YANGON (Reuters) - United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari returned to army-ruled Myanmar on Saturday as a row over the junta's move to kick out the U.N.'s top resident diplomat overshadowed his mission to coax the generals to reform.
He emphasized immediately U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's backing of country chief Charles Petrie, told by the regime he was no longer welcome after highlighting a deepening economic crisis that fuelled mass protests crushed by the army.
"Mr Gambari conveyed the Secretary-General's support for the Country Team and the Resident Coordinator and the important work they continue to do to improve the socioeconomic and humanitarian situation," the U.N. office in Yangon said in a statement.
"In this regard, Mr Gambari plans to address, with the Myanmar authorities, a range of issues, including those discussed previously, pertaining to further cooperation and dialogue between the United Nations system and Myanmar."
The statement also said Gambari, met by Petrie at Yangon airport before flying on to the junta's new capital, Naypyidaw, unaccompanied by the U.N. country head, had a "specific message" for junta supremo Than Shwe.
It gave no hints on what the message might be.
Gambari's mission, on his second visit to the former Burma since the army crushed monk-led protests in September, is to persuade the junta to enter serious talks about political reform with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
But the six-day mission has been complicated by the generals' decision not to renew Petrie's credentials.
"Burma's generals will do anything to avoid being pressured into talks about genuine reform," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"But now the danger is that Gambari will spend his time talking about the U.N.'s role in Burma instead of the need to end the crackdown and bring real reform. Gambari should stick to his agenda instead of falling for such cheap ploys".
Singapore said it was disappointed by the move against Petrie, who was summoned to Naypyidaw on Friday for an official dressing down for a statement he released on the October 24 United Nations Day, which Myanmar said had tarnished its image.
"It also sends an inconsistent message about Myanmar's willingness to continue engaging the U.N. in improving its domestic political and socio-economic situation," Singapore's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Singapore is chairman of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, one of the few international groups to admit Myanmar as a member. The city-state is also one of the biggest investors in the country.
The United States condemned Petrie's apparent expulsion for linking Myanmar's dire economic straits to the protests which triggered a crackdown in which official media say 10 people were killed. Diplomats say many more probably died.
"This outrageous action the day before the arrival of U.N. Special Envoy Gambari in Burma is an insult to the United Nations and the international community," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement.
It was not known when Petrie would leave the country.