In Myanmar, U.N. envoy meets Suu Kyi

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Times Staff Writer

U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met for more than an hour Sunday with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, after an apparent snub by senior military leaders of the troubled nation.

The visit came on a relatively quiet day on which anti-government groups that have led a series of peaceful protests hinted that they may change tactics and begin an economic boycott.

World leaders, including President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have spoken out strongly against political repression in Myanmar, but the ruling junta continues to receive little pressure from China and other Southeast Asian neighbors and trading partners.


The two regional giants, India and China, have remained friendly with the military regime, lured by the nation’s oil and natural gas reserves. As recently as Sept. 23, India, the world’s most populous democracy, dispatched its petroleum and natural gas minister, Murli Deora, to Myanmar on a state visit in search of deals.

Gambari’s meeting in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, with Suu Kyi, who has been under detention for most of the last 18 years, followed a trip by the envoy to the new capital of Naypyidaw. There he conferred with junior ministers but was not granted a meeting with Sr. Gen. Than Shwe or the leader’s top deputy, Vice Sr. Gen. Maung Aye.

Few details of Gambari’s meetings were available, but analysts said he hoped to open a dialogue between the ruling generals and Suu Kyi, long the central opposition figure in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Gambari was reportedly holding out for a return to Naypyidaw if top leaders agreed to see him. A United Nations statement said he expected to meet with Than Shwe before his planned departure Tuesday.

Sunday saw a second day of relative calm on the streets of Myanmar’s major cities as most citizens stayed home in the face of a heavy military presence and a reported wave of arrests.

News agencies carried an account of one protest in the western state of Rakhine. A resident said that more than 800 people marched in the town of Taunggok, shouting “Release all political prisoners!” before police and soldiers forced them to disperse.

Also Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for a peaceful solution and expressed his solidarity with the country’s impoverished population even as Roman Catholic priests in Yangon warned that clergy members should not get involved in politics. Buddhist monks have played a central role in the protests, calling for wholesale political reform. Catholics make up about 1% of Myanmar’s population.


As the junta in Myanmar tightens its grip, monks, the media, political activists inside the country and advisors abroad say the movement is pondering a change in course: urging citizens to vote with their pocketbooks.

“The way of demonstrating will be changed,” said Tun Myint Aung, a democracy activist reached by telephone Sunday in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. “The steering committee for the mass movement is preparing to come out in favor of a countrywide general strike.”

One advantage of this strategy is that it hits at the regime’s Achilles’ heel, the crippled economy, analysts said. A catalyst for public protests was the government’s announcement in August that gasoline prices would rise by up to 500%.

“It’s always the economy, stupid,” said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project at the Open Society Institute in New York. “Economically it can only get worse. They really don’t know how to handle it.”

A second-front strategy is also under consideration, others say, namely having protesters carry out marches and other acts of civil disobedience in smaller cities. The advantage of such a tack is that it may force the junta to transfer soldiers from Yangon and Mandalay, the two most populated cities, spreading them thinner.

“And even if they block the demonstrations, rising prices are still the biggest problem,” said Win Min, a Myanmar academic based in Thailand. “If the junta can’t solve that, the unrest will continue.”


But in a country with limited communication and more muted political activism in rural areas, mobilizing regional protests could be difficult, analysts add.

Myanmar state TV, meanwhile, has been broadcasting what it says are pro-government demonstrations, as it criticizes foreign media coverage. “VOA and BBC sky -- full of liars” read a screen in English on state broadcasts, referring to the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Sky News.

The lull in protests came after the military leaders gave troops the shoot-to-kill order starting Wednesday, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 people, according to government figures, and possibly many more, others say.

Military leaders have also imposed a nighttime curfew, locked monks in their monasteries and sharply curtailed communication out of the isolated country, knocking the wind out of street demonstrations that had attracted tens of thousands of protesters.

Pro-democracy groups said they didn’t have high hopes for the U.N. envoy’s visit. “I don’t think he’ll do much,” said Aung Din, with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an exile group based in Washington. “Mr. Gambari doesn’t have any power.”

Activists say they welcome the statements of outrage by Bush, Brown and other world leaders and the international attention the crisis has garnered. This contrasts with 1988, when foreign leaders barely reacted as the military brutally suppressed an uprising, killing an estimated 3,000 people.


But the analysts question whether the expressions of outrage can achieve much if not backed up by tough measures, which doesn’t appear likely.

China and Russia have opposed passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions or condemning Myanmar.

Japan, Myanmar’s biggest aid donor, seems in no rush to cut off funding despite the slaying by troops of a Japanese photojournalist during the protests in Yangon last week. Southeast Asian nations have long followed a policy of not interfering in one another’s affairs.

The Indian state visit last week came as Beijing faced growing international pressure to use its influence on its ally.

“India’s been trying to expand its influence in Burma,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, based in Singapore.

“There’ve been investments that’ve enabled India to take a bigger political and economic role, and there may be the sense that they don’t want to lose that,” he added. “And looking on it strategically, India doesn’t want to see Burma solely reliant on China.”


The bottom line, some conclude, is that Myanmar’s citizens can’t depend on outside help in their bid for a change of government or some sort of compromise between the military and pro-democracy forces.

“The message we are giving to our people is at the end of the day we must struggle for ourselves,” said Thaung Htun, the Myanmar government-in-exile’s U.N. representative. “We have to empower people inside the country.”

The crisis, meanwhile, has put China in a difficult position. Beijing’s interests are served by Myanmar’s generals staying in power, yet it also has to heed the outrage voiced in the international community.

This tightrope walk has played out in a series of Chinese Foreign Ministry statements that do little more than urge all sides to show restraint, falling well short fall of a condemnation of the violent crackdown.

A compliant Myanmar is attractive as a source of trade and resources and as a future path to the Indian Ocean, analysts say. China is concerned that a showdown with the U.S. over Taiwan could prompt Washington to block oil shipments through the Strait of Malacca.

Approximately 70% of China’s oil imports come through the strait, so having access to Myanmar’s coastline offers an insurance policy.


“China’s priority is that the military remain in control so it can continue to build infrastructure, ports, roads and a possible pipeline,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan, which says Beijing gave about $100 million worth of weapons systems to Myanmar last year.

During the first six months of 2007, bilateral trade between China and Myanmar reached $926 million, an increase of 40%, with a huge trade surplus in Beijing’s favor.

More broadly, an overthrow of the junta in favor of a pro-Western democracy could shift the region’s balance of power.

“A government in Burma with close ties to India, the U.S. and other Western powers would undercut China’s border security,” said Joseph Cheng, a foreign policy expert with the City University of Hong Kong. “That’s something it wants to avoid.”

And if that change comes about through some sort of popular revolution, China fears this could embolden its own citizens at a time when it is discouraging rural elections and is tightening its grip on its media and civil society.

On the other side of the ledger, China doesn’t want to be tainted by Myanmar’s pariah status as it prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Beijing already has come under sharp criticism for its links to Sudan and Zimbabwe.


“China doesn’t want to stand with international society, but if it supports Myanmar outright it also faces criticism,” said Liang Yingming, a Southeast Asia expert with Peking University. “There’s really no good policy. In the past, China could just ignore world opinion, but now it’s different.”

The Myanmar crisis also evokes China’s own missteps in the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, when soldiers in Beijing opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Since then, Chinese leaders have become much more adept at suppressing “mass incidents” early on and using economic growth to undercut dissent.


Times staff writers Henry Chu in New Delhi and Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Gu Bo in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.