(photo credit: AP)
A UN envoy made a last-ditch effort to meet Myanmar's top military leader Monday, hoping to persuade him to accept the people's demands for democracy. On the streets, troops removed road blocks and appeared to ease their stranglehold on Yangon.
After days of intimidation, soldiers and riot police redeployed from the city center to the outskirts Monday, but were still checking cars and buses and monitoring the city by helicopter.
But traffic was still light, most shops remained closed. Some monks were allowed to leave monasteries to collect food donations, watched by soldiers lounging under trees.
"It's outwardly quite normal at the moment. The traffic seems to be flowing, there's a lot of military tucked away in less visible locations," said British ambassador Mark Canning.
"They've obviously for the moment squeezed things off the streets," he said.
Public anger ignited Aug. 19 after the government hiked fuel prices but turned into protests against 45 years of military dictatorship when monks joined in. Soldiers responded last week by opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing at least 10 people by the government's account. Dissident groups say at least 200 people may have died.
Monks appeared to be paying a heavy price for their role in spearheading the demonstrations.
An Asian diplomat said Monday all the arrested monks were defrocked - stripped of their highly revered status and made to wear civilian clothes. Some of them are likely to face long jail terms, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
A resident, who identified himself as Ko Hla, wrote on his Internet blog that the monks arrested for staging protests are being detained in a race course. "They are forced to squat down as prisoners under the sun during the day time and are forced to change into civilian clothes," he wrote.
It was not possible to confirm the report within the highly restricted country.
The government's mouthpiece newspaper, meanwhile, said foreigners were partly to blame for the crisis that has engulfed the country.
"Internal and external destructionists are applying various means to destroy those constructive endeavors by the government and the people and to cause unrest and instability," the New Light of Myanmar said.
It said 11 people were arrested over the weekend in two separate demonstrations, several of them university students.
Some were carrying identification cards for studying English at the US Embassy's American Center in Yangon, the paper said, adding that "weapons" seized included five slingshots and marbles, a pair of scissors and one sharp iron rod.
Hoping to end the crisis, the UN sent its special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to Myanmar Saturday.
He spent the weekend in talks and in transit, pressing ahead with shuttle diplomacy even after his first meeting with the junta did not include its leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, or his deputy, Gen. Maung Aye.
He also met with with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.
Gambari returned to Myanmar's isolated capital of Naypyitaw for a second time in hopes of meeting Than Shwe on Monday. But by late afternoon there was still no word from the capital about any meeting.
The junta, which has rebuffed scores of previous UN attempts at promoting democracy, did not comment on the envoy's mission.
Gambari 's hour-long talk with Suu Kyi on Sunday was unexpected - he did not know before he arrived if he would be allowed to meet the 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner who has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. She has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
Suu Kyi' National League for Democracy party was not optimistic Gambari would yield any influence over the junta leaders, telling Radio Free Asia they see him as a "facilitator" who can bring messages back and forth, but lacking authority to reach a lasting agreement.
The junta has never responded well to international pressure in the past. But its desire for oil and gas investment, increased tourism and its status as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations means it cannot follow a completely isolated path, as it has in the past.
"I do think a number of underlying dynamics have changed quite fundamentally and make us more hopeful that something might happen," said Canning, the British ambassador.
"I do believe now it's got the attention of all the international community in a way it didn't before."
The crackdown in Myanmar has riveted the globe, with foreign governments from Asia, to North America to Europe calling on the junta to find a peaceful end to the crisis.
ASEAN, the 10-member bloc that includes Myanmar, wrote a letter to Than Shwe on Monday expressing revulsion at the violent repression of demonstrators.
"The confrontation that is unfolding in Myanmar will have serious implications not just for Myanmar itself, but also for ASEAN and the whole region," wrote Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country currently chairs the regional grouping.
Many see China, the junta's biggest trading partner, as the most likely outside catalyst for change. But China, India and Russia, dazzled by Myanmar's bountiful oil and gas resources, do not seem prepared to go beyond words in dealing with the junta.
Japan, the junta's largest aid donor, said Monday it was mulling sanctions or other actions to protest the crackdown, which left a Japanese video cameraman dead.
The military rulers have sought to limit news coming out of Myanmar, with public Internet access restricted and mobile phone service sporadic for a fourth day in a row.
Soldiers have gone to hotels in search of foreign journalists operating without proper licenses. At least four local journalists have been arrested and others have been detained or harassed, Reporters Without Borders and Burma Media Association wrote in a statement.