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UN Envoy in Burma to Try to Mediate Burmese Protests

  • Luis Ramirez

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has arrived in Burma on what the U.N. secretary-general calls an "urgent mission" to broker negotiations between the military government and the pro-democracy opposition. VOA's Luis Ramirez at our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok reports the visit comes as the army is tightening its control over demonstrations in the main city, Rangoon.

Witnesses say army reinforcements have been arriving in Rangoon Saturday, and reports say only a few small groups of people have been venturing out into the streets.

The United Nation's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is due to meet with Burmese officials, and is also expected to request a meeting with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Human rights activists say Gambari must press the military leadership for real change.

"We hope that Mr. Gambari secures a commitment and proof that they are going to move forward in a peaceful way to get a negotiated settlement in Burma," said Debbie Stothard, who is with the ALTSEAN Burma Regional Human Rights Network in Bangkok.

Gambari told reporters before leaving Singapore Saturday that he is looking forward to a fruitful visit.

The Burmese government says 10 people have died over the past few days when soldiers used guns, batons, and teargas to smash and disperse demonstrations. Diplomats and others estimate that the death toll is much higher.

Among the dead is a Japanese journalist killed Thursday. Video images from Rangoon showed a soldier pointing a gun at him while he lay on the pavement holding up his camera. Foreign journalists have been largely barred from the country, however. Internet service was cut on Friday, but some residents reported it had been restored for a time early Saturday.

The White House on Friday called on Burmese authorities to let the U.N. envoy meet with whomever he wants, including military leaders, religious leaders, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Washington announced that 36 additional Burmese government officials and their families are barred from travel to the United States, and said more could be added to the list if they are found to be responsible for the attacks on innocent civilians and other human rights abuses.

Debbie Stothard says Mr. Gambari's visit gives the Burmese authorities a chance to take a first step toward reconciliation. She said she hopes the U.N. envoy will take a strong approach.

"The people of Burma have taken great risks in standing up for democracy and economic reforms, and the international community has an obligation to support them in their aspirations," she said. "Mr. Gambari should have the political will and commitment to make sure this [support] is delivered."

Witnesses in Rangoon Saturday said authorities continued to clamp down on Buddhist monasteries, and are barring monks from venturing out in large groups. The government has accused monks of leading the protests and has raided several monasteries in recent days, arresting hundreds of clergymen, beating some and - according to some witnesses - killing others.

The protests started after the government imposed sharp increases in fuel prices on August 15. They escalated when monks joined in large numbers to protest the beating of protesting monks more than three weeks ago. The protests quickly turned into demands for freedom and democracy, and were joined by tens of thousands of lay citizens.

Protests have been occurring in other parts of the country, including the second city, Mandalay.