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Malaysia FM begins three-day trip to Myanmar

Written by: Staff
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KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 23 (Reuters) Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar began a three-day visit to Myanmar today to assess the military-ruled country's progress on political reforms, officials said.

''He has already left,'' said an official at Malaysia's Foreign Ministry, breaking its silence on the visit. Southeast Asian diplomats had earlier said Syed Hamid was expected to meet Prime Minister Soe Win before returning to Malaysia on Saturday.

''During the visit, the minister will hold discussions with leaders of Myanmar and various representatives in the reconciliation and democratisation process in Myanmar,'' the ministry said in a statement, but gave no details.

The secretive junta, which has upset fellow members of the 10-strong Association of South East Asian Nations by dragging its feet on freeing democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and on political reform, almost never announces dates for official visits.

Criticism from within ASEAN has grown substantially as Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party and a Nobel peace laureate, remains confined to her home nearly three years after her May 2003 arrest.

Syed Hamid, who is visiting Myanmar as ASEAN's official representative, said in December he hoped to meet Suu Kyi during his trip, which the junta put off in January saying it was too busy moving to a new capital.

ASEAN has become increasingly frustrated by the junta's slow progress on its seven-step ''roadmap to democracy'', currently focused on a constitutional conference that critics say is designed to entrench military rule.

The latest session of the conference, boycotted by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the third since 2004, was adjourned in January and is not expected to reconvene until the end of the year.

REUTERS DKS PM1504

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