Tue, Nov 13, 2007 - Page 5 News List

UN rights envoy returns to Myanmar

SEEKING ACCESS Pinheiro arrived in Yangon on Sunday after being banned for four years, hoping to visit prisons to investigate allegations of abuse by the ruling junta


A UN human rights envoy who returned to Myanmar after a four-year ban spoke with officials yesterday about plans to visit prisons to investigate how many people were detained or killed in a crackdown on demonstrators, diplomats said.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN's independent rights investigator for Myanmar, has said he is determined to gain access to the prisons to assess allegations of abuse by the ruling military junta.

Diplomats, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to media, said Pinheiro met with officials at the Home Ministry and Religious Affairs Ministry. It was not immediately clear if he would be allowed to visit any prisons.

He had given the junta a proposed itinerary before his five-day visit began Sunday, but it was still being "fine-tuned," said Aye Win, the UN spokesman in Myanmar.

"I hope I will have a very productive stay," Pinheiro told reporters after flying into Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

"I'm just very happy to be back here after four years," he said.

Pinheiro has a history of prickly relations with Myanmar's ruling generals. He abruptly cut short a visit in March 2003 after finding a listening device in a prison room where he was interviewing political detainees.

Later that year, he accused the junta of making "absurd" excuses to avoid releasing its political opponents from prison.

He has been barred from the country since November 2003.

Accompanied by authorities, Pinheiro made his first stop in Myanmar at a Buddhist monastery in Bago, a town 80km north of Yangon, the UN said.

Pinheiro then returned to Yangon to meet officials at Shwedagon Pagoda, the staunchly Buddhist country's most revered shrine and a flash point of unrest during the protests, a UN statement said.

The junta, long criticized over human rights abuses, has come under renewed international pressure since it cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September.

Myanmar authorities said 10 people were killed when troops opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters in Yangon on Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. Diplomats and dissidents, however, say that the death toll was much higher and that an unknown number of people are still in custody.

Pinheiro cited unidentified persons as saying last month that between 30 and 40 monks and 50 to 70 civilians were allegedly killed.

The UN Human Rights Council condemned the crackdown at an emergency session on Oct. 2 and urged an immediate investigation of the rights situation in Myanmar.

Pinheiro's trip comes three days after the departure of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who attempted during a six-day visit to kick-start talks between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition.

As a result of Gambari's trip, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet the leaders of her opposition party on Friday for the first time in three years. Suu Kyi said through a party spokesman that she was "very optimistic" about the prospects for dialogue with the government.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won elections in 1990, but the military did not honor the results and instead stepped up a campaign of arrest and harassment of NLD members, eventually closing most of the party's offices.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has been in government detention for 12 of the past 18 years, and continuously since May 2003.

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