UN peace envoy meets Aung San Suu Kyi

 

Burma's ruling military junta unexpectedly allowed the country's leading opposition figure - Aung San Suu Kyi - to leave house arrest and speak with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari in Rangoon today.

Mr Gambari spent the day in talks and in transit, pressing ahead with shuttle diplomacy even after his first meeting with the junta did not include its leader, Senior General Than Shwe, or his deputy, General Maung Aye.

Gambari was sent to try to persuade Burma's notoriously unyielding military junta to halt its harsh crackdown on pro-democracy advocates. Soldiers have shot and killed protesters, ransacked Buddhist monasteries, beaten monks and dissidents and arrested an estimated 1,000 people in just the last week alone.

The government says 10 people were killed in last week clashes but other reports indicate the number could be far higher.

The UN envoy returned to Burma's isolated capital of Naypyitaw late tonight in the hope of meeting with the junta's senior leaders.

The junta did not comment on the meetings.

However intensive Gambari's efforts, it was not clear what, if anything, he could accomplish. The junta has rebuffed scores of previous UN attempts at promoting democracy and Gambari himself spoke in person to Suu Kyi nearly a year ago with nothing to show for it.

Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner who has come to symbolise the struggle for democracy in Burma , has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

But even her own party was not optimistic. National League for Democracy secretary U Lwin told Radio Free Asia that he doesn't expect much because he sees Gambari as little more than a "facilitator" who can bring messages back and forth but doesn't have the authority to reach a lasting agreement.

Many see China, Burma's biggest trading partner, as the most likely outside catalyst for change. But China, India and Russia do not seem prepared to go beyond words in dealing with the junta.

Mr Gambari met the acting prime minister, the deputy foreign minister and the ministers of information and culture in the junta's new bunker-like capital Naypyitaw, 240 miles north of Rangoon.

He then returned to Rangoon and was whisked to the State Guest House to meet with Suu Kyi, talking for over an hour. A second Asian diplomat reported that Gambari flew back to Naypyitaw this evening.

UN officials would not comment on speculation that he could be carrying a letter from Suu Kyi to the junta.

Scores of people were arrested overnight, further weakening a flagging uprising to end 45 years of military dictatorship that began August 19 with protests against fuel price increases.

The number of troops in Rangoon, the largest city, swelled to about 20,000, ensuring that almost all demonstrators would remain off the streets.

Truckloads of armed soldiers patrolled the central area near recent protest sites as well as along the city's major streets. A nearby public market and a Catholic church were also teeming with soldiers.

The atmosphere in the city was intimidating but not always menacing. Witnesses said soldiers also hung out idly inside trucks, sat on sidewalks chatting, munched snacks or walked around looking bored.

A video shot by a dissident group, Democratic Voice of Burma, showed a monk, covered in bruises, floating face down in a Yangon river. It was not clear how long the body had been there.

People suspected of organising this week's rallies continue to be arrested, the Asian diplomat said, estimating the total number could be as high as 1,000, including several prominent members of the NLD.

In the western state of Rakhine, four monks and over 800 civilians held a protest in the town of Taunggok. Marching from the historic Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda, the monks chanted prayers while others shouted "Release all political prisoners".

Police, soldiers and junta supporters blocked the road, forcing them to disperse, a local resident reported.

Pope Benedict XVI joined world leaders in expressing serious concern about the situation in Burma . About 1% of the country's 54 million people are Catholics.