YANGON A top U.S. official held rare talks with Myanmar's detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Wednesday as part of Washington's highest-level visit to the isolated army-ruled country in 14 years.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner met United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell for more than two hours at a hotel near Yangon's Inya lake, close to her home where she has been detained for much of the past two decades.
Later, at Yangon airport before the U.S. delegation left the former Burma, Campbell said the United States wanted to improve relations with the government but the authorities needed to take concrete steps toward that end, too.
Describing the visit as an exploratory mission designed to explain the results of a U.S. policy review toward Myanmar, he said the United States advocated "strong support for human rights, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners and the pursuit of democratic reform."
"At every meeting, the United States underscored its strong commitment to see Burma as a place that respects the human rights of its people, promotes democracy, and abides by U.N. resolutions with regards to proliferation," he added.
Earlier, Suu Kyi and Campbell had posed for photographs together but did not answer reporters' questions.
Campbell, Washington's top official for East and Southeast Asia, met earlier on Wednesday with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein.
On Tuesday, Campbell held talks with top junta officials in the remote new capital Naypyidaw, but he did not meet junta supremo Than Shwe, the aging general who has tightly controlled the former Burma for the past 17 years.
In the meetings, Campbell told government leaders "the U.S. is prepared to take steps to improve the bilateral relationship, but it will be a step-by-step process, and must be based on reciprocal and concrete efforts by the Burmese government," U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
The U.S. officials "reaffirmed our support for dialogue between the government and the opposition," Kelly told reporters in Washington. "The goal of such dialogue would be a national reconciliation and a fully inclusive political process in Burma."
Both sides seem ready to edge toward some sort of rapprochement.
Myanmar is keen to see Western sanctions lifted and has allowed Suu Kyi to raise the issue with diplomats in meetings that the junta normally forbids.
The United States has refused to lift its trade embargo on the resource-rich country and says dialogue would supplement sanctions rather than replace them.
Kelly said on Wednesday Washington would need to see specific steps by Myanmar before considering lifting sanctions.
But the U.S. government announced in September it would pursue deeper engagement to try to spur democratic reforms in Myanmar and is pressing for free, fair and inclusive elections next year.
"Toward that end," Campbell said, "we urge the Burmese government to allow Aung San Suu Kyi more frequent interactions with stakeholders, especially the central executive committee of her own party."
State TV reported that Campbell had asked the authorities to let Suu Kyi meet committee members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) before he met her.
That was agreed, MRTV said, but Suu Kyi pulled out of the meeting because one member, NLD vice chairman Tin Oo, 82, was excluded. He has been under house arrest since May 2003.
The NLD was the clear winner the last time polls were held in 1990. The military refused to recognize the NLD victory. The party has yet to say whether it will contest next year's vote.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty and Alan Raybould; Editing by Alex Richardson and Paul Simao)