Burma junta arrests more under cover of darkness

Burma’s junta arrested more people under the cover of darkness on Wednesday despite a crescendo of international outrage during a keenly watched United Nations mission to bring an end to a bloody crackdown on protests.

At least eight truckloads of prisoners were hauled out of downtown Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city and centre of monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship, witnesses said.

In one house near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in the devoutly Buddhist country and starting point for last week’s rallies, only a 13-year-old girl remained. Her parents had been taken in the middle of the night, she said.

The crackdown continued despite some hopes of progress by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari on his mission to persuade junta chief Than Shwe to relax his iron grip and open talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he met twice.

Singapore, current chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) of which Burma is a member, said it “was encouraged by the access and cooperation given by the Myanmar government to Mr Gambari”.

It also said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Gambari in a meeting that Asean, which rarely comments on affairs in member nations, wanted “national reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy” in Burma.

UN sources said Gambari expected to return in early November to Burma, whose generals seldom heed outside pressure and rarely grant UN officials permission to visit.

However, there were no indications of how his mission and international pressure might change junta policies.

So far, Asean’s policy of “constructive engagement” has worked no better than Western sanctions, and the continuing arrests indicate the junta has not been swayed by Gambari.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations’ human rights envoy for Burma, said in Geneva the number of those detained was now in the thousands.

‘Violent repression’

The junta insists it dealt with the protests, which at their height filled five city blocks, with “the least force possible” and said only 10 people were killed in the restoration of order.

It appears to believe it has beaten the biggest challenge to its power in nearly 20 years, which began with small marches against shock fuel price rises in August and swelled after troops fired over the heads of a group of monks.

It has re-opened Shwedagon and the Sule pagoda, the end point of the protest marches, after cordoning off a wide area around them and sending soldiers to virtually every street corner of Yangon, preventing crowds from coalescing.

It is also sending gangs through homes looking for monks in hiding, sweeping raids that Western diplomats say are creating a climate of terror.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won an election landslide in 1990 only to be denied power by the army, said 160 of its members and other activists had been detained.

In Mandalay, Burma’s second city, witnesses said police and soldiers were everywhere, just as in Rangoon.

Western governments and human rights groups say the toll is probably far higher than acknowledged officially and the passage of time is not reducing the level of international outrage.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council, including China, the closest thing the junta has to an ally, condemned the junta’s “violent repression” and called on the generals to allow Pinheiro to visit for the first time in four years.

“Light must absolutely be shed on what happened,” Pinheiro told the council, which adopted a resolution deploring beatings, killings and detentions. Burma said the hearing was being used by “powerful countries for political exploitation”.

In Washington, the Senate and House of Congress passed resolutions loaded with passionate language to condemn the crackdown, which included raids on monasteries and hauling off hundreds of Buddhist monks.

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

It is also a big source of opium, the raw material of heroin, as well as amphetamines, smuggled logs and gems.
- Reuters

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