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Myanmar regime prepared to 'tolerate' opposition

Myanmar is seeking to shed its pariah image by reaching out to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and other critics, analysts say, but more concrete reforms from the new regime remain elusive.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2011 11:18 IST

Myanmar is seeking to shed its pariah image by reaching out to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and other critics, analysts say, but more concrete reforms from the new regime remain elusive.

The opposition leader was invited to the remote capital for her first talks with President Thein Sein on Friday, in the latest move by the nominally civilian administration to foster warmer ties with its most famous opponent.

Few details have emerged of the one-hour meeting between the Nobel laureate and former general, but experts said it represented a major step for the government, which took power after a controversial election last November.

The new rulers -- many of whom shed their military uniforms to contest the vote -- want to show that "they are in charge, rather than the army," said Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based analyst at the Vahu Development Institute.

"They want to be seen doing something good for the country, and above all, that they are a civilian government," he said.

Overtures towards Suu Kyi, which apparently even took the dissident by surprise, were "extremely important" for reconciliation, no matter what the underlying motivation, he added.

Suu Kyi was released from seven straight years of house arrest just days after the November elections in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The polls, marred by cheating and the absence of Suu Kyi's party, were criticised by Western governments as a sham.

The government told Suu Kyi in June to stay out of politics and warned that her plans for a national political tour could spark chaos and riots, but it has since softened its stance.

Recent weeks have seen her hold two rounds of talks with the labour minister in Yangon, meet the president at his office in the jungle capital and address thousands of supporters on an overtly political day trip outside Yangon.

The authorities have also encouraged Suu Kyi to legally register her National League for Democracy, which was officially dissolved last year for boycotting the election and left with no voice in the new parliament.

The party won a 1990 vote but was never allowed by the junta to take power.

The new government has also called for peace talks with ethnic rebels and is allowing UN rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana to visit this week for the first time in more than a year for talks with senior government officials.

While there have been recent improvements in the regime's dealings with the opposition and other actors, it is too early to say whether it is "a fresh start or empty gestures", said US-based Myanmar academic Win Min.

He said Myanmar's new leadership is prepared to "tolerate certain activities of the opposition and cooperate with them on development issues to get more regional and international acceptance".

Western nations that impose sanctions on Myanmar have called for a number of reforms including the release of around 2,000 political prisoners and an end to rights abuses, particularly against ethnic minorities.

Thein Sein's government has set its sights on being allowed to hold the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 -- a year before the country's next scheduled election.

The military's political proxies -- who claimed an overwhelming victory in last year's poll -- want the prestige of the ASEAN role before holding the next vote, said a Myanmar expert who asked not to be named.

But for a country dominated by authoritarian army rule for nearly half a century, deeper reforms like political freedom and an end to long-running conflicts with ethnic rebel groups could take much longer, he said.

"We should be very careful in imagining that the reform of a country like Burma will happen overnight but it is moving in the right direction faster than one could have imagined," the expert said.

First Published: Aug 21, 2011 11:16 IST