(photo credit: AP)
UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari began his mission to Myanmar on Saturday, hoping to convince the military junta to end its brutal crackdown that has virtually strangled a people's movement to end 45 years of military rule.
"We are not very hopeful, but it's the best shot we have," Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo said at the United Nations in New York.
For ordinary Myanmar people, however, hope was slipping away rapidly with soldiers and police seizing control of the streets, scattering the few demonstrators who dared to venture out. Buddhist monks who had spearheaded the movement during the past month, galvanizing crowds of some 70,000 to denounce the military regime, have been sealed in their monasteries.
Still, some 300 die-hard protesters, waving peacock-emblazoned flags of the democracy movement, marched through Yangon's Chinatown, applauded by onlookers, witnesses said.
The defiant protesters fled when soldiers arrived and several men were dragged away into waiting trucks, they said.
Elsewhere in Yangon, housewives and shop owners had boldly taunted troops before quickly disappearing into alleyways.
Gambari arrived at Yangon airport Saturday afternoon and was briefed by UN officials, a UN statement said. He then proceeded to Naypitaw, the remote new bunker-like capital where the country's military leaders are based.
It was not immediately clear if Gambari would meet junta leader Gen. Than Shwe during his brief visit, or pro-democracy figures like Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
"Gambari is coming, but I don't think it will make much of a difference," said one hotel worker, who like other residents asked not to be named, fearing retaliation. "We have to find a solution ourselves."
Western diplomats said it was unlikely, noting that the schedule had been set by the government, but the envoy told reporters before arriving "I expect to meet all the people that I need to meet."
The White House expressed concern that Gambari was being kept away from the people of Myanmar because he was taken immediately to Naypitaw from Yangon airport where he arrived from Singapore.
"We urge the junta to allow him access to all those he wishes to meet with, including religious leaders as well as Aung San Suu Kyi," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said Saturday.
Daily protests began last month and had grown into the stiffest challenge to Myanmar's ruling junta in decades. They were initially started by people protesting massive fuel price hikes, with crowd sizes mushrooming to tens of thousands after monks joined in.
The junta, which has a long history of snuffing out dissent, started cracking down Wednesday, and then let loose on Thursday, shooting into a crowd of protesters and clubbing them with batons.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, citing unconfirmed witness reports, said he thought the death toll was likely many times higher than the 10 claimed by the government. One exiled dissident group put it at around 200.
Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention, raising fears of a repeat of a 1988 democracy uprising that saw an estimated 3,000 protesters slain.
Though the military rarely bows to international pressure, Yeo, the Singapore minister, described Gambari's visit as "critical."
"If he fails then the situation can become quite dreadful," he said, adding that if the envoy could help Myanmar "achieve national reconciliation, that would be of enormous value."
Some protesters said they no longer thought change would come anytime soon.
Streets in Yangon and Mandalay were quiet Saturday, with soldiers and police posted on almost all corners. Shopping malls, grocery stores and public parks were closed and few people dared to venture out of their homes even after a heavy downpour in the morning stopped.
"I don't think that we have any more hope to win," said a young woman who took part in a massive demonstration Thursday in Yangon that was broken up when troops opened fire on the crowd. She was separated from her boyfriend and has not seen him since.
"The monks are the ones who give us courage," she said, referring to the clergymen who have been the backbone of rallies - both those of this week and in past years. Most are now besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire surrounding the compounds.
The United States urged "all civilized nations" to press Myanmar's leaders to end the crackdown, which has also resulted in hundreds of arrests. Win Mya Mya, an outspoken member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, was among those seized overnight, according to family members.
Authorities have also gone after the Internet, which has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the democracy protests to residents and the outside world alike. Few foreign journalists have been permitted to operate and media freedom is severely restricted.
"They don't want the world to see what is going on there," Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the US government, told reporters in Washington.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said it was worried the current unrest could impede its efforts to feed some 500,000 people. Authorities already have placed restrictions on the movement of food in some areas around Mandalay, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN World Food Program, said in a statement from New York.
Though Myanmar is rich in natural resources, 90 percent of its 54 million people live on less than US $1 a day.