29 September, 2007

All eyes on Myanmar now

United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari flew into Myanmar on Saturday carrying worldwide hopes he can persuade its ruling generals to use negotiations instead of guns to end mass protests against 45 years of military rule.

"He's the best hope we have. He is trusted on both sides," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said. "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.

Burma's military leaders locked down monasteries, arrested dissidents and set up barricades across Rangoon yesterday in an attempt to suffocate the waves of street demonstrations calling for an end to their rule.

They also tried to cut off ordinary people's communication with the outside world, heightening fears that the crackdown that appears to have knocked the wind from the demonstrations could become more violent.

Yet, despite the regime's best efforts, a day after security forces killed at least nine demonstrators – dissident groups say the total could be as high as 200 – hundreds again risked their lives to defy the government in small but angry protests across Burma's main city.


At the same time, a disturbing picture was emerging of Thursday's crackdown. Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Burma, said he had unconfirmed reports the death toll after two days of violence was "several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities". The Washington-based dissident group, US Campaign for Burma, said around 200 protesters had been killed.

A Burmese journalist who gave her account to The Independent, said: "The police were shooting everything – houses, trees, anything. The bullets were flying over our heads. It was as if they were on drugs and were crazy." Seven young people ran from the protest in Thanwe and tried to hide in long grass, the 23-year-old journalist said. "Informers were pointing to the grass, people got up and ran, but the police just fired into their backs. Four were gunned down straight away. Shot dead."

For years, Asean used gentle diplomacy on maverick member Myan­mar but Thursday’s rebuke over the military-ruled state’s bloody suppression of pro­democracy protests may be unprecedented, experts and diplomats say.

The unusually sharp words used by foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) demanding the military junta in Yangon immediately stop using violence against protestors also herald a shift away from its rigid, consensus-based decision-making process.

“It is definitely the strongest political written statement by Asean not only on Myanmar but on any single issue in the last 30 years or so,” a senior Asean official told AFP.

The ministers, who met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, expressed their “revulsion” to their Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win, after nine people, including a Japanese journalist, were killed and hundreds arrested in the brutal crackdown.

“They were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators,” Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said after chairing the meeting.

The Asean ministers also expressed concern that the turmoil had “a serious impact on the reputation and credibility of Asean,” Yeo said, with his counterparts in the group, including a representative from Myan­mar, beside him.

The United Nations Human Rights Council will hold an emergency session next week to discuss the bloody crackdown on protests by the military regime in Burma, which has left an unspecified number of Buddhist monks and other demonstrators dead and injured this week and hundreds under arrest.

The decision by the highest U.N. human rights body was the finishing touch to its three-week ordinary session, which was largely dedicated to procedural matters.

Najib Tun Razak has advised Malaysians in Burma not to meddle in the internal affairs of the troubled nation including participating in the pro-democracy street demonstrations.



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