Shuttle diplomacy hopes ride with UN Myanmar envoy

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BANGKOK, Oct 1 (Reuters) United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari may not have met Myanmar junta supremo Than Shwe at the weekend, but the fact he is still in the country suggests his mission is far from failed, diplomats said today.

Before he landed, the schedule for Gambari's mission to end a bloody crackdown on democracy protests was threadbare -- 24 hours and one meeting with Than Shwe in the former Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, 240 miles (385 km) north of Yangon.

The first person he met on stepping off the plane on Saturday afternoon in Yangon, or Rangoon as it used to be called until the current junta took power, was China's ambassador.

Since that meeting, his programme has become more extensive, suggesting Beijing was making a serious effort to get the generals to heed the clamour of international outrage at their ruthless suppression of the biggest protests in nearly 20 years.

In Naypyidaw, Gambari met acting Prime Minister Thein Sein, number four in the junta hierarchy, as well as Culture Minister Khin Aung Nyint and Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, senior members of a government which normally ignores the outside world.

He then flew back to Yangon for an hour with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi before jumping straight back onto a special flight to Naypyidaw, the city the generals are carving out of the jungle.

The United Nations made quite clear as Gambari reboarded his plane that he did not plan to leave without seeing the 74-year-old Senior General, who sent in the army to end mass protests against military rule last week.

''He looks forward to meeting Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, before the conclusion of his mission,'' a UN statement said.

The government admits 10 people were killed as the crackdown began last Wednesday with troops moving in to clear the streets of central Yangon, raiding monasteries, hauling hundreds of monks away and penning in the rest.

Western governments say they believe the real toll was much higher.

MISSION EVOLVING British ambassador Mark Canning said the fact that Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, had returned to Naypyidaw might be the seed of some sort of shuttle diplomacy.

''There's been an evolution in his programme. The initial pitch was minimalist. It's got a bit better, and we want to see it get better still,'' Canning told Reuters.

''We want to see a genuine shuttling around start, and we want to see the establishment of some sort of mechanism which allows the two parties to get together on an on-going basis.'' Malaysian diplomat Razli Ismail, Gambari's predecessor as UN special envoy to the former Burma, performed a similar role as intermediary between Suu Kyi and the junta top command for several years.

However, he quit at the beginning of 2006 in frustration at being refused entry visas for 23 months in a row, while Suu Kyi remained under house arrest and incommunicado since her last detention in May 2003.

Given that China and Russia vetoed a US-led motion against the junta at the UN Security Council in January, activists said it was important the U.N. did not get sucked into talks without having plans for significant action up its sleeve.

''Shuttle diplomacy is not going to work unless the generals are convinced that the international community is capable of, and has the political will, to apply further pressure,'' said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

''Otherwise the generals will be just going through the motions and hoping that somehow the UN will give up and go away,'' she said.

''The Security Council should be willing to take action.'' Reuters SYU DB1024

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