A crucial UN mission to meet with detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing failure after generals refuse access new_burma_1_214254a.jpg 

Reform talks with the ruling junta – which for the time being appears to have successfully suppressed weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations – are considered vital by the UN

A crucial United Nations mission to Burma is facing failure before it has even begun, after the country’s ruling generals refused to allow a meeting with the detained democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

UN, Chinese and western diplomats are attempting to pressure the Burmese generals to allow Ibrahim Gambari, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Burma, to meet Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

Such a meeting is regarded by western governments as crucial in urging reform on the junta, which for the time being at least appears to have successfully suppressed weeks of rising demonstrations by monks and ordinary Burmese. Mr Gambari is coming under pressure to refuse to meet Burma’s leading general, Than Shwe, if he is denied a separate meeting with Ms Suu Kyi.

“What Gambari’s got to do is be prepared to provoke a crisis,” a western diplomat told The Times in Rangoon this afternoon. ”

If the stakes are high enough, it will be difficult for [him] to avoid that. What’s essential is that the UN needs to keep alive the issues that the monks have raised.”

After two days of a ruthless and sometimes bloody crackdown, the streets of central Rangoon were edgy but quiet early this afternoon. Thousands of police and soldiers are deployed across the city, blocking off the biggest pagodas and main roads, and occupying traffic islands and street corners to prevent huddles of protesters from forming.

The cinnamon-robed monks, who were marching in their tens of thousands a week ago, are almost completely absent, having been forced into their monasteries after mass arrests in the early hours of Thursday and Friday.

The suppression of the democracy activists and the cowing of the monks has created a vacuum in the pro-democracy movement which, for the time being, remain unfilled. Western diplomats in Rangoon are anxious that the suppression of the demonstrations will undermine the intense pressure which was bearing down on the regime to loosen its monopoly on power.

“The situation’s turned on the streets, and there’s clearly an attempt on the part of the regime to get back to business as usual,” a UN official in Rangoon told The Times.

“Gambari’s visit is critical to making the regime understand that events of the past four weeks have brought out fundamental issues that need to be resolved.”

“What has happened over the last four weeks has come out of fundamental grievances and suffering. The generals are trying to say, ‘This is just a blip – we’re in control.’ We need to keep up the pressure…to go back to the normal mode of operating is just impossible.”

Mr Gambari’s visit has the backing of the UN Security Council, including the closest thing the generals have to a friend, China. He will deliver a personal message from the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. But in the past, he has been criticised for being insufficiently tough on the generals, and there are many western diplomats who regard him as a feeble negotiator.

On his two previous visits, he met with Ms Suu Kyi. If he is barred from doing so this time, but shakes the hand of Than Shwe, the UN will be criticised for failing to stand up to a regime with blood on its hands. Scores of peaceful demonstrators and one Japanese photographer have been killed by soldiers and police in the past few days, and thousands have been arrested.

As Mr Gambari flew towards Burma from an overnight in Singapore, the junta planned to fly him almost immediately to Naypyidaw, the generals’ isolated new capital, hacked out of the jungle 240 miles north of Rangoon. Western diplomats are pressing for him to spend at least one night in the biggest city, and former capital, Rangoon, where Ms Suu Kyi lives under house arrest.