YANGON - Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed when her house arrest ends in November, according to a government minister quoted by witnesses on Monday, but critics said that may be too late for this year's elections.
Home Minister Major General Maung Oo told a January 21 meeting of local officials the 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner would be released in November, a month after many observers expect the country to hold its first parliamentary elections in two decades.
The information could not be verified independently but three people who attended the meeting said the comment was made to an audience of several hundred people in Kyaukpadaung, a town about 565 km (350 miles) north of the former capital, Yangon.
The three witnesses requested anonymity.
Suu Kyi, detained for 14 of the past 20 years, was sentenced to a further 18 months of detention last August for harboring an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside home, raising questions over whether the election will be a sham.
That incident took place in May 2009, just before an earlier period of house arrest was due to end. Taking into account the three months she spent in a prison guesthouse after the incident, her 18-month sentence would end in November.
The planned election would be the first since 1990, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party scored a landslide victory that the country's junta refused to recognize.
Maung Oo also said detained NLD vice-chairman Tin Oo would be released on February 13, and that the government would pursue an international-style market economy after holding "free and fair" elections, including loosening restrictions on car imports.
Tin Oo, 82, a former defense minister and retired general, has been in prison or under house arrest for more than a decade.
ELECTION TIMING NOT YET SET
Senior NLD official Khin Maung Swe said it was crucial Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were released before the election.
"The most important thing is they must be freed in good time so that they can work for national reconciliation," he said.
The military junta has not set a date for the election but has promised U.S. President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders the vote would be free, fair and inclusive.
In recent months Suu Kyi has been allowed to meet the junta's liaison officer and foreign diplomats.
The NLD has not yet said whether it would take part in the elections, portrayed by the generals as a move to a multi-party democracy but derided by opponents as a sham designed to let the army retain real power.
The United States and others are reviewing policy toward the former Burma after years of sanctions and trade embargoes failed to get the junta to improve its human rights record or relax its grip on power.
Obama has offered Myanmar the prospect of better ties with Washington if it pursued democratic reform and freed political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait)