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Burmese junta opens door to talks with Suu Kyi

By Peter Popham in Mae Sot, Thailand

The UN envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, finally got to see the regime's two top generals yesterday, after days of delays and diversions.

He had flown to the country on Saturday as the army threatened overwhelming force to stifle weeks of peaceful protest against the junta and its catastrophic economic policies. He met Senior General Than Shwe and Deputy Senior General Maung Aye together at their hideaway capital of Nay Pyi Daw, 350km (217miles) north of Rangoon.

Nothing leaked out about the content of the meeting. It was expected that the generals would have sought to justify their crackdown on the protesters, which left many dead and thousands in detention, in the name of state security and stability.

But in a surprise coda to the visit, one which raised a flicker of hope, Mr Gambari then flew back to Rangoon for a second, brief meeting with the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had met for more than an hour on Sunday. The most optimistic supposition was that he was bringing a message of some sort from the generals to the woman who, as leader of the opposition which won a landslide election victory in 1990, one that was never honoured, has been the principal thorn in their side ever since. Mr Gambari then flew back to New York to report on his visit to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

Rangoon remained quiet but tense during the envoy's visit. The tens of thousands of troops standing guard on every street last week have steadily been reduced, though the two great pagodas that were the principal nodes of protest, Shwedagon and Sule, remained under armed guard. Burmese exiles in the town of Mae Sot in western Thailand near the Burmese border claimed there were two demonstrations in Rangoon yesterday, and one in Arakan state, "but the numbers are drastically less".

For the time being, the regime's brutal tactics have had their intended effect of driving protesters from the streets. But in their homes they have contrived a new way to show dissent: turning off house lights and televisions between 8 and 8.15 pm, when the official news is broadcast, as a silent snub to their hated rulers.

What remains unclear – and human rights activists across the world will be hoping Mr Gambari will have succeeded in shedding some light on it – is the total number of dead during the crackdown, and the number and whereabouts of the arrested. The junta claims only nine died; they have declined to say how many are being held in detention. For their part, activists believe the true number of the dead could be as high as 200. Diplomats too consider that the figure of 10 grossly understates the true number of casualties.

Agence France-Presse reported a junta official telling them that 1,700 protesters were being held at the Government Technical Institute campus in Rangoon, near Insein prison. They included 200 women and one 10-year-old child, a novice monk. They are being held in a windowless warehouse, and many of the monks are said to be refusing to eat. Monks have been disrobed by their captors, a sacrilegious act they have resisted, and made to wear civilian prison dress.

A spokesman for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese exile group in Mae Sot, who has received messages smuggled out, said: "People in these centres are getting very little food, not enough water, and they are plagued with mosquitoes but forbidden from having mosquito nets. Some are suffering from diabetes, heart disease and other medical problems but they are not allowed medicine."

He added that people living near the improvised prison had heard detained monks chanting inside – but that they were subsequently transferred to a place where they could not be heard.

nThe UN Human Rights Council condemned the Burmese government's crackdown on opposition protests yesterday and urged an immediate investigation of the situation. The 47-nation council said it "strongly deplores continued violent repression of peaceful demonstrators in Myanmar [Burma], including through beatings, killings, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances."

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