UN envoy’s arrival prompts more arrests in Yangon


Yangon : United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari arrived at Yangon International Airport Saturday afternoon but flew directly to Naypyidaw, the regime’s hideaway capital, instead of immediately inspecting the scene of this week’s upheaval.

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Meanwhile, in downtown Yangon, soldiers detained more than 40 people who had gathered outside the Trader Hotel, cutting short a planned protest for Gambari. The protesters were apparently unaware that Gambari was not coming in to the city.

Hundreds of armed soldiers had taken over the streets of Yangon Saturday, hunkering down behind barbed wire at strategic spots.

On Strand Street hundreds of protesters congregated, but they dispersed when they ran into troops blocking the path to Pagoda Street, where the Traders Hotel is located.

In general, Yangon was relatively peaceful Saturday, enjoying its first lull in almost two weeks of increasingly violent protests against the ruling junta and the country’s deteriorating economy.

Gambari has been assigned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make an assessment of the situation in Myanmar after almost two months of sporadic and persistent protests against the country’s military regime who have lorded over this once prosperous South-East Asian nation for the past 45 years.

Gambari, who last visited Myanmar in May 2006, was tasked to seek talks with religious leaders, political detainees and democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than four years.

His last visit was not a resounding success. Although allowed to interview Suu Kyi, who has been kept in near total isolation in her Yangon home since May 2003, the regime extended her detention by another year, one week after Gambari’s visit.

Instead of first visiting the scene of the protests, the former capital of Yangon, Gambari has flown to Naypyidaw, 350 km north of to pay respects to the junta’s leadership.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta styles itself, moved the capital to Naypyiday in late 2005,to the annoyance of the civil service. The move prompted a pay raise in civil servants’ salaries, to soothe their complaints, which in turn led to double-digit inflation in the rest of Myanmar that set the scene for recent upheavals.

Peaceful protests initially started in Yangon on Aug 19, in response to a government decision to double fuel prices.

Myanmar’s monkhood took up the movement in early September and started to march against the fuel-price hikes 12 days ago in Yangon.

The movement eventually escalated into the largest and most violently suppressed anti-government demonstrations since 1988.

Riot police and soldiers cracked down on the monks Wednesday, first beating them back from Yangon’s famed downtown pagodas of Shwedagon and Sule, and then raided their monasteries Thursday morning, arresting hundreds of the clergy.

The government attack on the monkhood outraged laymen, and led to clashes between people and security personnel Thursday that left at least nine dead, according to state sources.

Independent sources claim the death toll was much higher.

Hundreds of monks have reportedly fled their monasteries in Yangon for other temples.

No monks came to collect alms in many parts of Yangon on Saturday morning, as is their normal practice.

“Now there is no merit making, just demerits,” said one Yangon resident.

While Myanmar’s 400,000-strong monkhood is generally revered in this predominantly Buddhist country, it is not above being disciplined by the military.

The army crackdown on anti-military demonstrations in Sep 1988 left an estimated 3,000 people dead, hundreds of whom were monks who had joined the protests.

The crackdown has prompted almost universal condemnation of the regime, drawing harsh rebuke even from Myanmar’s neighbours in South-East Asia.