Stop the arrests, UN envoy tells Burma junta

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari told Burma on Monday to stop arresting dissidents and Thailand proposed a regional forum including China and India to nudge the reclusive military junta towards democratic reform.

However, as the region began a new diplomatic approach beyond the failed strategies of sanctions or ”constructive engagement”, Burma’s ruling generals remained defiant, vowing to plough on with their own much-criticised ”roadmap to democracy”.

”We will go ahead. We will not deviate from our path,” the official New Light of Myanmar said in a commentary on the seven-point master plan, unveiled in 2003, to chart a course beyond the military rule of the last 45 years.

”Those who sincerely want to hold hands with us are welcome,” the newspaper continued in uncompromising tone. ”We will get rid of the barriers and obstacles on the way.”

Gambari, in Bangkok at the start of a regional tour to drum up support for a coordinated diplomatic front, said actions spoke louder than words — and that the continued arrests and intimidation of activists were ”extremely disturbing”.

”These actions must stop at once,” he told reporters.

After meeting Gambari, Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont proposed a UN-backed regional forum on Burma, bringing together South-east Asia plus India and China.

The forum would appear to echo the six-party talks format set up to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

After Thailand, Gambari heads for Malaysia, Indonesia, India and China — all of whom have trading ties with Burma and remain opposed to sanctions, a tactic preferred by the West.

EU sanctions

He will also travel to Tokyo, where emotions are still high at the shooting of a Japanese journalist, one of at least 10 people killed in Rangoon when soldiers were sent in to crush the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years.

Official media described Kenji Nagai’s death as ”an accident or an unfortunate incident” but said he was partly to blame.

”He came to the country on a tourist visa and acted like a journalist dishonestly”, the New Light said. ”One who entered the country on a tourist visa should act like a tourist.”

Video footage smuggled out of Burma, which routinely denies foreign reporters media visas, appeared to show Nagai being shot dead at point blank range by a soldier.

On Monday, the European Union is due to consider widening its sanctions from the existing asset freezes, travel bans and limited commercial embargoes to include trade in timber, gems and precious metals — all major junta money-spinners.

However, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British counterpart David Milliband said it was important to offer incentives as well threats.

”The EU needs to consider a package of positive measures to the Burmese people should the regime show its willingness to genuinely work for reconciliation,” they wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

Despite unprecedented international outrage at the crackdown, including a rare call for ”restraint” from main ally China, the junta has been cranking up the pressure on the domestic front.

At the weekend, it staged a huge government rally in Rangoon, with tens of thousands at a sports stadium press-ganged into applauding the democracy plan and a Constitution-drafting National Convention.

Police, still raiding homes more than two weeks after the demonstrations were crushed, also arrested Htay Kywe, a student leader in a 1988 uprising who had managed to evade capture for nearly two months.

Htay Kywe’s ”88 Generation Students Group” was the brains behind mid-August’s small fuel-price protests that snowballed into a nationwide movement, spearheaded by the revered Buddhist monkhood, against military rule.

In a rare sop at the height of the crackdown, Senior General Than Shwe admitted Gambari for an audience with himself and two meetings with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari is slated to return to Burma in November, but said he hoped his Asia tour would demonstrate such a united regional front that he might be granted a visa sooner.

”We believe that if we pool all our efforts, we could move the situation in Myanmar in the right direction,” he said. – Reuters

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