Monday, November 12, 2007

UN human rights envoy probes Burma violence

Rangoon (dpa) - United Nations Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro on Monday launched an investigation into claims that the ruling junta beat up, killed and burned the bodies of Buddhist monks and their followers in a brutal crackdown last September. UN human rights expert Pinheiro, who arrived in Rangoon Sunday after being denied a visa to visit the country since 2003, has been on the move since his plane touched down, sources said. On Sunday he visited pro-government Kya Khat Waing Buddhist Monastery in Bago, 80 kilometres north-east of Rangoon, before returning to the city to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, which was the rallying point for the peaceful monk-led marches that rocked Rangoon in September.
The protests ended on September 26-27 when the government unleashed its forces on monks and their laymen followers, beating and shooting them into submission.
The crackdown on monks for conducting peaceful protests in a predominantly Buddhist country shocked the world and brought Burma's military back into the international spotlight of condemnation.
The government claims that only 10 people died in the incident. Other sources claim the death toll was closer to 200. Up to 3,000 people were arrested during and after the crackdown, of whom an unknown number remain in jail.
One of Pinheiro's tasks is to verify the number of deaths and detentions, in a country that is notorious for hiding the truth.
Observers said Pinheiro, no stranger to Burma, had planned his itinerary well. Abbots at the Kya Khat Waing Monastery were among the few to condemn the September protests and to chastise the monks for getting involved in politics.
On Monday Pinheiro visited monasteries that were more closely involved in the so-called "saffron revolution."
First he visited Kabaraye, the seat of Burma's Sangha, or the Buddhist hierarchy similar to the Catholic Church's senior clergy. Pinheiro held talks with the 47-man Sangha, the outcome of which was not disclosed.
He proceeded to Ngwe-Kyar-Yan monastery, South Okkalapa township, where monks were allegedly beaten and taken away in army trucks on the morning of September 27. The abbot of that monastery was severely beaten and according to some accounts, has died of his injuries.
Pinheiro then visited the Nan Oo monastery, in Mingala Taungnyunt Township, where authorities claimed they found explosives on October 11, belonging to dissident monks.
The UN rapporteur also visited the Htein-Pin cemetery in Hlaing-Thar-Yar township, where witnesses said they saw mass cremations being carried out in secret on the night of September 27.
Pinheiro was scheduled to visit Rangoon's Insein Jail Monday afternoon, and the Government Technical Institute, where hundreds of people were detained in the aftermath of the September crackdown.
He is expected to leave Rangoon Tuesday morning for Naypyidaw to meet with ministers and representatives of the junta.
"Mr Pinheiro very much welcomed his return to Myanmar, in the context of the mandate entrusted to him by the United Nations Human Rights Council," said a UN statement released Sunday night, using the junta's name for the country.
The fact that the Burmese regime has granted Pinheiro a visa is deemed one of several positive signs that they are bowing to international pressure to hasten the process of national reconciliation.
Pinheiro's visit follows fast on the heels of UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who was in Burma between November 3-8.
Gambari persuaded the junta to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to meet with her National League for Democracy colleagues on Friday and hold talks with the government's "minister of relations" Aung Kyi.
After Friday's meetings Suu Kyi expressed some optimism about the junta's willingness to start a process towards national reconciliation. The 1991 Nobel peace laureate has been under house arrest since May, 2003, and has spent 12 of the past 18 years in detention.
There is still great scepticism that the military, which has ruled Burma for the past 45 years, has any real intention of sharing power with civilian politicians in the near future.
Although Suu Kyi's party won the 1990 election by a landslide, the military has denied it any power for the past 17 years.
Gambari has the tough job of persuading the xenophobic generals to initiate a dialogue which would ultimately loosen their iron grip on power.

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