Sunday, November 11, 2007

UN seeks to count the dead and detained in Myanmar

UN seeks to count the dead and detained in Myanmar
The Associated PressPublished: November 11, 2007

YANGON, Myanmar: A UN 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 regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

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

"I hope I will have a very productive stay," Pinheiro told reporters after arriving at his hotel in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. He added, "I'm just very happy to be back here after four years."

Accompanied by the authorities, Pinheiro headed first to Bago, a town 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, north of Yangon, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. Buddhist monasteries in Bago were among those targeted by the crackdown after monks joined anti-government street protests.

After getting initial permission last month for his five-day visit, Pinheiro said he would demand access to prisons and try to determine the number of people killed and detained since the junta's crackdown. "If they don't give me full cooperation, I'll go to the plane, and I'll go out," he said before the trip.

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.

The junta, which has long been criticized of human rights abuses, has come under renewed international pressure since 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.

Amnesty International, based in London, submitted a letter to the Myanmar authorities Friday expressing concern over "grave and ongoing human rights violations" committed since the crackdown, including "widespread arbitrary detentions, hostage-taking, beatings and torture in custody and enforced disappearances."

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