The United Nations chief has said the planned November 7 elections in Burma may not be fully legitimate if the junta does not free political prisoners in the run-up.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said freeing the more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma may help create a "perception that this election will be more inclusive than participatory".
The Southeast Asian country's military rulers have enacted laws that prevent pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners from contesting in the elections, which have been slammed by critics as a sham.
But, Ban said, "without releasing all political prisoners then there may certainly be some issue of legitimacy or credibility".
Meanwhile, Burma's top leader General Than Shwe will bow out of national elections next month, but his role in the country's political future remains unclear, a south-east Asian diplomat said.
The diplomat, speaking anonymously on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Vietnam, said Burma's foreign minister Nyan Win told his counterparts that the long-time leader of the military-run country would not be on the ballot during the country's first election in 20 years.
"He will bow out of the scene," the diplomat said, citing what the Burma official said at an informal dinner yesterday for delegates attending a summit for the Association of South-east Asian Nations. "He will not be a candidate in the forthcoming elections."
It was the first time the reclusive government confirmed that Than Shwe would not participate in the national polls. However, it was earlier believed that he would not run because his name did not appear on the candidates' list.
Than Shwe has never spoken about his future and no officials have ever broached the issue of his retirement or whether he would run in elections. He is widely expected to have some new role and title afterwards. Many think he could become the next president, which is not an elected position.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who's been imprisoned or under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years, is expected to be up for release on November 13, just six days after the election. But Philippine foreign secretary Alberto Romulo said her fate still remained uncertain.