A UN human rights envoy was allowed into military-ruled Myanmar for the first time in four years on a mission to determine how many people have been killed or detained since the start of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN's independent rights investigator for Myanmar, says he is determined to gain access to the country's prisons as part of an investigation into wide-ranging allegations of abuse by the military junta.
He submitted a proposed itinerary to the junta before the start of his five-day visit Sunday, but it was still being "fine-tuned," said Aye Win, the UN spokesman in Myanmar.
"I hope I will have a very productive stay," Pinheiro told reporters after flying into Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. "I'm just very happy to be back here after four years."
Pinheiro has a history of prickly relations with the ruling generals. He abruptly cut short a visit in March 2003 after finding a listening device in a room at a prison where he was interviewing political detainees. Later that year, he accused the junta of making "absurd" excuses to keep political opponents in prison.
He has been barred from the country since November 2003.
Accompanied by authorities, Pinheiro's first stop in Myanmar was a Buddhist monastery in the town of Bago, 50 miles north of Yangon, the UN said. He then returned to Yangon to meet officials at Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's most revered shrine and a flash point of unrest during the protests, it said in a statement.
The junta, which has long been criticized of human rights abuses, has come under renewed international pressure since it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September.
Myanmar authorities said 10 people were killed when troops opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters in Yangon on Sept. 26 and 27.
Diplomats and dissidents, however, say the death toll was much higher and that an unknown number of people remain in custody.
Pinheiro cited unidentified sources as saying last month that between 30 and 40 monks and 50 to 70 civilians were allegedly killed.
The UN Human Rights Council condemned the crackdown at an emergency session Oct. 2 and urged an immediate investigation of the rights situation in Myanmar.
Pinheiro's trip comes three days after the departure of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who attempted during a six-day visit to kick-start talks between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition.
As a result of Gambari's trip, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet the leaders of her opposition party on Friday for the first time in three years. Suu Kyi said through a party spokesman that she was "very optimistic" about the prospects of dialogue with the government.