The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it is to resume prison visits in Myanmar to assess the welfare and living conditions of inmates, almost seven years after it was stopped from carrying out the activity.
Myanmar’s military-backed reformist government, which took power in March 2011 after half a century of military rule, announced in November, before U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the impoverished Southeast Asian country, that it would grant the ICRC further access to Myanmar’s prisons .

On Tuesday, the ICRC confirmed this in an interview published on its website and said it was also helping people affected by sectarian violence in Rakhine state in western Myanmar and hoped to visit areas affected by conflict elsewhere in Myanmar.

The Swiss-based organisation halted prison visits in 2005 because of official insistence that ICRC staff be accompanied by government-affiliated agencies.

The organisation said in 2007 that its staff were unable to conduct visits to detainees in former Burma or run independent operations in sensitive border areas, compromising its mandate to provide neutral humanitarian aid.

The ICRC has been carrying out a number of infrastructure projects in prisons during 2011 and 2012 but has not been allowed to conduct visits.

“We intend to start detention visits as soon as possible,” Alain Aeschlimann, ICRC’s head of operations for East and South East Asia and the Pacific, said in the interview.  “We agreed with the authorities that we would start with a pilot visit, during which we would follow the standard working methods and procedures that we use all over the world,” he said.

The ICRC told AlertNet the date of the first visit has not yet been confirmed.

“After the pilot visit, we will plan how to expand our prison visits to the rest of the country,” Aeschlimann added.

The ICRC, together with the Myanmar Red Cross, is currently “providing basic but vital assistance to the sick, wounded and displaced” in Rakhine state in western Myanmar following two waves of communal violence which have displaced more than 115,000 people. It is also renovating sanitation facilities and supplying water in camps for displaced people.

Aeschlimann said the organisation was considering “a significant increase” in its involvement following the second outbreak of violence, in October.

“We are also waiting for authorisation to carry out assessment missions in the border areas of Kachin and Kayin and would be ready to conduct medical activities in these conflict-affected areas,” he added.

Fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army broke out in June 2011 and has displaced around 75,000 people, rights groups and aid agencies say.

The ICRC has been working in Myanmar since 1986, providing limbs and physical rehabilitation for landmine victims and other disabled people at its orthopaedic centres.

From 1999 until the end of 2005, ICRC officials made regular visits to some 10,000 detainees, including political prisoners, in 70 prisons and labour camps.

Myanmar’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners since the start of the year, the latest group on the day of Obama’s visit. The Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB) says.