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After high-level trip to Burma (Myanmar), US seeks to lower expectations

Burma (Myanmar) should take steps toward reform such as allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to enter 2010 elections, says US diplomat after a rare visit.

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During their visit, Marciel and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met senior government officials but not the junta's supreme leader, General Than Shwe. Many experts on Burma say Than Shwe is strongly opposed to making any concessions to Suu Kyi, whose party won the country's 1990 elections. Those results were annuled by the junta and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.

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Under Burma's 2007 constitution, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy opposed, one-quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for military officials. Other clauses empower the military to take charge in case of threats to national security in a country that is battling decades-old ethnic insurgencies.

Analysts say Burma's military, the largest in Southeast Asia, remains the key to any transition to some form of democratic rule. "They might be willing to compromise on some issues. Whether they're willing to compromise on political issues is a huge question," says Thant Myint-U, an author on Burmese history and a former UN official.

Bilateral issues that might be finessed include efforts to curb Burma's illegal drugs production and a stop to any illicit dealings with nuclear-armed North Korea. But it will be much harder to find common ground on what constitutes free and fair elections, says Myint-U.

Marciel said the US had raised the issue of nuclear proliferation with Burmese officials, but offered no details. He said US humanitarian aid to Burma was also on the agenda and that the US wanted to continue this assistance, provided it was reaching those in need.

Why Burma might cooperate

Marciel said he wouldn't speculate on why Burma wanted to improve ties with the US. He said the two sides had agreed to appoint envoys and would likely meet next week on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, which President Obama is attending.

Khin Ohmar, a Thai-based activist at the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said the regime was increasingly irked by the impact of US sanctions and also had concerns over rising Chinese influence in Burma.

"It's clear, they want to see sanctions lifted," she says. The most egregious, from the junta's perspective, are measures that forbid US banks from dealing with Burma and visa bans on leaders and family members, she says.

By reaching out to the US, the government also wants to balance its dependence on China, which has invested heavily in Burma's natural resources and become its main arms supplier. This lopsided relationship and tensions over China's support for border rebels is pushing nationalist generals to rekindle US ties, says Ms. Ohmar.

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