/ 2 October 2007

UN envoy meets Burma junta chief, Suu Kyi

United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Burma junta chief Than Shwe and detained opposition Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday at the end of four-day mission to halt a bloody crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in 20 years.

As he flew out, there was no word on whether Gambari’s single meeting with the 74-year-old Senior General, who rarely pays heed to the outside world, had persuaded him to relax his iron grip or start talks with Suu Kyi, whom he is believed to loathe.

Witnesses reported slightly fewer troops on Rangoon’s streets, but raids on homes by pro-junta gangs looking for dissident monks and civilians suggested Gambari’s nascent ”shuttle diplomacy” and international calls for restraint had made little difference.

”They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city,” a Bangkok-based Burma expert with many friends in Rangoon said.

United States charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa told Reuters by telephone from Rangoon arrests continued throughout Gambari’s mission.

”We have heard that arrests are continuing at night, like at two o’clock in the morning. We’ve heard it’s the military. I don’t know who is doing it, but people are going around in the middle of the night and taking people away,” she said.

”People are terrified. This government keeps power through fear and intimidation and they are trying to intimidate people to stay off the streets.”

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won a massive election landslide in 1990 only to be denied power by the army, said 130 of its members and other activists had been detained.

In another sign the army is confident it has squashed its most serious threat since a 1988 uprising, it cut two hours off a curfew imposed last week during monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship.

The barbed-wire barricades have also gone from Rangoon’s Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, the focal points of demonstrations which filled at least five city blocks at their height.

Shuttle diplomacy hopes

Gambari flew to Naypyidaw, the new jungle capital of Burma, to convey international outrage at last week’s military crackdown, which prompted ”revulsion” in South-east Asian neighbours and a rare Chinese call for restraint.

Having met three minister-generals and Suu Kyi at the weekend, the former Nigerian foreign minister was made to wait until Tuesday for his audience with Than Shwe, a delay that did not augur well for those urging reconciliation.

The United Nations Security Council, which endorsed Gambari’s emergency visit, had hoped for some sort of dialogue between a military that has been in charge for 45 years and 62-year Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, in detention for nearly 12 of the last 18 years.

Western governments say the death toll in the crackdown is likely to be far higher than the 10 officially acknowledged when troops opened fire to clear protesters from the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s former capital and main city.

In truth, nobody knows how many died in the crackdown, which many feared would descend into a repeat of 1988, when the army was sent in to crush a nationwide uprising and killed an estimated 3 000 people over several months.

”I don’t think even the generals have any idea what the real death toll is at the moment,” a Hong Kong-based Burma human rights expert said after state-run media proclaimed the protests had been dealt ”with care, using the least possible force”.

‘Normalcy returns’

Buddhist monks say six of their brethren were killed in clashes with security forces and night raids on monasteries in which hundreds of monks were carted off. Many were kicked and beaten, people in the neighbourhoods said.

One shocking picture of the body of a maroon-robed, shaven-headed monk lying in a pond has been posted on dissident news websites and there are unconfirmed reports of monks caged at a technical institute in north Rangoon hunger strike.

At UN headquarters in New York on Monday, Burma Foreign Minister Nyan Win accused ”political opportunists” of trying to create a showdown with foreign help so they could exploit the ensuing chaos.

In a speech to the annual General Assembly, he said ”normalcy” had returned and urged the international community to refrain from measures he said would add fuel to the fire.

One of Asia’s brightest prospects and the world’s largest rice exporter when it won independence from Britain in 1948, Burma is now one of the region’s poorest countries despite an abundance of timber, gems, oil and natural gas.

The protests began with small marches against fuel price rises in mid-August but intensified when soldiers shot over the heads of protesting monks, causing the monasteries to mobilise. – Reuters