YANGON Detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi thinks there may have been a change of heart within the junta on political reform after September's bloody crackdown on democracy protests, her party said on Friday.
At a two-hour meeting with top members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) -- her first in more than three years -- Suu Kyi said the generals were "serious and really willing to work for national reconciliation", spokesman Nyan Win said.
"She is optimistic," he told reporters at NLD headquarters in Yangon, citing unspecified "practical measures" as reasons to think the military that has ruled for the last 45 years may be willing to consider relaxing its total grip on power.
However, Nyan Win said Suu Kyi, 62, had also asked for two NLD liaison officers to be appointed, suggesting there was little prospect of the Nobel laureate being released any time soon.
Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, also had a second meeting on Friday with General Aung Kyi, a go-between appointed as a result of world outrage at September's crackdown, in which at least 10 people were killed.
In a statement released on her behalf by U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari after his second visit in a month, Suu Kyi described her initial contact with Aung Kyi as constructive and said she was ready to work with the military to establish proper negotiations.
"In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success," she said in her first public comments since her latest period of detention began in May 2003.
A junta statement saying it would "make efforts steadfastly for national reconciliation with the correct cooperation of the U.N. Secretary General" also gave cause for hope, despite the army's litany of broken promises.
"I find it very difficult to trust them. I hope this is not some new ploy," one roadside book vendor said.
Others echoed his scepticism of the generals.
"They have always acted in bad faith. These are people who hold general elections that they then ignore. They are not famous for sticking to their words," said Dominic Faulder, a journalist in Bangkok who has covered the former Burma for 20 years.
"The pessimists have always been right in Burma, but one day, once, they will be wrong."
The early signs from Gambari's six-day mission, his second visit since the crackdown, were not good.
He failed to meet junta supremo Than Shwe and had to endure a tirade from Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who accused the U.N. of being biased, meddling and subject to the whim of Washington.
However, as Gambari left, the U.N. said he had managed to establish a path to "substantive dialogue" between the generals and Suu Kyi, who won a 1990 election landslide at the helm of the NLD only to be denied power.
Gambari will brief the Security Council at U.N. headquarters in New York next week. He will also return to Myanmar "in coming weeks" to try to keep the pressure on a regime that thrives on isolation and has so far been impervious to outside influence.
Although the U.N. gave no details of what appeared to be a surprise breakthrough, Suu Kyi's statement alluded to regular contact between her and the junta, or State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as it calls itself.
"I expect that this phase of preliminary consultation will conclude soon, so that a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with the SPDC leadership can start as early as possible," she said.
However, the tone of the regime's earlier tirade against the U.N., in which it also rejected Gambari's proposal of three-way talks with himself and Suu Kyi, left diplomats dispirited.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this regime has no intention of cooperating with Gambari or of starting a process of genuine political dialogue," one Yangon-based diplomat said. "It's beyond them."
The day before Gambari's arrival, the junta told the top U.N. resident diplomat he was being expelled for linking August's fuel price protests to the dire state of the economy, one of Asia's brightest prospects on independence from Britain in 1948.
The protests snowballed quickly into the biggest street revolt against military rule since 1988, when the army crushed an uprising with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.