YANGON, Myanmar — The highest-ranking American diplomat to visit Myanmar in 14 years offered improved relations Wednesday if its military regime moves toward democracy, putting into action the Obama administration's new policy of engagement with the isolated country.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke after both talks with the ruling generals and a rare meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for most of the last two decades.
Campbell called on the military – which has ruled the impoverished country since 1962 – to open a dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minority groups, which are seeking a measure of autonomy. He also urged the military government to allow Suu Kyi more freedom to meet with people concerned with the political process, particularly her own party's senior executives.
The goals of the new U.S. policy are "strong support for human rights, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners and the promotion of democratic reform," Campbell declared to reporters at the end of his two-day visit. He met Wednesday morning with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein.
Campbell and his deputy, Scot Marciel, are the highest-ranking American diplomats to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1995, when then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright made an official visit.
It was the second time in a few months that the junta allowed Suu Kyi to meet with a senior American official. In August, visiting U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia met her and also held talks with Thein Sein and top junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
Suu Kyi, 64, has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years and until recently was allowed regular visits only from her doctor, and very occasional ones from visiting U.N. emissaries seeking to mediate with the government.
For years, the United States had isolated the junta diplomatically and applied political and economic sanctions, which have failed to force the generals to respect human rights or release jailed political activists. The Obama administration decided recently to step up diplomatic engagement as a way of promoting reforms.
However, while U.S. officials are now sitting down with the generals, Washington has said it will maintain the sanctions until talks result in change.
Myanmar's reclusive ruling generals rarely speak to reporters. However, state television, which on Tuesday ignored the Americans' visit, broadcast footage of Campbell's meetings with both Suu Kyi and the prime minister.
Campbell, the top State Department official for East Asia, said he told junta officials that the U.S. "is prepared to take steps to improve the relationship but that process must be based on reciprocal and concrete efforts by the Burmese government." Washington refers to Myanmar as Burma, the name by which it was known before being changed by the junta.
Myanmar's junta has praised the new U.S. policy, but shown no sign it intends to release Suu Kyi or initiate democratic and electoral reforms demanded by Suu Kyi's party ahead of elections planned for next year.
Earlier Wednesday, Campbell greeted Suu Kyi with a handshake after she was driven to his lakeside hotel in Yangon, where they met privately for two hours, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said.
Dressed in a pink traditional Burmese jacket, she was upbeat as she emerged from the hotel.
"Hello to you all," she said to photographers before getting into the car that whisked her back to her tightly guarded home. Campbell did not divulge details of their conversation.
Other senior members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party met with Campbell afterward, and asked about her health.
He told them Suu Kyi "is the most active and energetic 64-year old woman he had ever met," said party spokesman Khin Maung Swe.
Suu Kyi's party has not yet decided whether to take part in the 2010 polls, which it says were set up under a constitution established last year by undemocratic means. The constitution includes provisions that would bar Suu Kyi from holding office and ensure the military a controlling stake in government.
Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest for briefly sheltering an uninvited American, in a trial that drew global condemnation. The sentence means she will not be able to participate in next year's elections, the first in two decades.
But the junta has made some conciliatory gestures, such as loosening the terms of Suu Kyi's house arrest and allowing her more meetings with visitors.
Campbell was continuing talks he began in September in New York with senior Myanmar officials, which were the first such high-level contact in nearly a decade.
Campbell said he emphasized that Myanmar "should abide by U.N. resolutions with regards to proliferation." He did not elaborate, but was apparently referring to arms purchases from North Korea. There is also some speculation, though no evidence has been made public, that Myanmar is seeking to develop nuclear weapons with North Korea's help.