Suu Kyi holds further government talks; Indonesia hints at support for Myanmar's ASEAN chair

Updated On: Oct 31, 2011

Myanmar’s labour minister met on Sunday with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for further talks on issues blocking a breakthrough in the country's long-standing political stalemate.

It was the fourth meeting between Aung Kyi — Myanmar’s labour minister — and Suu Kyi since July after the nominally civilian government took over power from the military's junta regime in March. Labour Minister Aung Kyi read a joint statement after their meeting that said the two had discussed an amnesty, peace talks with ethnic armed groups and economic and financial matters.

Some 200 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners were released on Oct. 11 under an amnesty for 6,300 convicts. An elected but military-backed government took power in March after decades of repressive army rule and its new president, Thein Sein, has moved to liberalize the political atmosphere. In the past week, Parliament has amended a law to try to woo Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy into reregistering as a political party.

Against this backdrop, two senior US diplomats are due to visit Myanmar this week, an official from the army-backed government said on Sunday, as Washington pursues a policy of engagement with the new civilian leadership.

Derek Mitchell, the new US coordinator for policy on Myanmar, is expected to be accompanied by the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, Michael Posner.

It was unclear whether they would meet President Thein Sein, but a spokesman for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the US diplomats would hold talks with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on Friday.

It will be the third visit by Mitchell since September, underscoring renewed diplomatic efforts by Washington to encourage diplomatic reforms in the authoritarian state, the subject of wide-ranging US sanctions.

Without confirming the visit, US State Department spokeswoman Beth Gosselin, said Mitchell uses his trips to Myanmar to raise "longstanding concerns" including the release of political prisoners, human rights abuses and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Southeast-Asian neighbours, Indonesia commented that Myanmar’s political reforms looks “irreversible” and will put the country on course to chair Southeast Asia’s regional bloc.  Indonesia’s foreign minister, Mr. Marty Natalegawa stated on Sunday after meeting with leaders of the army-backed government.

Mr. Natalegawa welcomed signs of political reform in Myanmar during a visit aimed at assessing the military-dominated nation’s bid to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc. These comments are among the strongest yet suggesting Myanmar could chair the organisation in 2014, a step that would give long-coveted international recognition to one of Asia’s most isolated states.

“Most people with whom I have spoken expressed their belief that chairmanship of ASEAN by Myanmar in 2014 can provide further motivation and have a multiplier effect in terms of opening up the country even more,” Mr. Natalegawa said.

However, allowing Myanmar to assume chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN could provoke Western boycotts of some ASEAN meetings, an embarrassment for the region of 600 million people at a time when it wants to be seen as a counterpoint to China’s growing influence in Asia.

For one, Washington has applauded the freeing of political prisoners but said it wants to see more reforms before considering lifting economic sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses by its former military leaders.

Myanmar has embarked on a series of reforms since the army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades, a process mocked at the time as a scripted sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.

Its overtures have since included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups, some tolerance of criticism, an easing of media controls, the release of about 200 political prisoners and more communication with Aung San Suu Kyi, freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.

Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar’s desire to open up, like a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses, including deadly crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.

There has been growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar’s isolation as the region approaches a European Union-style Asian community in 2015.

Report: Burma Democracy Leader Meets Again with Government Minister [VOA, 30 Oct 2011]

Report: Top US officials expected in Myanmar this week [AFP, 31 Oct 2011]

Report: FM in Myanmar to check readiness for ASEAN [The Jarkarta Post, 31 Oct 2011]

Analysis: Day by day Burma's iron regime opens up to the world [ The Telegraph, 14 Oct 2011]

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