Myanmar restores Internet, but arrests continue

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s ruling generals have restored public Internet access, more than two weeks after cutting Web connections to stem the flow of images of mass protests and a ruthless crackdown that outraged the world.

Protesters wearing the colours of Myanmar political party, National League for Democracy, take part in a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok October 14, 2007. REUTERS/Arthur Jones Dionio

The junta also reduced a curfew to just four hours, but arrests of opponents and participants in the protests -- the biggest challenge to 45 years of military rule in the former Burma since 1988 -- continued despite international pressure for talks with the opposition.

“The Internet connection was restored on Saturday afternoon, but we still haven’t decided whether or not to reopen our internet cafe yet,” a Yangon Internet cafe owner said.

There had been intermittent access to the Internet over the past week, mostly during a curfew first imposed as the junta sent the army in to end protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks.

The government admits 10 people were killed, although Western governments and opposition groups in exile say the real toll was much higher, and thousands of people, including hundreds of monks, were arrested and held in brutal conditions.

Many have been freed, but more are being arrested despite a visit by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and a statement condemning the crackdown by the U.N. Security Council including China, the closest the junta has to an ally.

On Saturday, three prominent activists in the student-led uprising the army put down with an estimated loss of 3,000 lives in 1988 were detained in one of the many raids still being conducted by police. They face long jail terms.

Htay Kywe has already spent 15 years in jail, Mie Mie, a woman activist, seven years and Aung Thu, the third arrested, five years. Aung Gyi, another activist, was arrested separately.

Ko Min Aung, a member of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, was arrested in Taunggok when he got home from an NLD meeting on Saturday.

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“The police took him, grabbing his arms as soon as he got home. They did not even allow him to take a change of clothes,” his wife told Reuters on Sunday.


Some who took part in the latest mass protests -- both monks and laymen -- may have been jailed already after closed trials.

“So far as we heard, jail sentences have already been passed on some monks, men and students who took part in the protests,” a source close to the families of arrested activists said.

The junta has made some concessions to international pressure, including giving Gambari a rare audience with Senior General Than Shwe and two meetings with Nobel laureate Suu Kyi.

It has also appointed a big-hitting minister to act as a go-between with Suu Kyi -- whom Than Shwe is believed to loathe -- raising hopes that for once the generals might be contemplating serious talks and possible democratic reform.

On Saturday night, the junta announced the curfew, first imposed on September 25 from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., then cut by two hours, was now reduced to 11 p.m. to 3 a.m..

Some thought the cut was prompted by the arrest of the three prominent student leaders, whose main colleagues were arrested soon after organizing protests against huge fuel price rises in August that grew into mass demonstrations.

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“The authorities seem to think that they have arrested all leading activists they want to,” a retired official said.

However, the continuing arrests and mass government rallies people say they are forced to attend suggest the junta is determined to stamp out all opposition.

Gambari was due back in Asia this weekend to brief regional governments and hopes to wind up his trip with another visit to Myanmar before the end of the month.

But the generals maintained a hard line against the Security Council statement which “strongly deplored” the crackdown.

Official media described the council’s statement as “regrettable” and said it was “totally disregarding the fact that the situation in Myanmar does not represent a threat to the regional and international peace and security”.

Despite the strong words at the U.N., veto-wielding China has made it clear it will not allow any formal action such as sanctions to be taken against Myanmar, where Beijing is lining up deals to buy huge reserves of natural gas.

India, another energy-hungry regional giant, is equally reluctant to act, and the army-appointed government in Thailand, which buys $2 billion of Myanmar gas each year -- also said it would not be taking any concrete measures against its neighbor.