Myanmar junta chief willing to meet with opposition leader Suu Kyi – but with conditions



By The Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar – Hoping to deflect outrage over images of soldiers gunning down protesters, Myanmar’s hard-line leader announced Thursday he is willing to talk with detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi – but only if she stops calling for international sanctions.

Senior Gen. Than Shwe also insists Suu Kyi give up urging her countrymen to confront the military regime, state television and radio said in reporting on the conditions set by the junta leader during a meeting this week with a special U.N. envoy.

The surprise move is aimed at staving off the possibility of economic sanctions and keeping Myanmar’s bountiful natural resources on world markets, while also pleasing giant neighbor China, which worries the unrest could cause problems for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The state media announcement came a few hours before U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari briefed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on his four-day trip seeking to persuade Myanmar’s military leaders to end the crackdown on democracy activists.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas in New York could not confirm that was what Than Shwe told Gambari on Tuesday.

Details of Gambari’s near hour-long meeting with the U.N. chief were not immediately disclosed.

State media gave new figures Thursday for the number of people arrested during last week’s bloody assault by troops on the biggest anti-government protests in nearly two decades. The reports said nearly 2,100 people had been detained, with almost 700 already released.

The government has said 10 people were killed when security forces broke up the mass demonstrations, but dissident groups put the death toll at up to 200 and say 6,000 people were detained, including thousands of Buddhist monks who were leading the protests.

In reporting on Than Shwe’s meeting with Gambari, state media quoted the general as saying that “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called for confrontation, utter devastation, economic sanctions and all other sanctions.”

While Suu Kyi has previously voiced support for economic sanctions against the junta, she has not publicly called for the devastation of her homeland or the government.

“If she abandons these calls, Senior Gen. Than Shwe told Mr. Gambari that he will personally meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the state media report said.

The report’s use of the title “daw” was a conciliatory gesture. “Daw” is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar and it was an unusually polite reference to Suu Kyi, a far cry from the usual way state media denigrates her as a foreign puppet or worse.

Reaction to the olive branch was mixed.

“I don’t believe there’s one iota of sincerity” in the junta’s offer, Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers professor and Myanmar expert, said Thursday in a telephone interview from Princeton, N.J.

But, Silverstein added, he thinks Suu Kyi will take up the offer. “She has been saying consistently since 1995 that she will talk to anybody about anything to bring about peace and development,” he said.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, scoffed at the general’s proposal. “Applying such conditions shows the government is not really sincere about meeting her,” he said.

It’s not clear how much the party knows about her thinking, however. Party members are not allowed any contact with Suu Kyi, who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

Than Shwe’s offer to meet with the opposition leader was remarkable because he is reported to have an intense dislike for Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her democracy campaign. Her party won elections in 1990 but the junta refused to accept the results.

Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has been ruled by the military since 1962. The current junta came to power after routing a 1988 pro-democracy uprising in bloodshed that killed at least 3,000 people.

The offer of a meeting with Suu Kyi was the first hint of an initiative from the government side since 2002, when she was freed from house arrest after U.N.-backed confidence-building talks began between her and the regime, including Than Shwe. Those talks collapsed in acrimony.

The report gave no indication that the junta is now prepared to lift restrictions on Suu Kyi or on members of her party, which has often called for a dialogue with the government but has been rebuffed.

China, Myanmar’s closest ally, praised the meeting between Than Shwe and Gambari and appealed to all parties in Myanmar to remain calm and resume stability “as soon as possible.”

At the United Nations in New York, China argued that the issue should stay out of the U.N. Security Council, a view echoed by Russia.

“There (is a) crisis, but this does not constitute (a) threat … to the region and international peace and security. Therefore, we think that … this issue does not belong to the Security Council,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Gunagya said. “No international imposed solution can help the situation.”

Soldiers remained out on the streets of Yangon, the country’s main city, and there were reports of more overnight arrests. Moe Aye, of the exile dissent group Democratic Voice of Burma, said soldiers arrested more than 100 civilians at a monastery in Bahan Township and raided another monastery and arrested up to 50 monks in South Okkalapa.

A U.N. Development Program employee, Myint Nwe Moe, and her husband, brother-in-law and driver were freed Thursday, a day after being arrested.

With Myanmar’s bloggers unable to post their comments and reports because Internet access was still shut off, thousands of bloggers from at least 45 other nations joined a cyberspace protest Thursday against the military regime by posting “Free Burma” banners on their pages.

Sixty-one Nobel laureates criticized the junta’s abuse of human rights and expressed solidarity with Suu Kyi. Thirty well-known novelists, poets and artists of Asian heritage called on the junta to stop its repression and free political prisoners.

State media, meanwhile, filled newspaper pages with propaganda slogans such as “We favor stability. We favor peace” and “We oppose unrest and violence.” International critics and foreign media were dismissed as “liars attempting to destroy the nation” by The New Light of Myanmar newspaper.