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UN Rights Envoy in Burma Visits Detention Center For Political Prisoners, Monasteries


The United Nations' human rights envoy, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, began a five-day trip to Burma with visits to a Buddhist monastery and a prison in Rangoon. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, analysts say it will be difficult for the envoy to find out how many were killed or detained during a recent crackdown by the Burmese authorities.

United Nations human rights envoy, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, spent at least two hours at the Insein Prison near Rangoon Monday. The prison is well known as a detention center for holding political prisoners whom rights groups say face widespread abuses by authorities.

Pinheiro had earlier visited Buddhist monasteries that had led protests in August and September calling for economic and political reforms.

The military says at least 10 people were killed in the crackdown that followed. But human rights groups and diplomats say the figure was much higher.

Garry Rodan is Asia Research Center director at Australia's Murdoch University. He says hopes that Pinheiro will clarify the facts of what happened may be frustrated.

"This is going to be a very difficult one to be able to simply document and collect information where most sources of information are tightly controlled and where people are very scared. But obviously there will be a lot of hopes placed on something coming out that at least approximates some understanding of the depth and nature of what took place," he said.

Amnesty International last week expressed concerns over the "grave and ongoing human rights violations" committed since the crackdown. These included arbitrary detentions, the holding of hostages, beatings and torture in custody and enforced disappearances.

Pinheiro's trip is his first time in Burma since November 2003. He had abandoned a trip earlier that year after he discovered listening devices in a room where he was meeting with political detainees.

Last week, the U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari pointed to progress during his own visit to the country. Detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, met members of her party, the National League for Democracy, for the first time in three years. She then said she was ready to cooperate with the military in a dialogue for reform.

Despite the intense international pressure for a dialogue for change, some analysts doubt the military's intentions.

Rodan believes the military must negotiate in order to survive.

"This regime is so unpopular and repressive that it struggles for legitimacy even though it has power," he said. I"t alienates its own population so comprehensively that people take enormous risks even in the knowledge that many of the those people would have had that they will in some cases - at best - be beaten - at worst tortured and executed. And yet the protests continued."

The military government has said it is preparing to move to general elections under a program of constitutional and electoral reform. But no timetable has been set when the elections will take place.

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