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By David Alexander
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday urged Myanmar to begin planning for its 2010 elections and said Southeast Asian nations could play an important role in ensuring the vote is "free, fair and credible."
Clinton, speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the APEC meetings in Singapore, said Washington would like to see the reclusive military-led government of the former Burma begin internal consultations soon about the country's political future.
"We're seeking ... a process inside Burma that would inspire a dialogue among all of the stakeholders so that there could be a growing consensus within Burma itself about the way forward," she said.
Clinton's remarks came a week after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell travelled to Myanmar on Washington's highest-level visit to the country in 14 years.
The exploratory mission was aimed at explaining the results of a U.S. policy review towards Myanmar. The Obama administration decided in September to pursue deeper engagement with Myanmar to try to spur democratic reforms.
Clinton said U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar would remain in place until Washington sees what it believes is "meaningful progress in key areas."
A U.S. State Department official said later that freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, was one necessary step.
"It would be an essential precondition for the United States to move forward with any ... fundamental engagement that would include sanctions lifting with the regime," the official said on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials said they hoped Myanmar's leaders would begin a dialogue soon with internal groups that have an interest in the country's political future.
"That dialogue has to be an open dialogue that includes internal stakeholders," one State Department official said. "We would very much like to see ... not just the handpicked parties of the government, but also the ethnic groups, the NLD and the so-called third-way groups."
The official said the United States had begun consultations on Myanmar with India, China, Thailand and other neighbouring nations with an interest in Myanmar's stability.
The official said Washington hoped China would encourage Myanmar to launch an internal dialogue. "China has a powerful interest in ensuring Burma remains a stable country," he said.
Clinton urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to "reach out to the Burmese leadership, persuade them that it is time to start planning for free, fair and credible elections in 2010, 2010 is nearly here, (and) that it would be useful to have validation of those elections."
Clinton emphasized that when Myanmar is left alone, it's problems spill over its borders and affect its neighbours.
"We see refugee flows out of Burma, people taking the boat, ending up in Malaysia, ending up in Indonesia, ending up in Australia, crossing the border into Thailand," she said. "That instability is not good for anyone."
"Any country that does business in Burma wants to be sure that their investments and their business are safe and the best way to ensure that is to move towards democracy and the kind of stability that democracy creates," Clinton said.

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