Kerry to meet Suu Kyi as US backs Myanmar reforms

Naypyidaw - United States Secretary of State John Kerry is set to meet Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Sunday for Washington's first high level talks with her new civilian government, offering backing to her country's democratic progress after decades of army rule.

The meeting in the capital Naypyidaw comes days after the US lifted a host of financial and trade embargoes in recognition of political changes that saw November's elections sweep Suu Kyi and her party into office, ending half a century of military domination of the country.

Suu Kyi, who is Myanmar's foreign minister, also holds the newly-created position of state counsellor to enable her to steer the government despite a junta-scripted constitution that bars her from the presidency. That role is now held by her longtime ally Htin Kyaw.

Kerry is expected to give a press conference with Suu Kyi on Sunday afternoon.

"He will meet the state counsellor, not the president," said Myanmar president's office spokesman Zaw Htay AFP, explaining that Htin Kyaw is yet to return from a summit in Russia.

According to the US State Department, Kerry's brief trip to Myanmar is to show "support for the new democratically-elected, civilian-led government" as well as to "further democratic and economic reforms".

He is also expected to meet army chief Min Aung Hlaing, as Washington looks to coax further reforms from the military, which retains significant political and economic power.

US President Barack Obama has made two visits to the Southeast Asian nation in recent years, investing large reserves of political capital in Myanmar's transition towards democracy.

With only several months left in office Obama is doubling down on his "Asia pivot" - a diplomatic strategy to engage the continent's leaders and tap its growing economies.

Kerry is due to continue on to Vietnam Sunday, where he will accompany Obama to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for a three-day visit likely to focus on trade, security and human rights.

Myanmar still faces huge challenges, including decrepit infrastructure, conflicts in resource-rich borderlands, religious tensions and the continued influence of the army and junta-era cronies, who still dominate the economy.

American investment in Myanmar remains relatively small compared to other nations, although some US companies including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, fast food restaurant KFC and carmakers Chevrolet and Ford have already established a sales presence.

Washington rolled back many of its sanctions to reward reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011, but retains scores of names on its blacklists as it seeks to push further changes and promote human rights.

The latest sanctions rollback further eases constraints on trade.

It opened up all Myanmar banks to American business, while also extending indefinitely permission for firms to import through Myanmar's ports and airports - many of which are operated by cronies still on the blacklist.

In recent weeks Washington has come under pressure from hardline Buddhists after the US Embassy in Yangon used the term "Rohingya" to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine.

The term is incendiary to Buddhist nationalists who label the group "Bengalis" and view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many can trace their roots in Myanmar back generations.