Envoy meets Myanmar junta leader

Posted in Asia | 02-Oct-07 | Author: Seth Mydans| Source: International Herald Tribune

A soldier patrols at Yangon's landmark Shwedagon Pagoda as it reopens Tuesday.

BANGKOK, Thailand: A United Nations envoy met with the leader of Myanmar's junta Tuesday, according to a diplomat in Yangon, as authorities continued a crackdown after crushing huge peaceful demonstrations last week.

The leader, Senior General Than Shwe, had kept the envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, waiting since his arrival in Myanmar on Saturday, although the envoy was allowed to visit Sunday with the pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

The meeting with Than Shwe was confirmed, without details, by the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing his embassy's policy.

After more than a month of swelling protests, the streets of major cities were quiet, but there were many unconfirmed reports of further arrests, mass detentions and abuses, some directed at monks who formed the heart of the peaceful uprising.

Barbed-wire barricades were being removed from the streets and an exile Web site, Irrawaddy, reported that 70 people had been released from detention as authorities sought to restore a sense of normalcy to the battered country.

The junta has shut down access to the Internet in an effort to further isolate the country and has placed troops in the streets to intimidate people from renewing the protests that began Aug. 19 after a sharp increase in the price of fuel.

The demonstrations swelled to as many as 100,000 in the country's main city, Yangon, until troops began opening fire on Thursday and Friday. Western governments said the death toll was certain to be much higher than the 10 acknowledged by the junta, but specific numbers could not be confirmed.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition radio station based in Norway, put the death toll at 138, based on a list compiled by the 88 Student Generation, a pro-democracy group operating in Myanmar.

Hundreds of monks were taken from their monasteries at the end of the week, some violently, and diplomats said they did not know what had become of them.

There were reports that the monks and others were being held in makeshift prisons at old factories, university buildings and a racetrack.

The Democratic Voice of Burma said about 1,600 demonstrators, including at least 1,400 monks, were being held, and other estimates put the number even higher.

At the United Nations, U Nyan Win, Myanmar's foreign minister, accused "neocolonialists" and "political opportunists" of exploiting "protests by a small group of Buddhist clergy" to undermine his country.

In a speech to the General Assembly Monday evening, he said: "Secondly, they impose sanctions which hinder economic development. Economic sanctions are counterproductive."

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."

When the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, dispatched Gambari on Wednesday, the Security Council issued a statement that "urged restraint" by the government and "underlined the importance that Gambari be received by the authorities of Myanmar as soon as possible."

Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors also said it was urgent that the junta receive Gambari as a representative of international concern.

As condemnation of the junta has continued, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean, have issued increasingly sharp statements, moving away from what had proved a fruitless policy of friendly persuasion.

"I would like to emphasize the importance which the Asean countries, and indeed the whole international community, attach to Gambari's mission," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore wrote in a letter to the generals dated Saturday but released to reporters on Monday.

"We are most disturbed by reports of the violent means that the authorities in Myanmar have deployed against the demonstrators, which have resulted in injuries and deaths," Lee wrote. Singapore currently presides over Asean; Myanmar is one of the 10 members of the group.

Besides cutting off the Internet, the authorities have attempted to shut down the flow of news by arresting and harassing local journalists.

News organizations reported that at least four Burmese journalists, including Min Zaw of the Japanese daily newspaper Tokyo Shimbun, had been arrested, and several others were presumed to have been arrested. About 10 Burmese reporters have been physically attacked or prevented from working, including reporters for Reuters and Agence France-Presse, according to Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association.

A Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai, was shot and killed at the height of the demonstrations last week, drawing protests from the Japanese government. In Tokyo, the chief cabinet spokesman, Nobutaka Machbimura, said Japan was considering sanctions to protest the junta's crackdown.