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November 3, 2007

MYANMAR : Politics
Myanmar junta sends mixed signals ahead of UN envoy visit

Myanmar freed more people arrested during September's wave of protests but also cut Internet access Friday in an apparent bid to limit the flow of information ahead of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari's visit.

Another 46 people, mostly from democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, were released late Thursday, party spokesman Nyan Win said, bringing the total number of people freed during the last week to 165.

But dozens of NLD members were among the hundreds still believed to be imprisoned, Nyan Win told AFP.

These detentions are likely to be high on Gambari's agenda as he meets with the junta to again press for reform after a violent crackdown on anti-government protests in late September left 13 people dead.

Gambari will arrive in Myanmar Saturday for his second visit since the unrest broke out, and has been tasked with implementing a genuine dialogue between the military regime and the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari last visited Myanmar from September 29 to October 2, just days after security forces confronted protesters with batons, tear gas and bullets in the streets of the commercial capital Yangon.

His new mission "will have to bring substantive results," UN chief Ban Ki-moon said earlier this week.

He added that Gambari would press for "more democratic measures by the government, including the release of all detained students and demonstrators and open up their society as soon as possible."

But some observers are less optimistic that Gambari's six-day visit will produce real progress, and see his invitation merely as a way for the junta, which has been in power since 1962, to ease international pressure on itself.

"It is highly likely that the junta is just buying some time," Shigeru Tsumori, a former Japanese ambassador to Myanmar, told AFP by phone from Tokyo on Friday.

"It gives an impression to the international community that the junta is making some concessions following the violent crackdown," he said.

Others say Gambari alone cannot bring change to Myanmar, and that he must have stronger backing from the country's neighbours if he is going to force the ruling generals to embrace real reform.

"The junta is trying to make some concessions. But in terms of substance, I don't think the concessions are real," said Win Min, a lecturer at Payap University in Chiang Mai.

"The top generals don't want to change ... That's why we need more pressure from China and ASEAN on the regime to press for more dialogue. Mr Gambari alone cannot do that," he added.

The junta's grip on power was again evident Friday when Myanmar's Internet links were largely cut.

Access to international websites has been restricted for more than 24 hours, said an official from the state-owned Myanmar Teleport who added that it was not known when full service would be restored.

Myanmar dissident websites and blogs have been particularly active in the lead-up to Gambari's visit, condemning the junta for its suppression of demonstrators and urging the international community to ramp up pressure on the regime.

"Since the world witnessed the brutality of the military, the reputation of the junta has suffered an irreparable damage, especially at home, and also abroad," said a commentary posted Friday on the anti-junta website Mizzima News.

Dissident websites are also frequently the quickest means of relaying information from within the isolated country.

They were a key source of news on a march on Wednesday by Buddhist monks in Pakokku in central Myanmar, the first such demonstration since the September crackdown.

At the height of the September protests, Myanmar's Internet connections were cut as the military regime tried to stop the flow of news and images of its suppression of mass protests.

Courtesy AFP 

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