U.S. officials meet with Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi

Senior U.S. officials were allowed to meet Wednesday with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, in a further sign of thawing relations between Washington and the Asian nation’s secretive military government.

A high-ranking group led by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the top American diplomat for East Asia, met privately with the Nobel Peace Prize winner for two hours at a hotel in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. Campbell also held talks with top generals in the government, including Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein and leaders of Suu Kyi’s political party.

The talks represent the most senior-level exchange since Madeleine Albright visited Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1995 when she was the chief U.S. representative to the United Nations.

In Washington, officials said the visit was designed to explore ways to repair relations between the nations while reassuring democracy activists that the Obama administration remained committed to them.


Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman, said Campbell told Myanmar’s rulers that the U.S. was prepared to improve ties, “but it will be a step-by-step process and must be based on reciprocal and concrete efforts by the Burmese government.” He also repeated the long-standing U.S. call for the release of Suu Kyi.

The State Department did not release details of the talks with Suu Kyi.

Members of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement said they would wait to see if the meetings yielded any tangible change in the regime’s authoritarian tactics, many of which have been in place since the military seized power in 1962.

“We are anxious to know what is really going on and we will be cautious about this until we see what comes out,” said Khin Ohmar, a longtime Myanmar activist and coordinator of the Burma Partnership. “We want to know if the U.S. officials were really able to speak with them [Suu Kyi and her aides] or if this is just used as a showcase as before.”

Suu Kyi, 64, has been in jail or under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. She was sentenced to an additional 18 months of house detention this year for harboring an uninvited American devotee who swam to her lakeside villa.

In recent months, however, Suu Kyi has been more visible. This month she offered to work with the ruling generals to help lift the crippling international sanctions that have been imposed on the government for alleged human rights abuses.

Activists say more than 2,000 political prisoners remain locked up, and rights groups have decried the regime’s attitude toward ethnic minorities and the nation’s rampant narcotics trade.

Attempts to negotiate with the military government, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, have been largely unsuccessful. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to meet with Suu Kyi this year but was rebuffed by the government.

David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University, said in an editorial Wednesday in the Thailand-based magazine Irrawaddy, “The isolation in direct dialogue with that country has also been reflected in U.S.-imposed economic isolation through the imposition of various degrees of sanctions since the failed peoples’ revolution of 1988.”

But Steinberg also noted that the Obama administration had changed U.S. policy, including with the decision, announced in September, to actively engage the military government. Campbell’s visit follows one in August by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), chairman of the Asian subcommittee on foreign affairs and a strong advocate of engaging the government.

Some analysts say the recent detente between the regime and Washington is meant to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Beijing is Myanmar’s closest ally and largest economic benefactor. Local media reported Wednesday that work had begun on a large natural gas pipeline that will bring Myanmar’s robust energy resources into southern China.

Myanmar political analyst and former student leader Aung Naing Oo failed to convince President George W. Bush to reach out to the military government.

“But in the last eight months things have really started moving,” Oo said. “Of course, no one knows where it’s going, but I am quite encouraged things have come this far in a such a short time span.

“You have to understand [Myanmar] and Washington are coming from completely different directions, different political systems and different values,” Oo said. “Frankly, they are diametrically opposed. It will take time for the [Myanmar] military to appreciate the U.S. cannot only punish, but also reward.”


McDermid is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.