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Burma lifts curfew imposed after protests

Junta gives sign that generals are relaxing grip

RANGOON, Burma - Burma's military junta lifted a curfew in the country's main city, Rangoon, yesterday in another sign that the generals are feeling strong enough to relax their grip after crushing last month's revolt.

The announcement, made by loudspeaker trucks on the city's streets, also ended a ban on gatherings of more than five people.

It was not known whether a similar clampdown had been lifted in the central city of Mandalay, which also saw mass protests against the regime.

Last weekend, the junta restored public Internet access more than two weeks after cutting connections to stem the flow of images of the protests.

The response to the protests outraged the world and triggered tougher Western sanctions, the latest announced by President Bush on Friday.

Yesterday, White House press secretary Dana Perino called the regime's action cosmetic. "What we need are signs of serious intent to move toward a democratic transition," she said.

The curfew and ban on assembly were imposed at the height of the crackdown on the biggest challenge to 45 years of military rule in the former Burma since 1988, when some 3,000 prodemocracy protesters were believed killed by soldiers. The junta renamed the country Myanmar in 1989.

The government has said 10 people were killed last month when the army crushed the huge demonstrations, which began as small protests against fuel price rises in August and escalated as Buddhist monks joined in. Western governments said the toll was probably far higher.

The junta had reduced the curfew in Rangoon to just four hours a week ago, but arrests of opponents continued despite international pressure for talks with the opposition led by detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is touring Asia to seek a common approach to persuading the generals to compromise with Suu Kyi. He has called for the arrests to stop.

In Jakarta on Thursday, Gambari said China, the closest the junta has to an ally, must do more to encourage the generals to talk to the Nobel Peace laureate who has spent nearly 12 of last 18 years in detention.

Gambari is due to go to India and then China this week. Both nations bordering Burma are seen as having some sway over the regime, which has offered direct talks with Suu Kyi if she gave up key positions.

However, the military, which refused to hand over power after Suu Kyi's party won a 1990 election, has shown no sign of deviating from its seven-step "road map to democracy" that critics deride as a sham to keep the generals in power.

Last week it announced a hand-picked commission to draft a new constitution, but gave no timeframe for completing its work.

Stage one of the road map - a National Convention to draw up the "detailed basic principles" of the charter - finished in September after 14 years of on-off meetings, most of which were boycotted by Suu Kyi's party.

The regime on Friday freed an 82-year-old member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, who was sentenced to five years in jail for joining the protests. "They said it was because of my old age," Sein Kyaw, among five NLD members sentenced to long jail terms this week in Rakhine state.

The other four members included 85-year-old Kyaw Khine who was jailed for 7 1/2 years.

Relatives said he was not even in town during the protests against 45 years of military rule put down ruthlessly by the army.

"I think U Kyaw Khine will also be freed soon. He is even older than me," said Sein Kyaw, the NLD chairman in Gwa Township.

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