Myanmar, UN discuss strengthening ties

Myanmar has embarked on a series of reforms since the Army nominally handed power in March to civilians.

Nusa Dua: Myanmar and the United Nations discussed strengthening cooperation on Saturday, Myanmar`s foreign minister said, in another sign of the reclusive state`s sudden engagement with the world after a half-century of isolation and oppressive rule.

"It was a very fruitful meeting," Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said after talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during the East Asia Summit, a meeting of leaders from 18 countries, on the Indonesian island of Bali.

"We discussed about better cooperation between Myanmar and the United Nations," he added without elaborating on details of the cooperation.

Myanmar has embarked on a series of reforms since the Army nominally handed power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades, a process mocked at the time as a sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.

Its overtures have since included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups, some tolerance of criticism, an easing of media controls, the release of about 230 political prisoners and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed last year from 15 years of house arrest.

US President Barack Obama praised those reforms on Friday and dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the former British colony, also known as Burma, for a two-day visit next month to explore the possibility of new ties.

Washington has cautioned, however, that more needs to be done for the United States to end sanctions imposed in response to years of human rights abuses, including the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators and crackdowns on ethnic minorities.

"We`d like to see more political prisoners released. We would like to see a real political process and real elections. We`d like to see an end to the conflicts, particularly the terrible conflicts with ethnic minorities," Hillary said in an interview on Fox News on Friday.

"But we think there`s an opportunity and we want to test it," she added.

She plans to meet with Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party said on Friday it would contest upcoming by-elections, the latest sign of political rapprochement under the new civilian government.

The NLD, Myanmar`s biggest opposition force, won a 1990 election by a landslide but the country`s military refused to cede power and, for the following two decades, suppressed the party`s activities, putting many of its members in prison.

The party boycotted the next election, held on November 07 last year, because of strict laws that prevented many of its members from taking part. As a result, the authorities officially dissolved it but it has continued to function and enjoys strong support from the public.

International engagement

The timing of Myanmar`s international engagement is crucial as Washington seeks to counter China`s growing influence across Asia and with Myanmar in particular.

Myanmar, as big as France and Britain combined, sits strategically between booming India and China with ports on the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, all of which have made it a vital energy security asset for landlocked western China.

Backed by Chinese money, Myanmar is building a new, multi-billion-dollar port through which oil can reach a 790-km (490-mile) pipeline now under construction that will cut across Myanmar and link refineries in western China. Another parallel pipeline will pump Myanmar`s offshore natural gas to China.

That, along with hydro-power dams and highway projects, underpins more than USD 14 billion of pledged Chinese investment in Myanmar`s 2010/11 (April-March) fiscal year, causing total foreign direct investment promises to soar to USD 20 billion from just USD 300 million a year before, official data showed.

Myanmar`s relations with global agencies such as the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are showing broad signs of improving after the IMF and World Bank cut ties to Myanmar years ago in response to rights abuses.

An IMF team is now visiting the country to study how to unify its official and unofficial exchange rates. But diplomats say more reforms -- economic and political -- are likely to be the price of their full support.

Bureau Report

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