Myanmar junta open to talks after US diplomat visit

  • World
  • Friday, 27 Mar 2009

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar's military junta is open to talks with the United States, its information minister said after a rare visit by a top U.S. diplomat amid a review of Washington's policy towards the regime.

"President Obama has pledged to make changes. I think that visit was just the beginning of the change," Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan told local reporters summoned to the new capital for Friday's annual Armed Forces Day parade.

Washington insisted this week's visit by Stephen Blake, director of the Office for Mainland Southeast Asia at the State Department, did not reflect any shift in policy towards a regime the former Bush administration labelled an "outpost of tyranny".

For its part, the junta has often blasted a "certain superpower" for meddling in its internal affairs.

"Our relations were strained, but not because we did not want to deal with them," Kyaw Hsan said.

Blake met with Foreign Minister Nyan Win, representatives of ethnic minority groups and members of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party during his visit, part of a five-country tour of the region.

The trip, which U.S. officials confirmed after it was reported by Myanmar's state-run newspaper, came a month after Hillary Clinton announced the policy review during her first tour of Asia as U.S. Secretary of State.

Over the years Washington has tightened sanctions on the military, which has ruled for more than four decades, to try to force a political rapprochement with Nobel laureate Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

But Clinton admitted last month that sanctions had not worked and she was looking at new ways to sway one of the world's most reclusive regimes.

Efforts by Myanmar's neighbours to engage the junta have also failed to win any meaningful political reforms as the country gears up for controversial general elections in 2010.

Western governments have criticised the forthcoming poll as a sham aimed at entrenching rule by the military, which refused to recognise the last election in 1990, won by Suu Kyi's party.

The NLD has insisted on a list of preconditions before it will negotiate with the regime, including the release of all political prisoners, a review of the new constitution and the honouring of the 1990 election results.

The junta has ignored those demands as it pushes ahead with its seven-step "roadmap" to democracy.

In his address to the troops, junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, 76, warned politicians to "refrain from inciting unrest, to avoid personal attacks and smear campaigns against other parties" during next year's campaign.

A day earlier, a bomb killed one man and wounded two women at a guesthouse in the commercial capital, Yangon, witnesses said.

Small bomb attacks are common in the run-up to the annual "army day" parade in a country that has been riven by ethnic insurgencies since its independence from Britain in 1948.

More than 13,000 members of the police and Tatmadaw, as the army is known, took part in the parade at a specially designed ground in Naypyidaw, a dusty town that became the capital in 2005 in a move that further isolated the regime.

(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee)

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