RANGOON, Burma - Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi met leaders of her opposition party for the first time in more than three years, telling them yesterday that she believes Burma's military rulers intend to work toward democracy after decades of repression.
The ruling State Peace and Development Council allowed Suu Kyi to leave the home where she has been under house arrest for years and meet for an hour with three executives from her party, along with the government "minister for relations" who serves as a liaison officer to her.
Looking "fit, well, and energetic," Suu Kyi, 62, told her colleagues that she is "very optimistic" about the prospects of dialogue with the junta, which cracked down on her National League for Democracy party after it won elections in 1990, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the party.
"She believes that the ruling SPDC has the will to achieve national reconciliation," said Nyan Win, who attended the meeting at a government guest house.
The junta, which came under renewed international pressure after it crushed prodemocracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September, allowed Suu Kyi to meet with her party's officials after the latest in a series of trips by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari.
Outside observers said that they were doubtful that the meeting was a real sign of change.
"My reaction is extreme skepticism that this will lead to real dialogue between her and the [junta], or genuine political change," said Donald M. Seekins of Japan's Meio University. "The [government] likes to move Suu Kyi and the NLD around like pieces on a chessboard, to satisfy the international community."
Suu Kyi suggested that the junta could make a conciliatory gesture by releasing political prisoners but appeared to concede that she herself will remain detained for the immediate future, telling her colleagues that she will ask the government for two liaison officers of her choice to communicate with her party's officials on her behalf.
Suu Kyi said she will also ask the "minister for relations," Aung Kyi, to arrange for her to see the other party leaders whenever necessary.
"She is full of ideas," Nyan Win said.
The junta released no public statements about the meeting, and the public and press were kept away.
The roots of Burma's crisis are in the military's refusal to hand over power after Suu Kyi's party won the 1990 general election. Instead, the military stepped up a campaign of arrest and harassment of the party members, and eventually closed most of its offices.
Suu Kyi has been in government detention for 12 of the past 18 years, and continuously since May 2003.
The government says 10 people were killed in the Sept. 26-27 crackdown on prodemocracy protests, though diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Thousands were arrested, with the events triggering intense global condemnation.
The junta now says it is following a seven-step "road map" to democracy that is supposed to culminate in free elections, though it has not set a time line for the process.
Along with the political pressure, the regime, faces fresh scrutiny about its human rights record. The UN's special investigator for human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has been invited for a five-day visit starting tomorrow.
Gambari met Suu Kyi for an hour Thursday just before leaving Burma, and the Nobel laureate signaled her willingness to follow his reconciliation initiative.
"In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success," Suu Kyi said.
But unless Suu Kyi makes some concessions to the government, further progress is unlikely, said Robert Taylor, a London-based Burma scholar.