Asia-Pacific News

U.N. Peace Envoy Waits to See Myanmar Junta Chief


U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari was waiting to see Myanmar junta chief Than Shwe on Monday in pursuit of his mission to end a bloody crackdown against 45 years of military rule, diplomats said.

Theories varied widely on why Gambari, dispatched after the junta sent in the troops to end mass protests last week, had not met Than Shwe despite having talks with detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Than Shwe, 74 and frequently rumored to be in poor health, may be sick, playing hard to get, or even demonstrating his contempt for international opinion, diplomats said.

"We were all caught by surprise," one said after Gambari left the junta's new capital of Naypyidaw, 240 miles (385 km) north of Yangon, on Sunday without meeting Than Shwe, whose government rarely heeds pressure from the outside.

Gambari then flew to Yangon to see Suu Kyi, who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under some form of detention, before returning to Naypyidaw, a half-finished capital city carved out of the jungle.

British ambassador to Myanmar Mark Canning said China was pushing hard for Gambari's mission to be as long and as far-reaching as possible, and the fact he had gone back Naypyidaw might be the seed of some sort of shuttle diplomacy.

"There's been an evolution in his program. The initial pitch was minimalist. It's got a bit better, and we want to see it get better still," Canning told Reuters. "We want to see a genuine shuttling around start, and we want to see the establishment of some sort of mechanism which allows the two parties to get together on an on-going basis."
Determined To Meet Junta Leader

The United Nations made clear on Sunday Gambari did not plan to leave Myanmar, where the junta has flooded major cities with soldiers and police and barricaded off central Yangon where mass protests were held, without seeing Than Shwe.

"He looks forward to meeting Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, before the conclusion of his mission," a U.N. statement said.

Diplomats said Gambari met Suu Kyi for more than an hour at a Yangon government guest house near the lakeside villa where she is confined without a telephone and requires official permission, granted rarely, to receive visitors.

Earlier, in Naypyidaw, Gambari held talks with acting Prime Minister Thein Sein, who ranks fourth in the junta hierarchy, Culture Minister Khin Aung Nyint and Information Minister Kyaw Hsan.

It was not known if he had made any progress towards ending the crackdown on the biggest anti-junta protests for nearly 20 years, in which hundreds of Buddhist monks have been held.

Security forces have snuffed out protests in Yangon by sealing off two pagodas at their heart and keeping away the monks who led them, raiding monasteries and hauling monks away in trucks or penning them up inside.

There were soldiers at most street corners and security men  searched bags and people for cameras. The Internet, through which thousands of images of the crackdown have reached the world, remained off line.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission said at least 700 monks and 500 other people had been arrested countrywide.

The protests began with small marches against fuel price rises in mid-August and intensified when soldiers fired over the heads of protesting monks, causing monasteries to mobilize.

The heavy-handed suppression even prompted criticism from China, the closest the junta has to an ally, and condemnation from the Association of South East Asian Nation, of which Myanmar is a member.
Japanese Envoy

The generals habitually ignore outside pressure, but bowed to the international outcry to admit Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, at short notice.

The government has acknowledged that 10 people were killed on Wednesday, the first day of the crackdown, although Western governments say the real toll is almost certainly higher.

A Japanese video journalist, Kenji Nagai, 50, was shot dead when troops opened fire on a crowd of chanting protesters and a Japanese envoy has arrived to ensure a full investigation into his death. Footage appeared to show a soldier shooting him at point-blank range as security forces cleared protesters from central Yangon.

Myanmar's state-run media have proclaimed the restoration of peace and stability after security forces handled the protests "with care, using the least possible force".

The junta showed no signs on Monday that  it was in a mood to make concessions to the opposition. "Skyful of liars attempting to destroy the nation," ran one headline in state-run newspapers which also warned people not to believe anything reported on Burmese-language broadcasts on foreign radio stations.  "Beware, don't be bought," they said.