HT Image
HT Image

UN urges junta chief to end crackdown

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari meets junta boss Than Shwe to urge him to remove troops from the streets of Yangon.
Reuters | By Aung Hla Tun, Yangon
UPDATED ON OCT 07, 2007 09:09 AM IST

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Myanmar junta boss Than Shwe on Tuesday in a bid to end a bloody crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in 20 years, a diplomat said.

There was no immediate word on whether Gambari had succeeded in persuading the bespectacled 74-year-old Senior General to withdraw troops from the streets or start talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, he said.

Than Shwe has so far appeared deaf to international calls for restraint, posting troops and police across Yangon and dispatching pro-junta gangs to raid homes in search of monks and dissidents on the run.

"They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city," a Bangkok-based Myanmar expert with many friends in Yangon said.

US charge d'affaires Shari Villarosa told Reuters by telephone from Yangon that arrests continued unabated. "We have heard that arrests are continuing at night, like at two o'clock in the morning. We've heard it's the military. I don't know who is doing it, but people are going around in the middle of the night and taking people away," she said.

"People are terrified. This government keeps power through fear and intimidation and they are trying to intimidate people to stay off the streets."

Gambari flew to Naypyidaw, new jungle capital of the country formerly known as Burma, to convey international outrage at last week's crushing of monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening poverty.

Apart from meeting three minister-generals and Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, it was not clear how Gambari had spent his three days in Myanmar. Even U.N. officials were unable to explain his itinerary.

Shuttle diplomacy hopes

The UN Security Council, which endorsed the former Nigerian foreign minister's emergency visit, is hoping the mission will kickstart some sort of dialogue between the junta -- the latest face of 45 years of military rule -- and Suu Kyi, the 62-year-old Nobel peace laureate..

Gambari was expected to have a second meeting with Suu Kyi, French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said, kindling hopes of some sort of "shuttle diplomacy".

"He should be able to set up a structure for further talks that will involve all aspects, especially on how to get all the parties in Myanmar to talk together," said Razali Ismail, Gambari's predecessor as U.N. point man on Myanmar.

"If he can get that agreement, it will be a significant achievement," Razali told Reuters.

State media say 10 people were killed when troops opened fire last week to clear protesters from the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and main city. Western governments say the toll is likely to be far higher.

In truth, nobody knows how many died in the crackdown, which many feared would descend into a repeat of 1988, a nationwide uprising crushed over several months with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.

"I don't think even the generals have any idea what the real death toll is at the moment," a Hong Kong-based Myanmar human rights expert said.

Buddhist monks say six of their brethren were killed in clashes with security forces and night raids on monasteries in Yangon, in which hundreds of monks were carted off. Many were kicked and beaten, people in the neighbourhoods said.

One shocking picture of the body of a maroon-robed man -- almost certainly a monk -- lying in a ditch is on dissident news Web sites and there are unconfirmed reports of monks caged at a technical institute in north Yangon going on hunger strike.

'Political opportunists'

At UN headquarters in New York on Monday, Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win accused "political opportunists" of trying to create a showdown with foreign help so that they could exploit the ensuing chaos.

In a speech to the annual General Assembly, he said "normalcy" had returned and urged the international community to refrain from measures he said would add fuel to the fire.

In a sign the junta was confident it had squeezed the life out of the uprising, barbed-wire barricades have been removed from Yangon's Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, the focal points of last week's monk-led mass protests.

However, soldiers remain at street corners to prevent even small crowds of demonstrators assembling. Government security men are searching bags for cameras, and the Internet, through which images of the crackdown have reached the world, remained cut.

The streets were almost empty of monks collecting their morning alms, witnesses said. The only ones out were very old or in their young teens.

One of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar was once the world's largest rice exporter and has an abundance of timber, gems, oil and natural gas but has suffered from decades of isolation and control by the military.

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

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok, Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations and Paul Eckert in Washington)

Story Saved