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U.S. envoy: Ties could improve if Myanmar makes progress

Kurt Campbell (left) and deputy Scot Marciel
Kurt Campbell (left) and deputy Scot Marciel
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Visiting U.S. official says U.S. willing to improve relations if junta moves towards democracy
  • He says Washington will maintain economic and political sanctions against Myanmar
  • He says purpose of trip to explore more positive ways to reform the isolated nation
  • U.S. officials met PM, opposition leaders including pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi
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Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- One of two U.S. officials who made a rare trip to Myanmar said Thursday that the United States was willing to improve relations if that nation's ruling military junta takes tangible steps towards democracy.

Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Washington would maintain economic and political sanctions against Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, but that the purpose of the trip was to explore more positive ways to reform the isolated Southeast Asian nation.

"We reaffirmed our commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burma," Marciel said. "We stressed the importance of genuine dialogue between the government and ethnic minorities. Fundamentally, the main problem is a lack of an inclusive political process."

Marciel and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Myanmar for two days, meeting with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein and leaders of opposition parties including pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest with severe restrictions on visitors.

They did not speak, however, with Myanmar's dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

The exploratory visit came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in September that America would move away from the Bush administration's tough-talk strategy to one that appears more carrot and stick.

Marciel said it was hoped a policy of engagement would one day achieve what punitive measures have failed to yield: a more open and democratic Burmese society.

"There is an opportunity for progress in Burma," he said. "But for there to be progress, there has to be a primary effort inside the country."

Suu Kyi's detention has been a key point of contention between the United States and Myanmar. Critics have accused the military regime of convicting her to prevent her participation in the upcoming 2010 election, the first one since 1990.

Suu Kyi's party -- The National League for Democracy -- won that vote but the army refused to accept the result. Trying to steer Myanmar toward democracy has been a challenge for U.S. policy ever since.

CNN's Dan Rivers contributed to this report.