UN envoy meets in Myanmar

BANGKOK: A United Nations envoy to Myanmar met Tuesday with both the leader of the military junta and the leader of the democratic opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, completing a four-day trip that followed the brutal suppression of mass popular demonstrations.

The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, met first with the country’s military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, bringing a message of outrage from the outside world at the crackdown that began last week, with soldiers firing into crowds and arresting hundreds of the Buddhist monks who had led the demonstrations, reports the International Herald Tribune.

Gambari then flew from the country’s remote, militarized capital, Nyapyitaw, to the nation’s main city, Yangon, where he met for a second time with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had also visited on Sunday.

These alternating visits raised hopes that he might be fostering some kind of rudimentary dialogue.

But one Western diplomat cautioned against expecting immediate results in a standoff that has continued since the junta took power after a bloody crackdown in 1988. Than Shwe and his fellow generals have confined Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

“I don’t expect great changes to come from Gambari’s visit,” said the ambassador, who spoke anonymously according to his embassy’s policy. “I expect the opening gambit of the generals to be a very tough one. But in the longer term, I think this is not going to go away. It is important to keep the pressure on them.”

Yangon was grimly quiet during Gambari’s visit, with armed soldiers guarding streets that had been filled last week with up to 100,000 pro-democracy protesters led by columns of Buddhist monks, the largest protests since this junta took power.

But the junta’s crackdown on its people continued with reports of house-to-house searches and the continuing detention in harsh conditions of thousands of monks and their supporters.

There was no immediate word on the content of Gambari’s visits. He is due to report back to the Security Council on his return.

But at the United Nations Monday, Myanmar’s foreign minister gave a taste of the junta’s official position, accusing “neo-colonialists” and “political opportunists” of exploiting “protests by a small group of Buddhist clergy” to undermine his country.

In a speech to the General Assembly, he said security forces had used “utmost restraint” in calming the demonstrators who then ignored their warnings. “They had to take action to restore the situation,” he said. “Normalcy has now returned to Myanmar.”

He concluded: “The international community can best help Myanmar by showing greater understanding. They can begin by refraining from measures which would result in adding fuel to the fire.”

The situation remains far from normal, however, with security forces maintaining order through fear. Although they dismantled some barbed-wire barricades, soldiers remained posted on street corners enforcing an order that bans gatherings of more than five people.

The Western diplomat said four detention centers were being built around Yangon, including one at an institute of technology and one at a race course, indicating that the military planned to keep the monks and others for long periods.

“You wonder what’s going to happen to all these monks,” said the diplomat. “Surely they aren’t going to let them back into the community. There are a lot of these poor guys detained and presumably a lot of them murdered.”

It was impossible to verify the number of arrests, injuries and deaths since the military began its crackdown before dawn last Wednesday. Human rights groups and diplomats agree that the number of dead is far higher than the 10 acknowledged by the junta. But beyond that, any number is speculation, they said.

Human rights groups said many people were in hiding or on the run, fearing arrest after taking part in the protests or in smuggling out the photographs and videotapes that have caught the world’s attention.

The flow of images has been halted since Friday, when the government shut both of the country’s Internet servers. But it was unclear how long a nation of 54 million people could cut itself off from Internet connection with the world.

Video and photographs emerged on the Internet almost immediately when the protests began on Aug. 19, following sudden unannounced fuel price increases of up to 500 percent. They magnified the impact of what had started as small, scattered demonstrations.

The leaders of those marches were quickly arrested or went into hiding and the protest appeared to be dying when an attack by soldiers on protesting monks aroused the anger of young monks around the country.

Indonesian monks hold candles during an anti-Myanmar government protest in Surabaya, Indonesia, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. Hundreds of people staged the protest supporting Buddhist monks and other pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar. Photo: AP