US envoy in landmark talks with Suu Kyi

A top United States official held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday as Burma’s ruling junta gave the democracy icon a rare break from house arrest during Washington’s highest-level visit here in 14 years.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell also met Prime Minister Thein Sein as part of efforts by the Obama administration to re-engage with the hardline military regime.

Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi met Campbell for two hours at a luxury hotel in Rangoon — the first time she had appeared in front of the media other than at her home or in prison since her current period of detention began in 2003.

Campbell told reporters at Rangoon airport that during the two-day “exploratory mission” the US delegation had pushed the junta to make progress on human rights and democracy and to free Suu Kyi and other detaineees.

“We stated clearly that the United States is prepared to take steps to improve the relationship but that process must be based on reciprocal and concrete efforts by the Burmese government,” Campbell said in a statement.

He said he and his deputy, Scott Marciel, had urged the regime to allow Suu Kyi to meet more often with members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party ahead of elections that are due in 2010.

The duo were not allowed to meet the reclusive head of Myanmar’s junta, General Than Shwe. They instead held talks with Premier Thein Sein in the remote administrative capital Naypyidaw.

During the talks with Suu Kyi “we affirmed our commitment to a dialogue among the government, the opposition, and the ethnic groups”, Campbell said.

Dressed in a pink and maroon traditional outfit, the 64-year-old Suu Kyi did not answer questions after the meeting with the US duo but smiled to reporters and joked: “Am I beautiful when I smile?”

Suu Kyi has spent most of the last two decades in detention and the junta gave her an extra 18 months of house arrest in August, effectively ruling her out of next year’s widely criticised elections.

The opposition leader was sentenced after being found guilty of harbouring an American man who swam to her lakeside house earlier in the year. Journalists saw her in prison at the trial but were not allowed to take pictures.

Campbell and Marciel also met senior members of the NLD and of armed ethnic groups that have led a decades-long insurgency against the military, which has ruled the country since 1962.

The NLD said the talks were “positive”.

“We discussed the transition to democracy and focused on the dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Than Shwe. From their side they didn’t say much. They just listened,” NLD spokesperson Khin Maung Swe told Agence France-Presse.

Campbell was the highest ranking US official to travel to Burma since Madeleine Albright went as US ambassador to the United Nations in 1995 during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The trip was a follow-up to discussions in New York in September between US and Burma officials, the highest-level US contact with the regime in nearly a decade.

President Barack Obama’s administration in September announced a dramatic change in US policy because isolating Burma had failed, but said it would not ease sanctions without progress on democracy and human rights.

September’s talks dealt with US calls for free and fair elections and the release of Suu Kyi, but also with US concerns about Burma’s possible military links with nuclear-armed North Korea.

The first major sign of a thaw came in August when Than Shwe held an unprecedented meeting with visiting US senator Jim Webb, which yielded the release of John Yettaw, the American detained for swimming to Suu Kyi’s house.

Suu Kyi then said that she would be ready to help the junta get sanctions lifted and she was allowed to meet foreign diplomats in October. — AFP

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