U.N. peace envoy to meet head of Myanmar junta

YANGON (Reuters) - U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari was set to meet Myanmar’s senior general on Tuesday as he tries to persuade the junta to end its crackdown on the biggest pro-democracy protests in 20 years.

Gambari flew to the new jungle capital of the former Burma, waiting to convey international concern to junta leader Than Shwe over last week’s crushing of monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening poverty.

Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, was told “he will be able to meet the senior general, Than Shwe, on Tuesday,” U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.

Much hope is riding on Gambari’s visit, endorsed by the 15-member U.N. Security Council, to get a dialogue started between the military government and the opposition.

Gambari was expected to have a second meeting with pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said.

He hoped Gambari would be able to brief the Security Council on Friday, if he returned by then.

Myanmar’s foreign minister, U Nyan Win, accused “political opportunists” of trying to create a showdown with foreign help so that they could exploit the ensuing chaos.

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In a speech to the annual U.N. General Assembly, he said “normalcy” had returned to Myanmar and urged the international community to refrain from measures he said would add fuel to the fire.

Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar, Mark Canning, said China, the junta’s closest ally, had pushed for Gambari’s mission to be as far-reaching as possible, getting permission for him to fly to Naypyidaw where he met the acting prime minister, Thein Sein, and other officials.

Gambari then returned to Yangon for an hour with Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

The envoy’s immediate return to Naypyidaw sparked hopes of the seeds of “shuttle diplomacy” between a military that has been in charge for 45 years and Suu Kyi’s democracy camp.

Still, Than Shwe has proven to be a military hardliner who has paid scant regard to the concerns of the outside world or to economic sanctions imposed by Western governments.

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After marches that attracted as many as 100,000 protesters, Western governments say the death toll in the crackdown was probably far higher than the 10 people reported officially.

In 1988, an estimated 3,000 people were killed when the ruling generals clamped down on dissent.

In a sign the junta was confident it had squeezed the life out of the uprising, barbed-wire barricades were removed from the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, a rallying point for the Buddhist monks.

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Troops were stationed on street corners across Yangon, the biggest city, making it impossible even for small crowds of demonstrators to assemble. The Internet, through which images of the crackdown have reached the world, remained cut.

Soldiers remained at the four corners of Shwedagon, the country’s holiest Buddhist shrine, as well as the Sule Pagoda, the other focal point of the rallies.

Having raided monasteries and hauled off at least 700 monks, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, security forces were keeping the rest behind monastery walls.

Myanmar’s state-run media say order was restored “with care, using the least possible force.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Gambari to impress on Myanmar’s leaders to “cease repression of peaceful protests, release detainees” and move toward a credible process of national reconciliation, democratic reforms and human rights, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States “is committed to working with countries around the world, and especially those in the region, to move Burma to a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in Asia, was once the world’s largest rice exporter and is rich in timber, gems, oil and natural gas but has suffered from decades of isolation and control by the military.

The protests began with small marches against fuel price rises in mid-August but intensified when soldiers shot over the heads of protesting monks, causing monasteries to mobilize.

The crackdown has been met with criticism even from China and rare condemnation by the Association of South East Asian Nations of one of its own members.

Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Bangkok, Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations and Paul Eckert in Washington