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Suu Kyi holds talks with junta minister

Analysis Suu Kyi holds meeting with a minister of the Myanmarese government, raising hopes for talks.

BANGKOK // The detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had a rare meeting with a Myanmar government minister yesterday. The meeting, which lasted nearly an hour, has raised fresh hopes that this may signal the start of a dialogue between the pro-democracy leader and the generals who run the country.

The Nobel Peace Laureate met the junta's labour minister, Aung Kyi, at the state guesthouse in Yangon, according to a senior government official, who declined to be identified. The meeting comes about a week after she wrote to the regime's top general, Than Shwe, offering to campaign for the lifting of sanctions. The United States announced the start of a dialogue with the military government while insisting that sanctions would remain in place for the time being.

"We do not know what was discussed at the meeting, but it must be related to the letter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sent," Nyan Win, her lawyer and the spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said in an interview, adding that he would meet Ms Suu Kyi on Wednesday. The meeting also came the day after a court in Yangon dismissed Ms Suu Kyi's appeal against a security breach committed in May, when an uninvited man swam across the lake behind her house and remained there for two days. She was given three years in jail with hard labour last month, but Gen Shwe commuted the sentenced immediately to 18 months under house arrest. Most analysts believe the sentence is intended to keep her in detention until after next year's planned elections.

"This dialogue is to be welcomed," said Mr Win. "What happens next will be the crucial thing." In her letter to Gen Shwe, Ms Suu Kyi wrote: "I have proposed to co-operate with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] to lift sanctions imposed on Burma." In order to achieve this, she said, she needed to be able meet the ambassadors of the countries that had imposed sanctions - the US, several European nations including the United Kingdom, and Australia. She also insisted that she needed to be able to discuss these matters with other senior members of the NLD.

"This meeting augurs well," said an Asian diplomat based in Yangon. "Than Shwe must want to know more about how the lady [as she is often referred to by the junta] proposes to help on the issue of sanctions. He is also likely to have laid down conditions for any meetings that may be scheduled in the future, including with diplomats and her fellow party leaders." Mr Kyi, the labour minister, was appointed as the government's official liaison with the detained opposition leader more than two years ago at the request of the United Nations' special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari. The two have met six times since then, but talks seemed to have fizzled out, with the last meeting taking place in January 2008.

"We cannot expect too much," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Burmese government in exile, a US-based coalition of exiled NLD and other Myanmar opposition members. "Than Shwe has never been serious about dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, or the NLD." Diplomats in Yangon believe this may be the start of more serious contact between the two sides. "Meetings with the NLD central committee and the diplomats she has requested to see would certainly be the next step, and would be a sure sign that some form of dialogue may be in offing," said a western diplomat based in Bangkok, who closely follows Myanmar affairs.

Hopes for a dialogue between the military and the pro-democracy movement were recently raised by the change in US policy towards Myanmar, announced last month by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, at the UN General Assembly. But the US has been careful to insist that although it is keen to hold direct talks with the junta leaders about the country's future, sanctions will remain in place until substantial results are delivered.

"The dialogue will include specific discussion of democracy and human rights inside Burma [and] co-operation on international security issues," the US assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, told journalists last week. "If Burma makes meaningful progress towards these goals, it will be possible to improve the relationship with the United States in a step-by-step process." For Myanmar, the priority is certainly lifting the sanctions, which are beginning to bite even more with the current world economic crisis. "Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar and we consider them unjust," Gen Thein Sein, Myanmar's prime minister, told the UN General Assembly in New York last week. "Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, and a system suitable for Myanmar can only be born out of Myanmar society."

So it is now possible that talks between the pro-democracy movement and the government are also on the cards. This happened also before, in 2000, when Ms Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Those talks, brokered by the then UN envoy Dato Razali Ismail, started secretly, although they later petered out after Ms Suu Kyi was freed in May 2002. Many analysts believe that the regime is now under greater pressure than ever to deal with the ethnic rebel groups with whom it has ceasefire agreements.

The junta leaders have given these groups until the end of this month to disarm and join a new Border Police Guard, under the command of the army, and participate in next year's elections. These groups have rejected the plan and the junta has threatened military action to make them comply. Amid growing fears of a renewed civil war, therefore, especially along the northern border with China, it may well suit Gen Shwe to open a new front, and hold talks with Ms Suu Kyi in order to put increased pressure on the ethnic groups.

"We have always thought that a Burman [ethnic Burmese] agreement was on the cards in order to control the ethnics," a former Indian diplomat said recently. foreign.desk@thenational.ae