Key to honour NZ's dead in Myanmar

ANDREA VANCE IN YANGON
Last updated 14:32 22/11/2012

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A single rose placed atop nine war graves will today honour nine Kiwi soldiers killed in Myanmar during World War Two.

Prime Minister John Key will make the poignant gesture at Taukkyan cemetery, about 30km north of Yangon.

After the remembrance service, he will fly south to Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw for historic talks with President Thein Sein and celebrated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We are going along to pay our respects," Key said of the remembrance service. "Because there has never been a New Zealand prime minister [to visit Myanmar], there has never been a government-level recognition, in person, of the sacrifices that those New Zealanders made."

Key will raise human rights with Thein Sein, a former member of the junta.  "My understanding is they are releasing and have been releasing, quite significantly, political prisoners. That's part of the really positive progress they are making.

"But, as President Obama said on Monday when he gave his speech here...there is a lot more work to be done."

Key has already talked with Thein Sein at the East Asia Summit on Tuesday and believes he is "genuine" about his commitment to reform.

He believes New Zealand can offer aid through agriculture - and will announce a $6 million, five-year project to establish a farm.

"Obviously, they need to fed people and they are largely importing their agricultural products, particularly milk powder and the likes from New Zealand."

There is also a "real need" to boost skills and education.

He will invite the president to New Zealand -  a request which could be taken up this year, he said. "There is quite a warm relationship...he's got a very personal interest in agriculture."

Key will also meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party later today. She spent 15 years under house arrest before being released in November 2010.

Key said she is a "Mandela" type figure, referring to South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. "She's put behind her the years and years of house arrest and tried to put the best foot forward in terms of the development of Myanmar."

Her party won 43 of 45 seats in by-elections earlier this year. "She's an integral part of the regime as leader of the opposition. She is legitimising the move to democracy."

However, he will not meet the Nobel laureate at her famous lakeside home in Yangon  - the talks will take place in a hotel in Naypyitaw.

"We want to sit down with her and ask how she see progress being made, what she sees are the challenges before the elections in 2015, how we might be able to help and what support that we might me able to give."

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Key's arrival in the commercial capital Yangon made a splash yesterday - his CV was printed on the front page of a local newspaper, and a red carpet was rolled out for a dusk tour of the country's most sacred pagoda.

But not all of the visit has gone smoothly - he is sporting a bruise and a scratch on his forehead, after banging his head on a desk while trying to unplug his charging cell phone. "It hurt like hell, I was seeing stars," he said.

- Stuff

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