Saturday, October 13, 2007

UN Begins Asian Tour as Myanmar Rounds Up Activists

Myanmar's military rulers are still rounding up activists, rights groups said Sunday, even as UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari arrived in Bangkok for an Asian tour aimed at piling pressure on the generals.

As security forces in Yangon detained more pro-democracy campaigners, the junta however eased restrictions put in place at the height of last month's mass protests, relaxing a curfew here and restoring Internet access.

Amnesty International reported on Sunday that six dissidents were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar's main city, over the weekend.

The London-based human rights watchdog said the arrests were part of an ongoing crackdown by the Myanmar authorities following the army's violent end to September's protests, which left at least 13 people dead.

"Continued arrests fly in the face of the promises made this week by the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations," Amnesty said.

Gambari, a seasoned UN troubleshooter dispatched by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Bangkok late Sunday to prepare for what he hopes will be a return visit to Myanmar, just two weeks ago after his last mission.

He made no comment as he landed in Bangkok ahead of talks Monday with Thailand's army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.

Gambari was to head to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China and Japan after his stop in Thailand.

The United States - one of Myanmar's harshest critics - is keen to see Gambari in the country without delay.

"We are encouraging special envoy Gambari to get back to Burma as soon as possible," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a trip to Israel, using Myanmar's former name.

Buddhist monks led up to 100,000 people onto the streets of Yangon in September, but the subsequent crackdown by the generals, who have ruled this country since 1962, led to deaths and the arrests of more than 2,000.

Concern is growing for the safety of about 1,000 people still in custody, after a Thailand-based monitoring group said last week that one activist died after being tortured during interrogation.

Amnesty said the six activists recently detained included Htay Kywe and Mi Mi, who led some of the first rallies against the regime in mid-August, warning they were at "grave risk" of torture and ill-treatment.

The UN Security Council on Thursday issued a statement deploring the regime's crackdown. It urged the junta to hold talks with the opposition led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and release political prisoners.

Myanmar's official media has labelled the statement "regrettable," but said it would cooperate with the world body.

It made no acknowledgement of the UN call for the release of political prisoners nor for it to hold dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari will likely attempt to harness regional support to push the generals to adopt democratic reforms, said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, but warned that the junta appeared indifferent.

"The toll of detentions and deaths seem to be increasing, at the same time as Gambari is flying around looking for diplomatic support," she told AFP.

Two of the countries on Gambari's agenda - China and India - are key allies and trading partners of Myanmar, and are under particular pressure to take a tougher stance against the regime.

Since Gambari's last visit, Than Shwe has made a heavily conditional offer to hold talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also appointed deputy labour minister Aung Kyi as a liaison officer tasked with coordinating contacts with Aung San Suu Kyi, but so far no meeting appears to have taken place.

Myanmar's state press on Sunday made no mention of the envoy's Asia tour, instead publishing accounts of pro-government rallies and lauding its own much-criticised "road map" to democracy.

"Myanmar is in the process of transforming itself into a modern and developed discipline-flourishing democratic nation," said the New Light of Myanmar, the government mouthpiece newspaper.

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