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Exile Government, Rights Group Cautiously Welcome US Engagement with Burma

Burma's government in exile has welcomed Washington's plans to engage with the country's military rulers. But exiles and activists say dialogue will only be effective if Washington stays firm on demands for democratic change.

Burma's government in exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, says it welcomes the United States' plans to talk directly with Burma's government.

Zin Linn, a spokesman for the group, said Thursday it has always encouraged dialogue with Burma's military rulers. But he says whether it is Washington, the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, others must also engage with Burma's opposition parties.

"We are welcome anyone from the international community -the U.N., the EU, the U.S., and even the ASEAN - we are welcome to act as a facilitator between the opposition and the military junta," he said. "It may, we think, it may make more result."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday at the United Nations that Washington would end its policy of limited engagement with Burma.

Clinton said U.S. officials will begin meeting directly with Burma's military leaders to push for democracy because sanctions alone had not worked.

Debbie Stothard is with the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma in Thailand. She says U.S. engagement with Burma's military government, known as the State Peace and Development Council, could be positive, but only if Washington remains firm in pushing for change.

"We hope that the U.S. does not go down the same path as ASEAN did, which was to go down the path of unconditional engagement, which in the end dragged down ASEAN's credibility and actually led to a worsening of the situation in Burma," she said. "There has to be a very clear and consistent and regular reinforcement of the message that this type of engagement does not mean a tacit endorsement of the SPDC's crimes against humanity or its ongoing violations of human rights."

Burma's military has ruled the country since the 1960s and has little tolerance for dissent.

It allowed elections in 1990 but, when the National League for Democracy came out the winner, the military ignored the results. It has kept the NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, locked up for most of the time since.

The U.S. and EU have economic sanctions against Burma for suppressing democracy and locking up Aung San Suu Kyi along with more than 2,000 other political prisoners.

Clinton said while the U.S. would talk with Burma's military rulers, sanctions would remain in place until Burma shows concrete progress towards reform.