The Red Cross usually prefers to follow a more discreet approach in raising humanitarian concerns with governments.


'Exceptional step'

Kellenberger said the ICRC had "repeatedly drawn attention to these abuses but the authorities have failed to put a stop to them".


"The behaviour and actions of the armed forces have helped create a climate of constant fear"

Jakob Kellenberger,
ICRC president

As a result, he said, the Red Cross was taking the "exceptional step" of speaking out and making its concerns public.


Compounding the problem, he said, were restrictions imposed by the Myanmar government, making the organisation's work impossible and hampering the delivery of humanitarian aid.


Michelle Mercier, from the ICRC in Myanmar, said: "The major concern is the fate of the population.


"It has proven impossible in recent years to have serious dialoge with the Myanmar authorities."


The criticism from the ICRC head came as it emerged that the US had held rare face-to-face talks with representatives from Myanmar's military to press for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.


The talks, held in Beijing and brokered by China, were "clear and direct", a spokesman for the US state department told reporters in Washington, adding that Myanmar had shown no signs of relenting.


Myanmar, formerly known as Burma has been ruled by a military government since 1962.




Expressing the Red Cross's frustration with the Myanmar authorities, Kellenberger said the organisation had been driven to voice its concerns publicly.


Myanmar timeline

1988: Military crackdown on pro-democracy protests, estimated 3,000 killed


1989: Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to house arrest for allegedly endangering the state


1990: NLD wins landslide in national election; military refuses to recognise result


1991: Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize


1995: Suu Kyi freed, but movements restricted


1997: Myanmar admitted to Asean


2000: Suu Kyi sentenced to house arrest for defying travel restrictions


2002: Suu Kyi released following UN-facilitated secret talks with government


2003: Government unveils "road map" to democracy; Suu Kyi returned to house arrest after her convoy is attacked in north of country


2005: Government announces shift to new capital Naypidaw


2007: Nearly 3,000 prisoners released in amnesty to mark independence anniversary, but no key political figures freed

Normally the ICRC prefers to use confidential and bilateral dialogue to convey its concerns and achieve results, he said.


"However, this presupposes that parties to a conflict are willing to enter into a serious discussion and take into account the ICRC's recommendations.


"This has not been the case with the authorities of Myanmar and that is why the ICRC has decided to speak out publicly."


The Red Cross said its concerns were based on extensive evidence, including interviews with thousands of civilians and detainees.


Among abuses highlighted by the ICRC are what it says is the "persistent use" of prisoners forced to work as porters for the armed forces – a violation of international humanitarian law.


This not only exposed the prisoners to the dangers of armed conflict, the Red Cross said, but also led to many suffering exhaustion and malnutrition.


Some have also been murdered, it said.


The Myanmar government has said on several occasions that it has banned forced labour, but human rights groups say that little action has been taken, especially in areas where foreigners are barred.


In other areas the Red Cross said it had extensive evidence of Myanmar's armed forces committing repeated abuses against men, women and children living in conflict-torn areas along the Thai-Myanmar border.


These have included the large-scale destruction of food supplies and of means of production.


'Constant fear'

It said the behaviour and actions of the armed forces had created "a climate of constant fear", forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.


Kellenberger said that despite repeated entreaties by the Red Cross over these abuses, the Myanmar government had "consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion of these abuses with a view to putting a stop to them".


Myanmar's military rulers are facing
increasing international pressure [Reuters]
The Red Cross criticism is likely to add to international pressure on Myanmar over human rights.


Soe Aung, from the opposition National Council of the Union of Burma, currently in exile in Thailand, said: "The most important thing is that the military regime comes to dialogue.


"We need a binding in resolution from the UN security council which will make the regime come to the dialogue table.


"The stability, peace and prosperity of Burma is important."


Both the European Union and the US have imposed economic sanctions, and threatened further action unless Myanmar improves its rights record and frees Aung San Suu Kyi.


There has also been growing pressure for change from Myanmar's fellow members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).


However, earlier this month Ong Keng Yong, the ASEAN secretary general, said that more than a decade of US and EU sanctions were not working against Myanmar since the military government was largely immune to them.