Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi plans to meet with the leader of Myanmar’s military junta on the sidelines of a Nov. 28 Asian summit in Manila, Japanese government sources said Friday.

The summit will bring together the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea.

Tokyo is now making final arrangements for the meeting with Gen. Than Shwe, prime minister and chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the sources said.

The meeting would be the first between a Japanese prime minister and a leader of the junta, which seized power in 1988.

Obuchi reportedly has yet to decide whether to include Myanmar in a new initiative, expected to be announced at the summit, to facilitate the flow of “people, money, goods and information” between Japan and other Asian nations to help revitalize Asian economies.

With the announcement, Tokyo has shown it is assuming a policy of “constructive engagement” with the junta. And it comes only days after Myanmar’s military rulers said they are open to a dialogue with the World Bank, which recently issued a blistering report on the state of the country’s economy.

It also comes as ASEAN members are divided on how to move the grouping forward in a quickly globalizing world. At an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in July last year Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan suggested that the group consider easing its policy of noninterference in member countries’ internal affairs.

Surin got support only from the Philippines, and the proposal failed to change ASEAN’s basic noninterference stance.

But the democratic reforms in Indonesia and the recent election of President Aburrahman Wahid has changed the region’s political makeup.

All of which could lead other ASEAN members into Surin’s camp from where they could encourage democratization in Myanmar.

Obuchi appears to be stepping in that direction. He is expected to press for economic and political reforms in Myanmar and to urge the junta to promote dialogue with the National League for Democracy, a prodemocracy force led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that was the overwhelming choice of voters in 1988 elections.

The NLD won 392 seats out of 485 in the 1990 general elections, but the junta insisted that a new constitution is necessary before transferring power to a new government.

Out of the 485 candidates elected in 1990, only 176 remained as of the end of October, according to official Election Commission records.

The rest have died, resigned or been disqualified by the junta. Most of those disqualified are either in prison or out of the country.

But there are signs the junta may be taking a new direction.

In Yangon, one military leader recently hinted at the junta’s readiness to transfer power to a government that will emerge after a new constitution is completed and adopted by a new parliament, according to news reports.

Government newspapers quoted Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt as saying, “The military has no intention of holding power for a long time.”

But Khin Nyunt, the first secretary of the State Peace and Development Council, said any move toward democracy would take time because of “special circumstances” in Myanmar. He did not elaborate.

He made the comment while speaking Thursday at the Foreign Ministry.

“Some Western countries are pressuring us for not establishing a democratic system immediately, (but) they should realize we have the common objective of establishing a democratic system in Myanmar,” he told Myanmar diplomats who were attending a course in diplomacy.

No formal talks between Japan and Myanmar have been held so far, although then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto exchanged some words with Gen. Than Shwe when they sat next to each other at a dinner in the 1997 ASEAN summit.

Myanmar was admitted in 1997 as a full member to ASEAN, which also comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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