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Key makes history in Myanmar

Laura McQuillan

A meeting with Nobel Prize-winning democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss political reforms in Myanmar is on Prime Minister John Key's agenda during his visit to the East Asian country on Thursday.

Mr Key arrived in Myanmar - previously known as Burma - on Wednesday following a two-day visit to Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.

He is the first New Zealand leader to visit the country, which was under the rule of a military junta from 1962 until 2010, when it held general elections.

Mr Key will hold bilateral talks with President Thein Sein, a former military commander in the junta, at the Presidential Palace in Nay Pyi Taw on Thursday morning, with their conversation set to focus on trade opportunities.

On Wednesday afternoon (local time), Fonterra announced the appointment of a new manager to Myanmar - the first time the company has employed staff based in the country.

Dairy exports make up most of New Zealand's annual $18 million trade with Myanmar, and Fonterra says the new manager will be responsible for "driving growth and exploring new opportunities" for the company.

Mr Key is confident other large New Zealand companies could tap into Myanmar's economy - especially in agricultural sectors.

"It is actually arable land, it's a good place to grow things, it's a big population and it is going to get wealthier over time," Mr Key said.

"If you roll the clock forward 10 years' time, most of the leaders I talk to around the region think it will be an increasingly important market."

Mr Key's visit is largely symbolic, to welcome Myanmar's steps toward democracy after 50 years of military rule.

In his meeting with Suu Kyi - the opposition leader who spent 15 years under house arrest - Mr Key will be asking questions about how genuine the reforms are.

Mr Key will also visit Taukkyan War Cemetery to pay respects to nine New Zealand WWII soldiers buried there.

Mr Key ended his Cambodia trip with a visit to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to show solidarity with New Zealand judge Dame Silvia Cartwright, and announce a further $200,000 in funding for its operations.

He returns to New Zealand on Saturday.