Asia Crisis

Myanmar rejects U.N. human rights report

(Adds U.S. State Department comment) By Laura MacInnis

GENEVA, Dec 11 (Reuters) - Myanmar on Tuesday rejected a U.N. envoy's report that said the ruling junta had used excessive force in September to quell monk-led street protests.

Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, said there was no need for a wider inquiry into its response to the popular uprising, which he called "a daunting challenge".

"Exercising its sovereign right to handle a violent situation should not be construed as a violation of human rights," he told a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"We have been able to restore peace and stability and the situation is back to normalcy all over the country," he said.

The crackdown on peaceful protests - the biggest since 1988 - drew international condemnation and provoked calls for more sanctions on the isolated country once known as Burma.

In a report prepared for the 47-member Council, U.N. special rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said that at least 31 people were killed when Myanmar's military rulers tried to suppress the demonstrations. Official media have said only 10 people died.

Lwin told the Council his country was disappointed in the U.N. report, and denied Pinheiro's allegation that 1,000 of the 4,000 people arrested after the clashes were still behind bars.

"Almost all those detained in connection with the September events have been released," he said, asserting the government has given amnesty to 8,585 prisoners, leaving only 80 people in custody "for violations of existing laws in Myanmar".

He also charged that "political opportunists" were trying to use the increased attention on Myanmar to their advantage, and cast many witness accounts in Pinheiro's report as unreliable.

This includes the U.N. envoy's description of a large number of corpses - some seemingly the bodies of monks - being burned in suspicious circumstances at a Yangon crematorium, in an apparent attempt to hide the number of those killed.

"These allegations are nothing new and they originate from the anti-government groups," Lwin said.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We must continue to send a clear message to the regime. It is time to unconditionally release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, cease arrests of all democracy activists, and establish a meaningful, time-bound dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minorities."

He said the U.N. report gave important details on Myanmar's "brutal crackdown" on the demonstrations, and severe reprisals continued to this day.

On Friday, the Council will consider a resolution presented by the European Union calling for Pinheiro to return to Myanmar by March to assess the situation in greater detail. (Editing by Stephen Weeks)