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Is the U.S. softening on Myanmar?

BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- Some diplomats and analysts are asking if the Bush Administration is softening the United States' attitude toward Myanmar's military government.

This follows a senior US official's background briefing on Myanmar in Bangkok on Tuesday.

The US diplomat's statements are believed to be the first "analysis" of the situation in Myanmar given by a Bush Administration official.

Speaking to a group of journalists on the condition of anonymity, the official downplayed any shift in policy by the new administration.

"In terms of US policy towards Burma," the official said, "I guess the bottom line is that administrations might change in Washington but American interests have always basically been that the various sides in Burma talk to each other."

This was "news" to several regional diplomats CNN spoke to. "I could have sworn their bottom line was to bring about political freedom, democracy and human rights," one diplomat told me.

Overall, two things were conspicuous in the official's briefing:

A total absence of the harsh rhetoric the Clinton Administration, especially former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, regularly used against Myanmar's military government;

Surprisingly upbeat support for the private dialog now going on between the Myanmar government and the country's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The only significant negative comment the official made concerned the State Department's condemnation of Myanmar in a recent report on human rights abuses around the world. But the official quickly bridged from that negative to a positive:

"There may be more people in prison [in Myanmar] today than there were a year ago," he said, referring to the report. "So there's a long way to go. I don't think any of us need to be Pollyanna-ish about the likelihood there's going to be immediate, dramatic results [in terms of human rights improvements in Myanmar].

"But this is a process," he added, switching his focus to the dialog. "It's got to start somewhere and the good news is it seems to have started with good faith on both sides."

Asked if he sensed an "attitudinal change" in Myanmar, the official said: "Yes, pretty positive on both sides."

He added: "The dialog that seems to be taking place seems to have the right tone to it and gives me encouragement that it should be able to continue with some forward progress, albeit very slow and cautious on both sides. But I think they have the right approach."

Praise for both sides

Such comments appear to applaud and encourage both sides - the military government and the pro-democracy forces - equally.

On this point a diplomat CNN spoke to said: "Albright would not have done that - she would slapped 'the generals' around."

The US official also made clear in his briefing that any rapprochement that might eventuate from the dialog will involve compromise not just by the military leaders but also by the democracy advocates.

"It's an interesting process," he said. "You have give and take on the part of the NLD [Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy] as well as the SPDC [the State Peace and Development Council, which controls the military government]. And it's the international community's role to encourage that."

"Interesting," responded an analyst CNN spoke to in Bangkok. "The US encouraging 'The Lady' [Aung San Suu Kyi] to compromise Are we seeing a change of approach to Burma-Myanmar from Washington?"

In a rare public assessment of the dialog from the Myanmar government, Deputy Foreign Minister Khin Maung Win told CNN at the weekend: "We are quite satisfied with the way the ongoing process is going on it is going quite smoothly."



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