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Burma Receives One UN Envoy, Expels Another

A United Nations official trying to promote dialogue between Burma's military government and the pro-democracy opposition has been allowed back into the country. But the government has also just expelled the U.N.'s top resident representative, making it difficult to determine the Burmese leaders' true intentions. Ron Corben reports from Bankok.

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari returned to Burma late Saturday, for his second visit since the government cracked down violently on pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September.

After his last visit, Gambari called on the government to begin a process of national reconciliation and democratic reform. The leaders have since taken tentative steps in that direction, and the fact that Gambari was allowed to return so soon has been taken as a favorable sign.

But on Friday, just a day before Gambari's scheduled arrival, the government expelled the highest-ranking U.N. official resident in the country, development coordinator Charles Petrie. Petrie's mistake had been to denounce the "deteriorating humanitarian situation" in Burma following the September violence.

Singapore is the current president of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member. On Saturday, Singapore said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to expel Petrie.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says that since Gambari's first visit, the signs had at least been positive.

"It's quite clear that the regime is concerned at the upsurge of international pressure, and that they are willing to take some steps to respond to that pressure," she said. "The question is whether the international community will be able to maintain the pressure so that genuine reforms are indeed achieved."

One concession by the government was to appoint a deputy minister to act as a liaison with the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for four and a half years.

The military has ignored international calls to release her, but it has released several dozen people detained during the recent crackdown.

Carl Thayer, an analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says the government hopes Aung San Suu Kyi will accept a minor role in any moves toward political reform.

"It's holding firm on some areas, it's [also] making concessions, raising expectations, and just seems to be scraping by," he said. "I suspect it's trying to get Aung San Suu Kyi to agree to stop asking outside countries to put pressure on Burma. Obviously she will refuse."

Gambari met with both top government officials and Aung San Suu Kyi during his last visit. He has since toured other Asian nations, asking for their help in bringing pressure on the Burmese military.