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The Star Online: World Updates

Suu Kyi party seeks talks with Myanmar's generals

Posted: 27 Mar 2011 07:24 AM PDT

YANGON (Reuters) - The party of Myamar's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, called on Sunday for talks with the country's military rulers to clear up "misunderstandings" before a new government takes office.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with youths at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon February 8, 2011. (REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/Files)

The National League for Democracy (NLD) reiterated its demand for talks with the military, known locally as the "Tatmadaw", to seek the release of more than 2,100 political prisoners and a bigger role for democratic forces in the country's future.

"It is urged that dialogue be held urgently to eliminate the misunderstandings between the democratic forces and the Tatmadaw," the NLD said in a statement.

"The authority should create fair political conditions by holding politically meaningful dialogue and releasing all political prisoners unconditionally."

The call is likely to fall on deaf ears as the authoritarian junta prepares to make way for a civilian government it has hand-picked to maintain its half-century grip on power.

The regime has used everything in its power, from deadly force to contentious court rulings, to sideline the NLD and its supporters since its landslide election win in 1990, which the military ignored.

Suu Kyi was released from a seven-year detention in November last year and wants to start a process of national reconciliation involving the army, pro-democracy groups and ethnic militias that have fought the military for decades.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been given unprecedented freedom since her release but her calls for dialogue have been ignored.

The NLD has no political role because it boycotted last year's long-awaited election, won overwhelmingly by a pro-military party, and was effectively banned by the authorities.

The NLD's decision to continue backing Western sanctions angered the generals, who warned her via their media mouthpieces that she would meet a "tragic end" and demanded her party apologise to the Burmese people for blocking Western investment in the impoverished but resource-rich country.

Suu Kyi said on Sunday she would keep an open mind but hoped to have a better relationship with the new civilian-led government after two decades of animosity with the junta.

Only a handful of serving generals have been given cabinet portfolios but most other ministers are former soldiers who retired specifically to take political roles. The president and one vice-president were the fourth and fifth most powerful figures in the outgoing regime.

Asked if she felt positive about reconciliation, Suu Kyi said: "I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. We have to assess the situation objectively, but we hope for improvement in the interests of the nation."

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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French vote, far-right hopes to consolidate gains

Posted: 27 Mar 2011 06:21 AM PDT

PARIS (Reuters) - French polling booths opened on Sunday for another round of local elections that have caused alarm and disarray in President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party since the far-right National Front surged in first-round voting.

Marine Le Pen, newly-elected France's far-right National Front political party leader, delivers a speech during the National Front annual congress in Tours January 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/Files)

The polls gauge the national mood a year before presidential elections and will determine whether the anti-immigrant National Front gains a foothold in a handful of local councils, levers of grassroots political power.

Sarkozy's UMP party has blurred the lines with the far right by taking a tough line on the integration of France's large Muslim minority.

The president's popularity ratings are at record lows.

In the first round last Sunday, the Socialist Party scored best with 25 percent of votes, followed by Sarkozy's UMP party with 17 percent and the National Front close behind with 15 percent, a record for the party.

That results came hot on the heels of opinion polls indicating that Marine Le Pen, a tough-talking 42-year-old lawyer who took over as party chief from her ex-paratrooper father in January, could score more than Sarkozy in the opening-round of a presidential contest.

Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France and the world when he made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002.

The party has a fresher face but is struggling to cast off an extremist image -- it announced the expulsion on Saturday of one of its local election candidates after a magazine website published a photograph of him doing a Nazi salute.

More than 21 million people can vote in the local elections but only 9.5 million did so in round one, pushing the abstention rate to a record 56 percent in the last direct elections before presidential and legislative showdowns in the second quarter of 2012.

At midday (1000 GMT) on Sunday, Interior Ministry figures showed a turnout of 13.69 percent, down two points from the same time in the first round.

Local councils take care of everyday things such as building of roads and schools as well as distribution of various welfare subsidies. This election concerns 2,026 council seats in all, with 1,566 still up for grabs after the first round.

Because the voting system favours alliances and the larger parties, the National Front was unlikely to win scores of seats but it hoped to win some to prove it is no longer seen solely as a pariah party that picks up protest votes.

The opposition Socialist Party, which is expected to extend its domination of local political power, has urged its supporters to vote for Sarkozy's conservatives if it comes down to that to shut out National Front candidates.

Sarkozy's UMP has urged right-wingers to shun the National Front but not necessarily by voting Socialist.

Among candidates of note in Sunday's showdown were Marine Le Pen's partner Louis Aliot and Anne-Christine Royal, cousin of Socialist Segolene Royal, who lost the presidential election contest of 2007 to Nicolas Sarkozy.

(Additional reporting by Lionel Laurent; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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