Friday, November 13, 2009

Myanmar junta leader 'thrilled' to be in Sri Lanka

Myanmar's junta leader General Than Shwe said he was "thrilled" to be in Sri Lanka, where he was given a 21-gun salute and an elaborate red-carpet welcome at the start of his four-day state visit Thursday.

"Sri Lanka and Myanmar have a history of close Buddhist ties," he said during a meeting with Sri Lanka's foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama in the central Buddhist pilgrim city of Kandy.

Than Shwe, who is on his first visit to the island and comes with a 26-member delegation, said he was looking forward to touring Buddhist shrines during his stay, before leaving on Sunday.

Speaking through a translator, the reclusive junta leader looked relaxed in a dark grey pin-striped suit and nodded when Bogollagama said he hoped the visit would also explore avenues for economic co-operation.

"We warmly welcome you, your excellency," Bogollagama said during the meeting in a heavily guarded deluxe hotel in Kandy, 115 kilometers (72 miles) northeast of Colombo.

Than Shwe was due to meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse later Thursday. Rajapakse welcomed him earlier at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

Sri Lanka and Myanmar both practise Theravada Buddhism and have had cultural and religious ties since the 11th century.

Myanmar monks living in Sri Lanka have warned Colombo that its increasingly close relations with Myanmar's military regime would further raise international concern over the island's rights record.

In a statement on Wednesday, the monks said Rajapakse was "foolish" to become associated with Than Shwe.

A spokesman for the monks said they were not demonstrating against Than Shwe's visit due to safety fears.

"The Sri Lankan government has very good relations with the junta and if we demonstrate they could use force against us," a monk, who identified himself as Nyanasyri, told AFP.

Than Shwe is to spend two days in Kandy and then travel to the ancient site of Anuradhapura to visit more Buddhist sites.

The junta leader is due to receive blessings from Buddhist monks at a temple outside the capital Colombo on Sunday before he leaves.

Rajapakse visited Myanmar in June and thanked the junta for providing relief supplies for Sri Lankan civilians displaced earlier this year during the final stages of fighting between troops and separatist Tamil rebels.


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