Myanmar convenes historic talks ahead of 2015 vote

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - Myanmar President Thein Sein opened unprecedented talks with army top brass and political rivals including Aung San Suu Kyi Friday, as US President Barack Obama called for "inclusive and credible" elections next year after decades of disastrous military rule.

Thein Sein and Suu Kyi walked into the meeting together to begin extraordinary discussions in the capital Naypyidaw ahead of 2015 polls viewed as a key test of democratic reforms under the quasi-civilian government.

The meeting opened with Thein Sein welcoming delegates including Suu Kyi, other party leaders, the army commander-in-chief and the head of the election commission before journalists were ushered out.

It came a day after the White House said Obama spoke to Thein Sein and Suu Kyi about the upcoming elections, less than a fortnight before the US leader visits Myanmar as it hosts a major regional conference.

In a statement the White House said that during telephone talks with the Myanmar president Obama had "underscored the need for an inclusive and credible process for conducting the 2015 elections".

Obama also spoke to Suu Kyi about how Washington can "support efforts to promote tolerance, respect for diversity, and a more inclusive political environment", the statement said.

Last week Myanmar authorities announced the country's landmark polls would be held in the final week of October or the first week of November 2015.

Myanmar's previous general election in 2010 was marred by widespread accusations of cheating and was held without Suu Kyi, who was kept under lock and key until days after the vote, and without her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The 2010 election came as the military relinquished its outright control of the government, after decades of misrule in which they turned Myanmar into a diplomatic pariah and drove the economy into the ground.

Under Thein Sein, a former general, Myanmar is now at a crossroads as it grapples with thorny political and constitutional questions and the search for a nationwide ceasefire to several rebellions.

President Suu Kyi?

Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the timing of Friday's meeting, before Obama's visit, was highly significant.

"Without a doubt this is carefully timed. Even if (the outcome of) this meeting wasn't positive he (Thein Sein) could certainly say to Obama I've tried and made an effort to listen to people."

In 2012 by-elections Suu Kyi's party won almost every seat available and she became an MP for the first time. The NLD is now expected to win a major slice of the legislature next year after which parliament will select a president.

But the 69-year-old veteran democracy activist, who spent more than a decade under house arrest during the junta years, is currently barred from taking the top job by the constitution.

The charter says anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals cannot become president. The Nobel laureate's late husband was British, as are her two sons.

But Myanmar has promised the vote next year will be the freest in the country's modern history after the military ceded direct power to a quasi-civilian government three years ago.

Thein Sein has surprised the international community in recent years with a number of dramatic reforms that have seen international sanctions removed as the country opens up to the world.

Most political prisoners have been released, Suu Kyi moves freely as a political player, and the government has set its sights on ending multiple civil wars with armed ethnic minority rebels.

But the country still faces a myriad of challenges -- including an opaque legal system, creaking infrastructure and significant poverty levels -- that will need to be tackled by any new government after next year's election.