HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - Asian leaders expressed rare optimism in Myanmar's junta on Sunday, from hopes of stability on its volatile northern border to signs of softening attitude towards detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
After talks with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein during a summit of 16 Asia-Pacific nations over the weekend, Asian leaders said the reclusive state acknowledged it needed to show the world it can hold free elections.
The sentencing of opposition leader Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner detained for 14 of the last 20 years, to a further 18 months of detention in August has raised questions over whether next year's election will be a sham.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Myanmar told the meetings Suu Kyi might be able to participate in society and possibly politics again, though no timeframe was given.
"He briefed us on some of the dialogue that is taking place and he feels optimistic that she can contribute also to the process of national reconciliation," Abhisit said of talks with the Myanmar leader in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin.
Next year's elections will be the first since 1990, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party scored a landslide victory that the ruling junta refused to recognise.
Military rulers of the former Burma have been on a recent charm offensive, allowing Suu Kyi to meet with Western diplomats this month to discuss Western sanctions and opening the door to more contact with U.S. government officials.
The comments come a day after Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama quoted Myanmar's leader as saying if Suu Kyi maintained "a good attitude" it was possible Myanmar authorities will relax current measures.
Myanmar's prime minister "recognises full well that the rest of the world expects to see elections as inclusive as possible," Abhisit told a news conference.
That view was generally echoed by other Asian leaders.
"There was an atmosphere of hope that the Myanmar leadership is moving toward normalising its relations with the United States, that they were working towards national reconciliation," said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"That's what we all welcome, that next year's election should see a reconciliation of the various segments of Myanmar society," Singh told a separate news conference.
The United States will send a fact-finding delegation to Myanmar this week as part of an exploratory dialogue with the junta, following the Obama administration's announcement in September it would pursue deeper engagement with Myanmar's military rulers to try to spur democratic reform.
China's premier also expressed confidence in his southern neighbour after meeting with Thein Sein, saying he expected Myanmar will keep the peace on its border after violence pushed thousands of refugees into China in August.
China's Wen Jiabao also pledged more financial aid to Myanmar, according to a Chinese state media report of the closed-door talks.
China's Xinhua state news agency said Wen believed Myanmar "could properly handle problems and safeguard peace and stability in the China-Myanmar border region" after the two met on the sidelines of a summit of 16 Asia-Pacific leaders.
In August, Myanmar's army overran Kokang, a territory that lies along the border with the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan and was controlled for years by an ethnic Chinese militia that paid little heed to the central government.
Many of the refugees were ethnic Chinese, some of them Chinese citizens, who complained their houses and businesses had been sacked and looted during the violence.
Last month, China rapped the former Burma over the violence, demanding the government protect Chinese citizens and make sure such incidents did not happen again.
But relations appear to be improving again.
"To develop good neighbourly China-Myanmar relations with mutually beneficial cooperation conforms with the fundamental interests of the two countries and will be conducive to regional peace and stability," Wen told Thein Sein, Xinhua said.
Myanmar's prime minister last month visited the U.N. General Assembly for the first time in 16 years to promote next year's elections, part of the junta's recent charm offensive.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty and John Ruwitch; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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