/ 31 October 2007

Burmese monks march again

Buddhist monks in Burma staged a protest march on Wednesday, their first since soldiers crushed a pro-democracy uprising a month ago, as United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari prepared for a return visit to the country.

A Rangoon-based Asian diplomat said Gambari, who first visited shortly after the army crackdown, would arrive on November 3 on a second mission to coax the generals into talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The latest march by monks in the central town of Pakokku, 600km north-west of Rangoon, suggests the crackdown merely managed to stifle, not eradicate, widespread anger at 45 years of military rule and deepening poverty.

The town has been a flashpoint since soldiers fired over the heads of monks in early September, transforming small, localised protests against shock hikes in fuel prices into the biggest anti-junta uprising in two decades.

A witness told Reuters about 200 maroon-robed monks chanted prayers as they walked three abreast through the centre of the town.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway, said the monks were sticking to their demands for lower fuel prices, national reconciliation and release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.

”We are not afraid of getting arrested or tortured,” a monk was quoted as saying.

There were no reports of trouble.

One resident, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said the monks had deliberately chosen a route to avoid clashes with junta-sponsored rallies to condemn last month’s demonstrations.

Official media say 10 people, including a Japanese video journalist, were killed when soldiers were sent in to clear the streets, although Western governments said the real toll was likely to be far higher.

Regional tour

Gambari has been on a six-country Asian diplomatic tour to press neighbours — especially India and China — to take a tougher line against the generals, one of the world’s most isolated regimes.

Gambari’s schedule was not immediately known.

The former Nigerian foreign minister had one audience with junta chief Than Shwe during his last visit in early October, and two with Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a 1990 election landslide only to be denied power by the military.

She has spent 12 of the last 18 years in detention.

”We think he is going is to be busier during this visit than his previous one,” the diplomat said. After Gambari’s first trip, the junta appointed retired General Aung Kyi as a go-between for Suu Kyi and Than Shwe, who is widely known to loathe the 62-year-old Nobel laureate.

Aung Kyi held a 75-minute meeting with Suu Kyi last week, although it is not known what they discussed. – Reuters