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Australian Foreign Minister Visits Burma to Encourage Political Reform - 2002-10-02

The Australian Foreign Minister arrived in Burma Wednesday as part of an international effort to encourage dialogue between Burma's military government and the pro-democracy opposition. Alexander Downer will be meeting with both military officials and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

He is the first Australian foreign minister to visit Burma in two decades, and the highest-level official from any Western country in recent years. His visit comes amid fears that the process of reconciliation between the military and the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, has stalled.

Mr. Downer met the United Nations envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail in August. Australian officials say the foreign minister is hoping to add momentum to Mr. Ismail's efforts to encourage substantive talks between the military government and the NLD.

During his visit Mr. Downer will hold talks with senior military officials, including the government leader, General Than Shwe. He will also meet with opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Before leaving for Burma, Mr. Downer said his aims were to gain a first-hand impression of the current situation, and to register Australia's support for political reconciliation and greater respect for human rights.

He arrives not long after a visit by a European Union delegation, which had also sought to gauge progress on political reform since Aung San Suu Kyi's release on May 6 after 19 months of house arrest.

Officials and diplomats told VOA the European delegation had come away from Rangoon disappointed with the progress it found there.

The EU and the United States have been vocal critics of Burma's human rights performance. Both have imposed tough sanctions on the country, hoping to push the military towards reconciliation with the opposition.

Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong, a political scientist at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, says Canberra's less-confrontational approach with Burma may make Mr. Downer more effective.

"It is good for somebody more neutral in that sense to go to visit Burma," Mr. Chaiyachoke said. "By this it will create some sort of good atmosphere and perhaps might be able to persuade the Burmese military to start to push on with democratization in the country."

Mr. Chaiyachoke says despite concerns over the pace of political reform, there are positive signs, including the ongoing release of political prisoners, and Aung San Suu Kyi's statement last week that she was willing to work with the military.

The military on several occasions has made it clear it will move at its own pace and will not be pressured by the outside world.

A senior military member, General Khin Nyunt, said the government would not be bowed by threats. He said Burma would move to a form of democracy, but not one identical to those in the West.