U.N. Envoy Arrives In Burma for Talks With Ruling Junta
Without Sequestered Monks, Protest Wilts
Sunday, September 30, 2007; Page A20
BANGKOK, Sept. 29 -- A U.N. special envoy flew to Burma for discussions with the country's entrenched military government Saturday, seeking to resolve a bloody political uprising that has generated worldwide demands for the generals to halt their repression and make way for democratic reforms.
The protests that for nearly two weeks have rocked Burma's two main cities, Rangoon and Mandalay, were reduced to knots of youths shouting insults at thousands of armed police officers and soldiers who have been deployed on the streets to smother the campaign, according to Internet reports from Burmese activists and exile groups in neighboring Thailand.
The Buddhist monks who had been leading the protesters -- and inspiring them with their revered status in Burmese society -- were blocked inside monasteries for a second day, surrounded by army troops and frightened by a wave of arrests, the reports said.
The U.N. envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, landed in Rangoon and headed for Naypyidaw, the isolated official capital 250 miles to the north that was chosen two years ago as headquarters for the ruling State Peace and Development Council headed by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, according to news agencies. The Singaporean foreign minister, George Yeo, said in New York that Gambari's mission was the best hope for a peaceful end to the crisis and movement toward a political transformation after nearly half a century of military dictatorship.
But in Washington, U.S. officials said the Bush administration was putting pressure on China to play a more active role in persuading Shwe and the ruling council to open up space for political reform. China, with large investments and a strategic partnership with the military junta, has been singled out as the country with the most influence in Burma, which lies along its southern border. Chinese officials so far have declined to intervene forcefully, however, citing a traditional policy of noninterference in other countries' problems.
The U.S. officials suggested that the goal should be the generals' departure from power, perhaps to exile in China, opening the way for a democratic government. But the National Council of the Union of Burma, a main exile umbrella group, said its goal at this stage was less ambitious: national dialogue between the military junta and other political forces in the country.
"The military would be part of the solution," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the group.
Gambari should first seek a public commitment from the junta to ease its crackdown on demonstrators, he said, and then focus on getting such a dialogue set up. It would include representatives of the monks, who have led the recent protests, he said, in addition to leaders of the National League for Democracy, the party headed by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
But Shwe and his fellow generals showed no sign they were ready to heed the exhortations from abroad. Instead, their security forces reinforced the number of troops in the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay and continued a wave of arrests apparently designed to decapitate the anti-government movement.
Exile sources in neighboring Thailand said several hundred monks have been arrested since the crackdown began Wednesday. Family members said police during the night also arrested Win Mya Ma, a prominent member of the National League for Democracy, the Associated Press reported from Rangoon. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years, although some reports said she was taken to a prison or military base during the height of the protests.
With that in mind, Soe Aung said Gambari should also insist on meeting with Suu Kyi to make sure she is all right. The widely respected daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, she led her party to victory in parliamentary elections in 1990, only to have the military nullify the results and confine her at home.
The military, which first seized power in 1962, has survived several uprisings through crackdowns similar to the one underway now, content to ride out international condemnation and confident that Burma's petroleum reserves would continue to attract foreign investment. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in 1988 when troops opened fire on demonstrators; another uprising was put down in 1996 with massive arrests.
Government newspapers Saturday morning stressed that security forces this time had used the minimum power necessary to restore order. This also was the message passed to Southeast Asian diplomats called in for a briefing on the crisis Friday by Burmese authorities.
"Peace and stability have been restored," was the headline in one newspaper.
The junta acknowledged that nine demonstrators were killed by security forces' gunfire Thursday, the peak of the protesting. But exile sources and foreign diplomats said the real toll was probably several times that.