YANGON, Myanmar – After days of delays, Myanmar's reclusive junta leader granted an audience Tuesday to a U.N. envoy hoping to broker an end to a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. The diplomat was also allowed a second encounter with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N.'s special envoy, met junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe in the junta's remote new capital, Naypyitaw, a U.N. statement said. It said he then flew to Yangon and talked to Suu Kyi, the detained Nobel peace laureate who has come to symbolize the yearning for democracy in this impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
The meeting with Than Shwe was generally expected but the one with Suu Kyi came as a surprise, raising hopes that Gambari's shuttle diplomacy was making some progress.
"This is a very positive sign," an Asian diplomat said. "We have to hope that the search for a national reconciliation process has started," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
The U.N. has said that Gambari's mission is to persuade the generals — who have provoked worldwide revulsion with last month's crackdown — to take the people's demand for democracy seriously.
Dissident groups say up to 200 protesters were slain and 6,000 detained in the junta's crackdown, compared to the regime's report of 10 deaths.
The U.N. statement said Gambari's meeting with Than Shwe and his deputies "to discuss the current situation in Myanmar" lasted more than an hour. It said Gambari also met Suu Kyi for the second time during his four-day mission — the first one was on Sunday — but gave no other details.
Gambari later went to Singapore en route to New York. He will report to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "on the outcome of his mission," the statement said.
Foreign governments have been urging the junta to free the detainees, who include thousands of Buddhist monks who led last month's protests. In addition, freeing Suu Kyi from her long years of house arrest has been one of the main goals of all U.N. envoys and Myanmar's international critics.
The meeting between Gambari and Than Shwe also included the junta No. 2 leader Deputy Senior Gen. Maung Aye, as well as two other top generals in the ruling coterie.
While the envoy tried to broker peace, the junta's security forces lightened their presence in Yangon, the country's main city, which remained quiet after troops and police brutally quelled mass protests last week.
The 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was scaled back to 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Kept off the streets, many residents launched a new form of protest Monday evening by switching off their lights and turning off television sets from 8 p.m.- 8:15 p.m. during the nightly government newscast.
It was unclear how many homes heeded calls for what activists are calling a "silent protest" against the junta. The protest was expected to continue.
In New York on Monday, Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win denounced foreign interference, which he blamed for the violence last month.
"Recent events make clear that there are elements within and outside the country who wish to derail the ongoing process (toward democracy) so that they can take advantage of the chaos that would follow," Nyan Win told the U.N. General Assembly.
He said security forces acted with restraint for a month but had to "take action to restore the situation." Nyan Win made no reference to the deaths.
Opposition groups placed little hope on Gambari's visit.
"It will not be a fruitful visit unless he manages to arrange a meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe," said Zinn Linn, a spokesman of the self-styled Myanmar government in exile in Bangkok. "His mission is very weak. He should do more than this."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. wanted to see Gambari convey a clear message that the junta must start "a serious political dialogue."
He said that included talking with Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for nearly 12 of the last 18 years.
The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, and the current junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a much larger pro-democracy movement in which about 3,000 people are believed to have been killed. The generals called elections in 1990 but refused to give up power when Suu Kyi's party won.
Simmering anger against the junta exploded in mid-August after it hiked fuel prices as much as 500 percent. The anti-price hike marches soon ballooned into mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.
Opposition groups say several thousand people were arrested in the latest crackdown, which reached its peak on Sept. 26 and 27 when troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. Among the dead was a Japanese television cameraman, Kenji Nagai of APF news agency.
On Tuesday, the head of APF, Toru Yamaji, laid white chrysanthemums at the site where Nagai was gunned down in Yangon. He then kneeled at the site and prayed.
Hundreds of detained demonstrators including monks dragged out of monasteries were reported held in makeshift prisons at old factories, a race track and universities around Yangon. It was impossible to independently verify the reports in the tightly controlled nation.