YANGON, Oct 16: Myanmar’s military junta on Tuesday shrugged off international steps to punish the regime for its bloody crackdown on protests, even as Japan cut aid and European nations widened sanctions.

State media insisted there were no political prisoners in the country, and criticised a UN Security Council statement that slammed the violence used to quell the biggest anti-government protests in nearly two decades.

The response came amid growing international pressure on the regime to halt its repression and launch talks with the pro-democracy opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Japan, one of Myanmar’s main donors, said on Tuesday it was cancelling grants of about $4.7 million over the fatal shooting of a Japanese journalist when security forces put down last month’s huge protests.

On Monday, European Union foreign ministers approved a new set of sanctions against the junta including an embargo on the export of wood, gems and metals, and threatened further penalties.

US President George Bush, whose country has imposed targeted sanctions against junta leaders, called for “enormous international pressure, to make it clear to the generals that they will be completely isolated and not accepted into the international community.” But Myanmar vowed to resist, saying via the state media: “We will march on. There is no reason to change the course.” “We will remove all the hindrances and obstacles that may lie ahead,” the official New Light of Myanmar daily said.

The newspaper criticised last week’s Security Council statement deploring the crackdown and calling for the release of political prisoners.

“The situation in Myanmar does not constitute a threat to regional and international peace and security,” it said.

“In reality, there is no one in Myanmar who is in prison for political reasons. There are only those against whom action has been taken in violation of the existing laws.” It added: “Anti-government groups inside and outside the nation are making and exaggerating fabricated news to create public panic.” Last month’s protests led by Buddhist monks drew up to 100,000 people onto the streets in what escalated into the most potent threat to the regime since student-led demonstrations were crushed in 1988.

But they were violently broken up by troops and riot police in an operation that left at least 13 people dead and more than 2,000 locked up.

The United Nations sent trouble-shooter Ibrahim Gambari to Myanmar after the crackdown to meet junta chief Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Yangon.

Gambari returned to the region on Monday for a multi-nation tour aimed at building pressure on the regime, saying in Bangkok that reports of further arrests of activists were “extremely disturbing.” He travelled on Tuesday to Malaysia, where he said he planned to pass on a message from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on how neighbouring countries and the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) could help ease the crisis.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Asean could help foster dialogue between Myanmar and the United Nations, but warned the regional bloc would not suspend the country’s membership.

“If you want Myanmar to continue to be engaged, first we should not be talking about suspending. Nobody can talk when you are threatening with all sorts of things,” he told reporters.—AFP

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