Secrecy shrouds UN peace mission to Myanmar

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YANGON, Sep 30 (Reuters) An urgent United Nations mission to bring Myanmar's ruling generals and their many foes to the peace table was shrouded in secrecy today with no word on progress from the country's new jungle capital.

Officials were unreachable in Naypyidaw, 385 km to the north of Yangon which has been the centre of an uprising led by Buddhist monks. Since mid-week the junta has been squeezing the life out of the protests by arresting or confining monks and barricading off the city centre.

There was no word even on who UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari has met in Naypyidaw, the greenfield site where the junta moved the entire government apparatus at just a few hours notice in 2005, apparently because astrologers had defined the auspicious hour for the shift.

The generals, directing moves to throttle the protests in Yangon and other cities from Naypyidaw, usually ignore outside pressure.

Yet they bowed to the chorus of international concern that followed soldiers shooting down peaceful protesters last week to allow Gambari in at short notice.

The heavy-handed suppression of the protests had prompted criticism even from China, the closest the junta have to an ally, and rare condemnation from ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), of which Myanmar is a member.

State-run media have proclaimed the restoration of peace and stability, and insist that security forces handled the protests ''with care, using the least possible force''. Diplomats flown to Naypyidaw received similar assurances.

FEW ON STREETS At their height last Monday and Tuesday the protests in central Yangon, formerly Rangoon, filled five city blocks. They are now reduced to a few hundred people taunting and cursing security forces, who have fenced off the protest area between two main pagodas, then vanishing into alleys when charged.

There is no sign now of the maroon-robed monks, the moral core of the deeply Buddhist nation, whose column stretched nearly a kilometre (more than half a mile) at the height of the protests against 45 years of military rule.

The monks were either arrested by the hundreds in overnight raids on their monasteries, or are penned in there by surrounding security forces who began a crackdown on Wednesday in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.

Soldiers and police fire occasional warning shots, ensuring the city remains scared of a repeat of 1988, when the army put down an uprising killing an estimated 3,000 people.

But there have been no further reports of deaths in the protests, which began in August with small marches against shock fuel price rises. The official count is 10 killed. Western governments believe the real toll is much higher.

GAMBARI TO MEET SUU KYI The United States said Gambari going virtually directly to Naypyidaw, whisked out of Yangon as soon as he arrived from Singapore yesterday, was a reason to worry about his mission, which followed an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Myanmar prompted by the bloody crackdown on protests.

''We have concerns that Mr Gambari was swiftly moved from Rangoon to the new capital in the interior, far from population centres,'' White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement.

He urged the junta to allow Gambari wide access to people, including religious leaders and detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari was due to meet Suu Kyi, who has spent about 12 of the last 18 years in some form of detention, when he returned to Yangon.

The two met a year ago, the last time any senior foreign figure has seen the democracy icon, who has been confined to her lakeside Yangon villa without a telephone and requiring official permission, granted rarely, to receive visitors.

Since she was last detained in May 2003, some of her countrymen have been able to see her just once -- early in the monk-led protests when marchers were allowed through the barricades sealing off her street.

Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 1990 which the generals annulled, appeared at the gate of the house, riot police between her and the protesters.

There has been no explanation, and no repeat, of the incident.

However, in a sign any concessions to the protesters by the generals would be limited, state television is publicising marches around the country condemning the Yangon protests and officials say there will be more during Gambari's visit.

REUTERS SZ AS0900

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