YANGON (Reuters) - Troops in Myanmar hauled away truckloads of people on Wednesday after the departure of a U.N. envoy trying to end a ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy rallies that has sparked international outrage.
In one house near the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the holiest shrine in the Buddhist nation and a focal point of last week’s monk-led marches, only a 13-year-old girl remained.
Her parents were taken, she said. “They warned us not to run away as they might be back,” she said after people from rows of shophouses were ordered into the street in the middle of the night.
Witnesses said at least eight truckloads of prisoners were taken from central Yangon, the former Burma’s biggest city, where crowds of up to 100,000 people had protested against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship.
A staff member of the U.N. Development Fund, her husband, brother-in-law and driver were among those arrested, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York. The United Nations was appealing to Myanmar’s U.N. mission to secure her release.
The crackdown continued despite some hopes of progress by U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari on his mission to persuade junta chief Than Shwe to relax his grip and open talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Gambari met twice.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would meet Gambari on Thursday, then on Friday discuss with the 15 members of the Security Council how to address human rights violations in the Southeast Asian country.
“That is one of the top concerns of the international community,” Ban said. Asked about Gambari’s four-day mission, Ban replied: “You cannot call it always a success.”
China, the closest the junta has to a friend, has made rare public calls for restraint but rules out supporting any U.N. sanctions against Myanmar. Russia, like China a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, also opposes sanctions.
Singapore, the current chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), said it “was encouraged by the access and cooperation” given by the junta to Gambari.
The envoy was in Singapore on his way back to New York but is likely to say nothing in public before he briefs Ban.
U.S. first lady Laura Bush, who has been an outspoken supporter of human rights in Myanmar, called on the junta to step aside.
“The United States believes it is time for General Than Shwe and the junta to step aside, and to make way for a unified Burma governed by legitimate leaders,” she said in a letter to the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee on Wednesday.
The protests — the biggest challenge to the junta since it killed an estimated 3,000 people while crushing an uprising in 1988 — began with small marches against fuel price rises in August and swelled after troops fired over the heads of monks.
Gambari had been “assured” of another visit to Myanmar in November, Ban said.
But there were no signs how his mission and international pressure might change the policies of a junta which seldom heeds outside pressure, has endured years of sanctions by Western governments and rarely admits U.N. officials.
“The top leadership is so entrenched in their views that it’s not going to help,” said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “They will say they are on the road to democracy and so what do you want anyway?”
The first step of the junta’s “seven-step road to democracy” was completed in September with the end of an on-off, 14-year national convention which produced guidelines for a constitution that critics say will entrench military rule and exclude Suu Kyi from office.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, said Washington and its allies must continue to press other members of the U.N. Security Council for “a strong resolution against the Burmese regime.”
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saw little chance of action by the Security Council, but said much more could be done to “debilitate Burma’s ability to participate in international financial markets.”
“We need to get ASEAN and the European Union on board with this and then China will have to decide whether it wants to pay the price in the bilateral relationship with the United States for continuing to condone Burma’s activities,” Bolton said.
The junta says the instability was met with “the least force possible” and that Yangon and other cities had returned to normal. It says 10 people were killed and describes reports of much higher tolls and atrocities as a “skyful of lies.”
In Brussels, EU ambassadors agreed to toughen existing sanctions against Myanmar and look at trade bans on its key timber, metals and gems sectors, officials and diplomats said.
“There was full agreement on reinforcing existing measures,” one diplomat said of the decision, which will be sent to EU foreign ministers for approval in mid-October. “On the second measures, a number of member states took the view it should be done only after further information was obtained.”
The junta appears to believe it has suppressed the uprising, with barricades around the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas lifted and an overnight curfew eased by two hours.
Eighty monks and 149 women believed to be nuns swept up in widespread raids were released. Five local journalists, one working for Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, were also freed.
A heavy armed presence remained on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, the second city, witnesses said. The junta was also sending gangs through homes looking for monks in hiding, raids Western diplomats say are creating a climate of terror.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Darren Schuettler in Bangkok and Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations