Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Prize winner, was permitted a rare respite from her house arrest this morning for a brief meeting with a United Nations envoy dispatched to mediate with the country's repressive military dictatorship.
Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent 13 of the past 18 years in detention, met for 90 minutes with Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser on Burma to the UN secretary-general, in his latest effort to foster political dialogue between the Burmese junta and its political opponents. Details of their discussions have not yet been revealed, but there is little chance of an immediate breakthrough in a country which has been in the grip of generals for close to half a century.
The fact that the meeting took place at all is a small success - the last time Mr Gambari visited Burma's biggest city, Rangoon, Ms Suu Kyi refused to see him, apparently out of disgust at his failure to bring meaningful pressure to bear against the regime. Both Mr Gambari - and his boss, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon - have become the objects of cynicism among many in the Burmese opposition because of their lack of robustness in dealing with the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta styles itself.
Governments around the world condemned the SPDC after it violently suppressed a peaceful uprising of Buddhist monks and ordinary Burmese in September 2007, killing dozens of demonstrators and locking up thousands more. Since then the human rights situation in Burma has got worse and worse.
Last September the government released ten political prisoners - but more than 2000 remain in jail, including 200 sentenced to harsh sentences of up to 104 years for peaceful opposition to the generals.
"After the last six visits to Burma by the special envoy, we did not see any concrete results for political development in the country," said Win Naing, spokesman for Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy. "But we hope there may be a solution to start a genuine dialogue on this trip."
In 1990, the NLD won an overwhelming victory in the only free elections to be held in Burma since the military took over in a 1962 coup. The generals simply refused to accept the result, although they are now planning a new election next year, the culmination of a process they refer to as the "Roadmap to Democracy".
The view of many western governments was summed up last month by the British foreign office minister, Bill Rammell. "The military regime in Burma is determined to maintain its hold on power regardless of the cost and suffering of its people," he told parliament. "The junta's 'Roadmap to disciplined democracy', including a new constitution and elections planned for 2010, is designed to entrench military rule behind a facade of civilian government."
But the government's determination to press ahead with the elections poses a dilemma for Ms Suu Kyi. If she takes part in them, she risks giving credibility to an exercise which the generals will do their best to rig in their favour. If she ignores it, the SPDC will be able to claim a mandate which other nations less concerned about human rights, such as China and the south-east Asian governments, may find it convenient to recognise.
Some members of the NLD hope that solution may lie with the UN, which could provide guarantees of independent monitoring sufficient to persuade Ms Suu Kyi to participate in return for her freedom.