A senior U.S. diplomat was in Myanmar on Wednesday for talks with the new nominally civilian government and de facto opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as Washington ponders the prospect for democratic change in the Southeast Asian nation.
The four-day visit by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Y. Yun comes as the U.S. and other countries consider their policies after Myanmar's recent transition from straight military rule.
The country's first civilian government since 1962 took control at the end of March, after an election last November, but critics charge the change is simply cosmetic and the army will continue to hold supreme political power.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy _ which won the last elections in 1988 but was blocked from taking power by the military _ boycotted the poll, claiming it was held under unfair conditions.
Some countries, like the U.S., that had previously shunned Myanmar's military junta have recently been seeking ways to engage the government to promote change. Others maintain that Myanmar has not reformed enough to be welcomed back into international circles.
One sticking point is Myanmar seeking the annual chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. Fellow members have not raised any objection but have urged it to continue taking steps to realize long-unfulfilled promises to fully democratize.
The British government, however, has cautioned Southeast Asian countries not to allow Myanmar to take the leadership post. It said Wednesday that Myanmar will need to show "enormous political progress" to deserve the prestigious role that it now seeks.
"The UK has yet to see the positive change in Burma that the international community is calling for," the government said in a statement referring to Myanmar by its previous name. "It is hard to envisage ASEAN countries led by a government so strongly criticized by the UN."
U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN David Carden has said it's up to ASEAN to decide on Myanmar's leadership role but Washington hopes it will take seriously the regional bloc's new charter, which includes promotion of human rights.
Yun last visited Myanmar in December when he met the members of the then-ruling military junta and representatives of political parties, as well as Suu Kyi.
The U.S. State Department said Yun will once again meet with political leaders, as well as ethnic minorities and businessmen. Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's political group, confirmed that Yun will meet the pro-democracy leader at her home on Thursday evening.
President Barack Obama ended Washington's isolation of Myanmar in favor of dialogue with the junta, launching a policy of engagement in hopes of coaxing democratic change. Washington still insists that the government release political prisoners, estimated at more than 2,000 by the U.N. and human rights agencies.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.