The UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was given last-minute permission to meet Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday, as he shuttled between the jungle capital of Naypyidaw and the main city of Rangoon in his efforts to end the military crackdown on anti-government protests.
University Avenue, the leafy street on the edge of Inya Lake where the pair met, was yesterday infested with hundreds of soldiers, and blocked off from the outside world with concrete and barbed wire barricades.
There was no confirmation on the content of the pair's discussion, but diplomatic sources in Rangoon said the UN's point man spent an hour-and-a-quarter with the democracy icon at a state guest house, down the road from the building where Ms Suu Kyi has lived under house arrest for the past four years. Mr Gambari's meeting with the democracy leader was the first – and so far only – indication that his visit, forced on the regime by American and UN pressure, might bear fruit.
On Saturday, he flew into an eerily quiet Rangoon, a city of five million, whose streets were almost empty of civilians after the crackdown on last week's demonstrations. There was no mistaking who was in charge, with an extra 20,000 troops flooding the city over the weekend to ensure that the envoy's stay was not disrupted by any unseemly occurrences.
Mr Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, was immediately flown to the new bunker-capital of Naypyidaw, carved out of the jungle by the country's generals. There he was presented with one of the elaborate snubs at which the regime has become a master. He had been meant to meet Senior General Than Shwe and his number two (and allegedly rival) Deputy Senior General Maung Aye – the two figures who count. Instead, he was taken into sessions with the acting prime minister, deputy foreign minister, and ministers of information and culture. He might as well have been presented to the junta's pet spaniels. But after the meeting with Ms Suu Kyi back in Rangoon, the envoy was once again whisked to Naypyidaw, leading to speculation that this time the top men might agree to see him, and even that he might be carrying a message from Ms Suu Kyi.
On hearing Mr Gambari had returned to the new capital, one Asian diplomat said:"He must have started his subtle diplomacy. With Mr Gambari's diplomatic skills, things will work out fine."
But it requires optimism of a particularly buoyant sort to envisage any message of concession or conciliation emerging from such a meeting, supposing it does take place.
"Nobody is taking Gambari seriously any more," said one veteran Burmese journalist in Rangoon. "What can he do? He and other special envoys have been here again and again, and nothing happened."
Britain's ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, said Mr Gambari should stay in Burma "long enough to get under way a genuine process of national reconciliation." He told the Associated Press: "He should be given as much time as that takes. That will require access to senior levels of government as well as a range of political actors."
The problem for the outside world, which this week has condemned the regime with rare unanimity, is that the generals are acting from a position of moral turpitude but huge economic strength. China and India are competing strenuously for access to Burma's oil and gas reserves, which makes China's mild rebuke last week all the more remarkable. India, by contrast, which stood up to the regime for many years, now says nothing to irritate the generals. Indeed the Indian petroleum minister was in the country signing new oil and gas exploration contracts, while thousands of protesting monks were parading through Rangoon last Sunday.
"Unless and until Beijing, Delhi and Moscow stand in unison pressuring the State Peace and Development Council [as the junta calls itself] for change, little will change," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in neighbouring Thailand. "The junta has practically invented its own 'great game' in which it has become a masterful manipulator, and has been winning, to the consternation of the wider world."
More diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on the regime last night when Japan's deputy foreign minister, Mitoji Yabunaka, flew in for talks with officials, following the shooting of a Japanese video journalist in Rangoon last Thursday. Japan is Burma's biggest aid donor. "I will seek a full explanation of the incident and demand safety for Japanese nationals," Mr Yabunaka said in Tokyo before leaving. "I want them to hold a dialogue with pro-democracy forces and pave the way for democracy."
After the deaths of many brave protesters, Burmese today are desperate for a breakthrough.