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9 October 2009

US president may meet Myanmar top official at Apec meet

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A senior Myanmar official, likely the prime minister, will be at President Barack Obama's talks next month with Southeast Asian nations, US officials said Thursday, after earlier suggesting leaders from the military state would not attend, AFP reported.

The US backtrack on details of the summit preserves the rare prospect of a US president coming face to face with a senior member of the Myanmar government, which Washington has condemned for years over its suppression of the pro-democracy movement.

A US official said on condition of anonymity that Prime Minister Lieutenant General Thein Sein, who serves as the official head of the Myanmar government, could take part in the talks.

"The Burmese head of state Than Shwe is not expected to attend but it is anticipated that there will be a lower level Burmese leader, likely the prime minister, at the meeting with the president," a US official said on condition of anonymity.

"The president, along with all the Asean leaders, are expected to speak in the group meeting. There will not be individual bilateral conversations in the meeting."

Earlier, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had suggested junta leaders would not be at the talks, when asked whether Obama was prepared to meet leaders from Myanmar at the meeting.

"I don't believe they will be in attendance," he said.

Gibbs announced on Wednesday that Obama would meet Asean leaders when he is Singapore for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in mid-November.

"The president will hold his first-ever meeting between a US president and leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian nations that make up the Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations," Gibbs said.

The United States has recently reversed policy on contacts with Myanmar, holding the highest-level talks with junta officials in nearly a decade, but has warned it will not lift sanctions until democracy is introduced.

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, met Myanmar officials last month in New York after unveiling a US engagement blueprint designed to lure the pariah state out of self-imposed isolation.

Campbell called on the junta to engage in dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy and restive ethnic groups and to free political prisoners.

Obama's administration has made dialogue a signature policy, saying it is open to talks with staunch US foes such as Iran and Cuba.

The State Department said Campbell's meetings were the highest-level interaction between the administration and the junta since September 2000 under Bill Clinton's administration.

Campbell said that the United States would talk to Myanmar about elections scheduled next year but for the time being was "skeptical" about the vote.

The elections would be the country's first since 1990, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly but was prevented from taking power.


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