YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's military ruler has told a U.N. envoy he will "personally" meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but with some preconditions, state media reported Thursday.
The announcement apparently intends to show the junta is not entirely inflexible and is willing to deal with Myanmar's most respected opposition leader after crushing its biggest pro-democracy uprising in nearly two decades.
Senior Gen. Than Shwe told Ibrahim Gambari on Tuesday he would be willing to see Suu Kyi if she stops urging action against the government from within Myanmar and abroad, state TV and radio reported.
"In her dealings with the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called for confrontation, utter devastation, economic sanctions and all other sanctions," the media cited Than Shwe as saying.
"If she abandons these calls, Senior Gen. Than Shwe told Mr. Gambari that he will personally meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," the media said. Daw is a term of respect for older women.
Suu Kyi has said she supports economic sanctions but has not publicly called for the overthrow of the government.
Than Shwe's preconditions are not new — the junta has regularly called on Suu Kyi to give up her confrontational attitude — but it is the first time the junta leader has said he is willing to meet with her. If it takes place, the meeting would be Suu Kyi's first with any senior junta figure in five years.
This willingness is remarkable given that Than Shwe has a visceral dislike for the Nobel peace laureate and is said to bristle with anger even at the mention of her name. Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, is not known to have met a senior junta leader since 2002.
The reports gave no indication that the junta was prepared to lift restrictions on Suu Kyi or on members of her National League for Democracy party, which has often called for a dialogue with the government but has been rebuffed.
Nyan Win, an NLD spokesman, scoffed at the general's offer. "Applying such conditions shows that the government is not really sincere about meeting her," he said. NLD executives are allowed no contact with Suu Kyi.
Gambari, the U.N.'s special envoy to Myanmar, on Tuesday ended a four-day trip to the country in a bid to persuade the junta to end its crackdown on pro-democracy activists. He is scheduled to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Thursday.
Ban himself has said that Gambari's mission could not be termed a success even though the envoy delivered "the strongest possible message" to Myanmar's military leaders.
Bottled up public anger against the junta erupted in mid-August when the government raised fuel prices by about 500 percent. The protests against economic travails soon turned into demands for democracy as tens of thousands of people, led by Buddhist monks, came out on the streets.
Troops fired on unarmed crowds on Sept. 26 and 27, igniting international outrage. The government says 10 people were killed. But dissident groups say at least 200 people were killed and some 6,000 arrested.
But state TV and radio said Thursday that 2,093 were arrested under the emergency law that was invoked on Sept. 25, banning assembly of more than five people. It said 692 have been freed.
The demonstrators were arrested under three categories — people who were actively involved in the protests, those who supported the protesters, and those who inadvertently took part.
On Thursday, soldiers maintained a visible presence on the streets of Yangon.
A foreign aid worker said his staff had told him that soldiers are continuing to raid homes at night to arrest people who took part in the demonstration. But neighbors are alerting each other if they see troops coming, he said. He had no other details.
The worker, who did not wish to be identified for fear of being expelled from the country, said he had heard from various sources that up to 8,000 people may have been rounded up around Yangon.
This could not be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile, a U.N. Development Program employee, Myint Nwe Moe, and her husband, brother-in-law and driver were freed Thursday, a day after being arrested, said Charles Petrie, the U.N. humanitarian chief in Myanmar. He did not give details.
With Internet access to the outside world blocked, state-controlled newspapers churned out the government's version of the country's crisis and filled pages with propaganda slogans, such as "We favor stability. We favor peace," and "We oppose unrest and violence."
Critics from the international community and foreign media were dismissed as "liars attempting to destroy the nation" — one of many bold-faced slogans covering The New Light of Myanmar newspaper's back page Thursday.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power after snuffing out a 1988 pro-democracy movement against the previous military dictatorship, killing at least 3,000 people in process.
The generals called elections in 1990 but refused to give up power when Suu Kyi's party won. She has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
China, Myanmar's closest ally, praised the meeting between Myanmar Than Shwe and Gambari, and appealed to all parties in the country to remain calm and resume stability "as soon as possible."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement that Beijing has "made its own efforts to support the U.N. secretary-general and his Myanmar special envoy's negotiations." It did not elaborate.