Human rights envoy in Myanmar after long ban

/ Source: The Associated Press

A U.N. human rights envoy arrived Sunday in Myanmar on a mission to get inside the country's prisons to determine the numbers of people killed and detained since the military regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the U.N.'s independent rights investigator for Myanmar, had been barred from visiting the country since November 2003. He has said he will abandon his visit unless he gets full support from the junta.

"If they don't give me full cooperation, I'll go to the plane, and I'll go out," he said recently after the government gave him a green light to visit the country for five days.

Pinheiro has submitted a proposed itinerary for his visit to the Myanmar government, which was still being "fine-tuned," said Aye Win, a U.N. spokesman in Myanmar.

The junta has come under renewed international pressure after it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September. The government says 10 people were killed in the Sept. 26-27 crackdown, though diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Thousands were arrested, with the events triggering intense global condemnation.

Pinheiro has a history of prickly relations with the ruling generals. He abruptly cut short a visit in March 2003 after finding a listening device in a room at a prison where he was interviewing political detainees. Later that year, he accused the junta of making "absurd" excuses to keep political opponents in prison.

Pinheiro's trip comes three days after the departure of U.N. 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 Friday to meet the leaders of her opposition party for the first time in three years. Suu Kyi said through a party spokesman she was "very optimistic" about the prospects of dialogue with the government.

Pinheiro said he was encouraged by Suu Kyi's meeting.

"I am very happy," he told AP Television News in Bangkok before boarding his flight for Yangon. "Ambassador Gambari did good work, and I'm very happy she was able ... to meet with her colleagues."

The regime cracked down on Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party after it won elections in 1990. Instead of honoring the election results, the military stepped up a campaign of arrest and harassment of the party members, and eventually closed most of its offices.