Myanmar's president is holding an unprecedented meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday to discuss the nation’s political reform process for nearly a year.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is constitutionally barred from running for president in next year's election, had been calling for such meeting for months but had been rebuffed.
The meeting comes as Thein Sein's nominally civilian government is facing mounting criticism that early political reforms and peace talks with ethnic fighters have stalled after he won international praise for helping steer the rapidly developing country from dictatorship to democracy.
Priot to the meeting, critics said it would be little more than window dressing — an attempt to show participants at next month's East Asia Summit that political dialogue is continuing. President Barack Obama is expected to attend the summit in Myanmar with other world leaders.
The day before the talks, Obama had separate telephone conversations Sein and Suu Kyi.
His visit in mid-November comes amid growing U.S. concerns about human rights abuses in Myanmar, including the jailing of journalists and alleged oppression of Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities caught in conflict with government troops.
Obama spoke with Suu Kyi about the upcoming elections, and how Washington can "support efforts to promote tolerance, respect for diversity, and a more inclusive political environment," the White House said.
Obama urged Sein to take additional steps to address ethnic tensions and support the civil and political rights of the Rohingyas.
Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist country. Almost 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced after deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
The talks between Sein and Suu Kyi, which are being held in the capital, Naypyitaw, will be the first of their kind in Myanmar and other military, political and ethnic minority leaders are reported to have participated.
Suu Kyi was expected to meet for the first time armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Holing who plays a crucial political role under the country's constitution and has veto power over constitutional amendments. Suu Kyi's political party had made efforts to change the constitution, which guarantees the military a dominant role in politics.
Myanmar's last general elections in 2010 were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and were held without the National League for Democracy or Suu Kyi, who was detained until days after the vote.
Her party is expected to win a good number of seats in the legislature in next year's polls, and parliament will select a president. But Suu Kyi is currently barred from taking the top job by the constitution her children are foreign nationals as was her late spouse.
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