A United Nations diplomat has told the Security Council that Burma's military rulers, who violently suppressed nationwide street protests in September, are making concessions to the political opposition led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Last week, Ms. Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since 2003, was allowed to meet with her political party and issue a public statement. A UN human rights envoy was also allowed to make an official visit this week for the first time in four years.
But deep divisions remain in the Security Council over Burma (Myanmar), and the sincerity of its promises of reconciliation and democracy. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the regime was no closer to making political reforms. A senior Chinese diplomat said separately that Burma was heading in the right direction and, in a dig at the US, warned that it should not be allowed to fall into chaos and become "another Iraq." Meanwhile, the regime has continued to detain Burmese political activists.
The New York Times reported that Ibrahim Gambari, the Security Council envoy to Burma, gave an upbeat assessment of the political mood in the isolated country after a recent visit. Mr. Gambari said the regime had released most of the 2,700 people detained during and after the protests.
"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," he said.
Mr. Gambari, who has visited Myanmar twice in two months, said the ruling generals assured him that he could return "in their words, again and again and again."
But while he noted that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi had been allowed to make a public statement for the first time in four years and to meet with members of her political party, the military was still unwilling to end her house arrest.
"I have stressed to the government that the best way to make real their commitment to dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to release her without delay," he said.
Authorities in Burma arrested more dissidents this week, The Guardian reported. Those detained included a prominent female activist who tried to draw the attention of UN human rights envoy Paulo Pinheiro, whose five-day visit ended Thursday.
Three young men distributing leaflets at a fruit market in the main city of Rangoon were seized as Paulo Sergio Pinheiro prepared to hold talks with the Burmese foreign and labour ministers in the remote jungle capital of Naypidaw.
Their detention followed the arrest in Rangoon yesterday of a leading female activist, Su Su Nway, who had been on the run for a month, as she tried to post a protest leaflet near Mr Pinheiro's hotel. It also emerged that U Gambira, leader of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, had been seized.
U Gambira, a Buddhist monk leader, had been on the run for a month, reports Agence France-Presse. During this time, Gambira – a pseudonym – managed to write a column that was published Nov. 4 in The Washington Post.
"There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow," the monk wrote.
A Burmese Army general confirmed that arrests were continuing and asked for greater understanding from other countries, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports. Major-General Aye Myint spoke to reporters during a defense conference in Singapore of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Burma belongs.
"We control the situation," he said of the ruling junta. "We take in some people for questioning, but most are released."
Although Asean has sharply criticised Burma, the grouping has made it clear it was not expelling or suspending the country as many human rights groups would like.
"Nobody can understand Myanmar better than the government," Aye Myint said, using the military regime's name for Burma.
"We are looking for understanding from Asean, other countries and the United Nations," he added.
Reuters reported Wednesday that China reiterated its strong opposition to sanctions on Burma, its close ally, in a blunt statement from a senior diplomat. Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei said Burma was heading in the right direction after the mass protests.
Noting recent visits to Myanmar by U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and contacts between the imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling generals. He said now was the time for "encouragement", not sanctions.
"We should be patient," the Chinese diplomat told a news conference about a summit of Asian leaders in Singapore next week. "We especially disapprove of sanctions. Sanctions cannot solve the problem, and will only make matters worse."
China believed stability was paramount for Myanmar to achieve "democracy and economic development", the senior official said.
"We cannot permit Myanmar to fall into chaos, we cannot permit Myanmar to become another Iraq. No matter what ideas other countries have, China's stance on this is staunch."
However, Canada has decided to tighten its sanctions on Burma over its repression of the pro-democracy movement, VOA News reports. "The new sanctions include a ban on Canadian investment, trade and transfer of technical data to Burma" but are mostly symbolic as trade between the two countries was only $9 million in 2006.
Gems are among Burma's most valued exports, but buyers are worried by government sanctions and calls for corporate boycotts in Western markets, said the International Herald Tribune. In the past, Burma has auctioned jade and rubies for much-needed hard currency, but the latest auction that began Wednesday may be less successful. Last month the European Union imposed a ban on Burmese gems.
Some of the world's largest and best-recognized jewelers, including Cartier and Tiffany, have told their suppliers they will no longer buy gems of Burmese origin.
A bill in the U.S. Congress backed by Jewelers of America, an industry association, seeks to bar the import of Burmese gems that are polished or cut in a third country before being shipped to the United States.
Gem dealers long accustomed to dealing with the authoritarian government in Myanmar say business uncertainties, more than moral imperatives, make them reluctant to buy Burmese gems.
Adisak Thawornviriyanan, director of the Gems and Jewelry Traders Association of Chataburi, a province east of Bangkok that is a major center for cutting and polishing Burmese gems, has taken part in auctions for the past four years. But he decided not to attend this Gems Emporium, the first since the government's crackdown on demonstrators in September.
"We will wait and see if we can sell our old stock, but I wouldn't dare buy more," Adisak said. "We don't know how strong the U.S. ban will be."