Suu Kyi comes out of detention to meet senior US diplomat

Hotel talks with Obama's envoy bring smiles and hopes of political change
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The Independent Online

Smiling and joking with photographers granted a rare opportunity to see her in public, the detained Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi held a two-hour meeting with a senior US diplomat in what may mark the beginning of an important shift in the relationship between the two countries.

The 64-year-old Nobel laureate, dressed in a pink traditional jacket, appeared upbeat when she emerged from the meeting at a lakeside hotel in Rangoon with the US diplomat Kurt Campbell and was asked to smile by press photographers. "Do I look pretty when I smile?" she asked, beaming for the assembled lenses, before being escorted to a car and driven back to the house where she remains under detention. "Hello to you all," she added as she was driven off.

Mr Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, became the highest-ranking diplomat to meet the detained leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 14 years. They greeted each other at the teak-floored Inya Lake Hotel with a handshake.Details of their discussions were not released.

Earlier in the day Mr Campbell had also met Burma's Prime Minister, General Thein Sein, in the administrative capital, Naypyitaw. State television, which on Tuesday had ignored the arrival of the Americans, yesterday broadcast footage of both meetings. Last nighthe said in a statement that the US advocated "strong support for human rights, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners and the pursuit of democratic reform. "

The visit is the fruit of a key policy shift by the Obama administration which has concluded that years of sanctions and isolation have not helped push Burma to change and gave rivals such as China and India an opportunity to pursue valuable energy deals. While the US says it will keep sanctions in place until it perceives genuine change, it also believes that engagement and interaction with the junta will provide more leverage.

Donald Seekins, a Burma expert at Japan's Meio University, said: "If Washington cuts down on the rhetoric about Burma as an "outpost of tyranny", increases engagement – such as the diplomat's visit – and steps up humanitarian aid, the US might have significantly more influence with the army élite than in the past. But it is unlikely that such engagement would limit Chinese influence, since China and Burma have a symbiotic relationship that serves vital interests for both countries."

The visit by Mr Campbell and his deputy, Scot Marciel, follows a meeting in New York in September with senior Burmese officials. As such, said the US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, the two-day trip marked the second step in "the beginning of a dialogue with Burma". He added: "They laid out the way we see this relationship going forward, and how we should structure this dialogue. But they were mainly in a listening mode."

The junta is scheduled to hold controversial elections next year, a poll that many critics say is intended to cement the role of the military which has ruled the country since 1962. The NLD has said it cannot take part in the election under current conditions, including the ongoing detention of more than 2,000 political prisoners.

In recent weeks, however, senior Burmese officials have been suggesting that the party's detained leader could play a role in fostering reconciliation and that the conditions of her detention could even be relaxed. Whether such talk is any more than rhetoric designed for Burma's international critics remains to be seen.