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US, Australia Hopeful of Burmese Reforms

The United States and Australia Thursday say there are hopeful signs of an easing of political conditions in Burma, where the new government is promising democratic reforms. Burma was on the agenda of a meeting of the U.S. and Australian foreign and defense ministers in San Francisco.

U.S. officials have been openly skeptical that the nominally-civilian government which assumed power in Burma earlier this year will offer any real change from the previous decades of military rule.

But at a news conference capping the U.S.-Australian ministerial meeting, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said there are grounds for optimism about the prospect of change in the isolated Southeast Asian state.

The Burmese government has in recent weeks made overtures to the opposition, allowing democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week to address an observance of the U.N.-designated “International Day of Democracy" at her political party’s Rangoon headquarters.

Clinton said the new U.S. special representative for Burma, Derek Mitchell, has just returned from that country after what she termed “productive” meetings with both the government and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from years of detention late last year.

The Secretary cited “welcome gestures” from Burma that, despite continuing problem issues, merit further dialogue. “Frankly, we have serious questions and concerns across a wide range of issues -- from Burma’s treatment of ethnic minorities, and more than 2,000 political prisoners, to its relations with North Korea. Still, we welcome the fact that the Burmese government has launched a dialogue with Aung Sam Suu Kyi and begun to speak of the need for important reforms,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s Australian counterpart, who visited Burma in early July, had similar comments. Rudd said if Burma wants to re-engage with the international community, it needs “first and foremost” to ease political curbs and release all “prisoners of conscience.”

“We welcome recent signs from the Burmese regime that they are open to such a dialogue, but like the United States we proceed cautiously. And we would call on the Burmese regime to take concrete steps to manifest to the world at large that they are serious about that country becoming a democracy, without the threat of imprisonment for those who pose, in the regime’s view, a threat to them,” Rudd said.

Clinton noted that despite conciliatory moves, the Burmese government this week added ten years to the eight-year prison term of a 21-year-old journalist and photographer (Eds: Sithu Zeya) jailed after shooting pictures of the aftermath of a bombing last year in Rangoon.

She urged the Burmese government to follow its words and commitments with action leading to reform, national reconciliation and respect for human rights.

A senior State Department official said Wednesday U.S. diplomats intend to follow up on the discussions of Burma envoy Mitchell in meetings with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week in New York.