World News

U.N. envoy flies into Myanmar maelstrom

YANGON (Reuters) - A U.N. envoy flew to Myanmar on Saturday to persuade its ruling generals to use talks instead of guns to end mass protests, but the U.S. expressed concern that Ibrahim Gambari had been moved away from troubled Yangon.

A pro-democracy activist throws a rock at suspected undercover police who drove past a demonstration in Yangon September 29, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer

As Gambari arrived in the former capital Yangon, troops and riot police manned barricades in the area from which the pro-democracy protests have reverberated around the world. Police fired warning shots to disperse 100 protesting youths.

The U.N. representative, a former Nigerian foreign minister, made no comment on arrival as he went straight on to a flight to the generals’ new capital, Naypyidaw, 385 km to the north.

“We have concerns that Mr. Gambari was swiftly moved from Rangoon (Yangon) to the new capital in the interior, far from population centres,” White House National Security Council Spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement.

He urged the junta, which has ruled Myanmar for 45 years, to allow Gambari wide access to people, including religious leaders and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“He’s the best hope we have. He is trusted on both sides,” Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said of Gambari. “If he fails, then the situation can become quite dreadful.”

Before heading to Yangon, Gambari said in Singapore he was going “to deliver a message from the secretary-general to the leadership, a message that is very much by the Security Council”.

“I look forward to a very fruitful visit so that I can report progress on all fronts,” Channel News Asia quoted him as saying.

Asked if he expected to meet Suu Kyi, Gambari said: “I expect to meet all the people that I need to meet.”

So far, the junta appears to have ignored international clamour for a peaceful end to their crackdown on a mass uprising led by monks, the moral core of the Buddhist nation, which grew from small protests against shock fuel price rises in August.

Small groups gathered on Saturday to taunt and curse troops before scattering down alleys when they started to charge.

In one incident, police fired warning shots to disperse 100 youths shouting slogans and waving bright red “fighting peacock” flags, the emblem of student unions that led a 1988 uprising crushed when the army killed an estimated 3,000 people.

The junta says it is acting with restraint.

In practice, that has meant firing at crowds, raiding a dozen Yangon monasteries thought to be at the vanguard of the protests, detaining hundreds of monks and sealing off two pagodas marking the start and end points of the mass protests.

So far, it appears to be working.


“Peace and stability has been restored,” state-run newspapers declared on Saturday. Security forces had handled the protests “with care, using the least possible force”, they said.

Monks were scarcely seen on Friday or Saturday in crowds facing off against security forces around the barricades in a city terrified of a repeat of 1988.

Their monasteries surrounded by soldiers, few monks went out on the daily alms collection on which they depend for food, residents said. Many young monks had evaded arrest by casting off their maroon robes and pretending to be laymen.

The scene was similar in the second city of Mandalay, home to many of Myanmar’s more than 400,000 monks, where troops surrounded major monasteries, a Chinese official said.

“Basically the situation is quiet. Armed police are stationed along major streets and at intersections,” he said.

In the northwestern coastal town of Sittwe, one resident said many younger monks had been forced to go back to their home towns. The only security officials on the streets were police, he said.

“Now in Sittwe very quiet. No more demonstrations, everything disperse,” he said. “No more fighting here.”

Monks have reported six monks killed since the army started cracking down on Wednesday to end mass protests by columns of monks flanked by supporters who filled five city blocks.

State-run media said 10 people had been killed since the crackdown began and prompted international outrage. Among the dead was a Japanese journalist, apparently killed at the hands of a soldier firing at point-blank range.

“I am afraid we believe the loss of life is far greater than is being reported,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Friday after talking to U.S. President George W. Bush.

Bush and Brown discussed the need to maintain international pressure on Myanmar’s rulers and the White House condemned the present crackdown as “barbaric”.

Bush authorised new U.S. sanctions against the junta, which has been operating under similar restrictions for years and turns a deaf ear to any criticism of how it handles dissidents.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington