Asia-Pacific News

Myanmar Junta Arrests More, U.N. Envoy in Singapore


Myanmar's junta arrested more people under the cover of darkness on Wednesday despite a crescendo of international outrage during a keenly watched U.N. mission to bring an end to a bloody crackdown on protests.

At least eight truckloads of prisoners were hauled out of downtown Yangon, the former Burma's biggest city and center 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 devoutly Buddhist Myanmar 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.

There was no word on where the prisoners were being taken or how many they would join. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations' human rights envoy for Myanmar, said in Geneva the number of those detained was now in the thousands.

The crackdown continued despite faint signs of progress by U.N. 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.

In this picture release by United Nation Information center U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari, right, meets Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left on Sat,Nov 11.2006 in Yangon Myanmar. Gambari's meeting with Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, came on the third day of a four-day trip to Myanmar, which is being closely watched by the United Nations.(AP photo/United Nation) Information center, HO)

U.N. sources said Gambari expected to return in early November to Myanmar, whose generals rarely heed outside pressure and equally rarely grant U.N. officials permission to visit.

Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, was due to meet Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday before heading back to New York after a four-day stay in Myanmar, half of it spent waiting to see Senior General Than Shwe.

There was no word, however, on whether the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Singapore is the current chairman, was willing to act against Myanmar, brought into the group a decade ago in hopes of coaxing it into democratic reform.

So far, ASEAN's policy of "constructive engagement" has worked no better than Western sanctions and last week's bloody crackdown in at which at least 10 people died prompted a rare expression of "revulsion" from the 10-member group.
"Violent Repression"

China, the closest thing the generals have to an ally, has said it was worried by the crackdown and called for restraint.

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.

Western governments and human rights groups say the toll is probably far higher, and the passing of time is not reducing the level of international outrage.

In Geneva on Tuesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned the junta's "violent repression" and called on the generals to allow its investigator 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. Myanmar 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.

However, the junta 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 the Shwedagon and Sule pagoda, the end point of the mass protest marches, after cordoning off a wide area around them and sending soldiers to virtually every street corner of Yangon, preventing any protest crowds from coalescing.

It is also sending gangs through homes looking for monks in hiding, a series of a 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.

Myanmar, 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.