The State Department is criticizing the Burmese electoral laws in strong terms, but it says the Obama administration is not ready to abandon its efforts at dialogue with the country's military leadership.
The comments follow the announcement of rules for elections promised for this year that would, among other things, bar the country's more than 2,000 political prisoners from participating, apparently including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the most extensive U.S. comments thus far on the issue, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Obama administration is deeply disappointed over the political party law and troubled that it appears to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from the process, perhaps even prohibiting her from membership in the party she leads - the National League for Democracy, or NLD.
"This is a step in the wrong direction," he said. "The political party law makes a mockery of the democratic process and ensures that the upcoming elections will be devoid of credibility."
The Obama administration reversed years of U.S. efforts to isolate Burma, sending Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell to Rangoon for talks last November.
Campbell was allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. And the detained Nobel Peace laureate was subsequently permitted to meet NLD party colleagues.
But the laws to govern the elections, promised at an unspecified date this year, have been a setback to U.S. hopes for the release of political prisoners in Burma and reconciliation.
The State Department's P.J. Crowley said that given the tenor of the regulations, "there is no hope" that the election will be credible.
But at the same time, he said the electoral laws do not mean that U.S. engagement with Burma will stop and that the Obama administration never expected the overnight transformation of the military government.
"We did not expect to have a couple conversations with Burma and have a compete about-face change in the nature of their society, and the nature of their political process," said Crowley. "But this just reinforces that our choice of engagement is important, but the process is going to take some time."
A senior U.S. official said it is unclear whether the United States would send Assistant Secretary Campbell or another envoy to Burma before the elections.
Campbell, on a tour of Southeast Asia, said Wednesday in Malaysia that the election rules are disappointing and regrettable.
He said the United States wants to see steps by the Burmese leadership to encourage domestic dialogue in advance of the voting. He says he wants to see Aung San Suu Kyi "play an active role in the political life of the country going forward."
Aung San Suu Kyi's party won the last national elections in Burma in 1990. But the military barred her and the NLD from taking power, and she has been under detention most of the time since then.