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In Myanmar, U.N. envoy meets Suu Kyi

October 01, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met for more than an hour Sunday with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, after an apparent snub by senior military leaders of the troubled nation.

The visit came on a relatively quiet day on which anti-government groups that have led a series of peaceful protests hinted that they may change tactics and begin an economic boycott.

World leaders, including President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have spoken out strongly against political repression in Myanmar, but the ruling junta continues to receive little pressure from China and other Southeast Asian neighbors and trading partners.

The two regional giants, India and China, have remained friendly with the military regime, lured by the nation's oil and natural gas reserves. As recently as Sept. 23, India, the world's most populous democracy, dispatched its petroleum and natural gas minister, Murli Deora, to Myanmar on a state visit in search of deals.

Gambari's meeting in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, with Suu Kyi, who has been under detention for most of the last 18 years, followed a trip by the envoy to the new capital of Naypyidaw. There he conferred with junior ministers but was not granted a meeting with Sr. Gen. Than Shwe or the leader's top deputy, Vice Sr. Gen. Maung Aye.

Few details of Gambari's meetings were available, but analysts said he hoped to open a dialogue between the ruling generals and Suu Kyi, long the central opposition figure in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Gambari was reportedly holding out for a return to Naypyidaw if top leaders agreed to see him. A United Nations statement said he expected to meet with Than Shwe before his planned departure Tuesday.

Sunday saw a second day of relative calm on the streets of Myanmar's major cities as most citizens stayed home in the face of a heavy military presence and a reported wave of arrests.

News agencies carried an account of one protest in the western state of Rakhine. A resident said that more than 800 people marched in the town of Taunggok, shouting "Release all political prisoners!" before police and soldiers forced them to disperse.

Also Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for a peaceful solution and expressed his solidarity with the country's impoverished population even as Roman Catholic priests in Yangon warned that clergy members should not get involved in politics. Buddhist monks have played a central role in the protests, calling for wholesale political reform. Catholics make up about 1% of Myanmar's population.

As the junta in Myanmar tightens its grip, monks, the media, political activists inside the country and advisors abroad say the movement is pondering a change in course: urging citizens to vote with their pocketbooks.

"The way of demonstrating will be changed," said Tun Myint Aung, a democracy activist reached by telephone Sunday in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. "The steering committee for the mass movement is preparing to come out in favor of a countrywide general strike."

One advantage of this strategy is that it hits at the regime's Achilles' heel, the crippled economy, analysts said. A catalyst for public protests was the government's announcement in August that gasoline prices would rise by up to 500%.

"It's always the economy, stupid," said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project at the Open Society Institute in New York. "Economically it can only get worse. They really don't know how to handle it."

A second-front strategy is also under consideration, others say, namely having protesters carry out marches and other acts of civil disobedience in smaller cities. The advantage of such a tack is that it may force the junta to transfer soldiers from Yangon and Mandalay, the two most populated cities, spreading them thinner.

"And even if they block the demonstrations, rising prices are still the biggest problem," said Win Min, a Myanmar academic based in Thailand. "If the junta can't solve that, the unrest will continue."

But in a country with limited communication and more muted political activism in rural areas, mobilizing regional protests could be difficult, analysts add.

Myanmar state TV, meanwhile, has been broadcasting what it says are pro-government demonstrations, as it criticizes foreign media coverage. "VOA and BBC sky -- full of liars" read a screen in English on state broadcasts, referring to the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Sky News.

The lull in protests came after the military leaders gave troops the shoot-to-kill order starting Wednesday, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 people, according to government figures, and possibly many more, others say.

Military leaders have also imposed a nighttime curfew, locked monks in their monasteries and sharply curtailed communication out of the isolated country, knocking the wind out of street demonstrations that had attracted tens of thousands of protesters.

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