Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Breaking News: Prominent Activists Arrested

Burmese security forces have arrested two prominent anti-government activists — a Buddhist monk and a labor rights advocate, fellow dissidents said Tuesday.

The United States and other Western countries deplored the arrests during a U.N. Security Council meeting, saying they raised doubts about the ruling junta's sincerity in moving toward democracy and cooperating with the United Nations.

News of the arrests came as U.N. human rights investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was on the third day of a five-day mission to investigate human rights conditions in the wake of the government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.

U Gambira, a Buddhist monk who helped lead demonstrations in Yangon that were crushed by the military junta, was arrested several days ago, exiled Myanmar dissidents in Thailand said.

Su Su Nway, a prominent female activist who has been on the run for more than two months, was arrested Tuesday morning in Yangon, they said.

U Gambira, also known as U Gambiya, was a leader of the All-Burma Monks alliance, a group established to support pro-democracy protests after small demonstrations began in August.

Monks inspired and led the movement until it was crushed Sept. 26-27. The authorities began their crackdown by raiding several monasteries in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, in the middle of the night and taking the monks away.

Activists who have just arrived at the Myanmar-Thailand border confirmed that U Gambira had been arrested, said Stanley Aung of the Thailand-based dissident group National League for Democracy-Liberated Area.

"I am very worried about U Gambira," said Bo Kyi, head of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. "I fear he will be tortured."

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Bo Kyi appealed to Pinheiro to meet with U Gambira before he leaves Myanmar.

Other dissident groups also reported U Gambira's arrest, although details differed. Some said he was arrested Nov. 4, the same day an article he wrote was published in the Washington Post. In it, he vowed to continue the struggle against the military regime.

Another account said he lost touch with colleagues Nov. 10. He has been active in publicizing his cause abroad, apparently using a satellite phone.

Su Su Nway was arrested as she was trying to place a leaflet on a building near a hotel in Yangon where Pinheiro has been staying, the NLD-LA's Aung said.

His account confirmed one given in Yangon by a Myanmar official who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. The contents of the leaflet were not known.

Pinheiro has said his mission is to determine how many people were killed and detained in the crackdown. Myanmar authorities said 10 people were killed when troops opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters. Diplomats and dissidents, however, say the death toll was much higher.

The government acknowledged detaining almost 3,000 people but says it has released most of them. Most of the prominent political activists remain in custody.

In an address to the U.N. Security Council, Myanmar's Ambassador U Kyaw Tint Swe insisted there "had been no further arrests in connection with the demonstrations." He made no mention of Su Su Nway or U Gambira.

But Britain's ambassador to the U.N., John Sawers, said Su Su Nway's detention "raises a question mark over the regime's" assurances to U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari days earlier that political arrests would stop.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad denounced both arrests and said the junta must "release all political prisoners" if it wants to show its commitment "to cooperating with the United Nations."

Gambari said that if the arrests were confirmed, "it would be extremely worrisome because what we want to do is move forward, not back."

Nevertheless, Gambari, who visited Myanmar last week for the second time since the September turmoil, told the Security Council he was making progress in nudging the junta toward meaningful dialogue with the pro-democracy opposition. He urged the Security Council to give his diplomatic effort time to succeed.

"On balance, the positive outcomes of this latest mission show that the government of Myanmar, while stressing its sovereignty and independence, can be responsive to the concerns of the international community," Gambari said. "The situation is qualitatively different from what it was a few weeks ago."

Su Su Nway, 35, was active in the August protests of an oil price increase. She dramatically escaped arrest when pro-government thugs broke up a demonstration on Aug. 28, an event captured on video and shown on television around the world.

The September demonstrations, which attracted as many as 100,000 people at their height, grew out of the much smaller August protests.

After the Aug. 28 confrontation, Su Su Nway went into hiding, but was reported to occasionally participate in more protest activity. She had regular contact with the media until her cell phone was disconnected in early September.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based radio station run by Myanmar dissidents, reported that on Oct. 27, she laid flowers at the spot where Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead a month earlier by government security forces while he was covering the Yangon demonstrations.

Su Su Nway served nine months in prison in 2005-06 for her labor activism. She is also a member of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.


Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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