YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Myanmar lifted a curfew on Saturday and ended a ban on assembly imposed during a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests – the latest sign the military rulers are confident they have fully crushed the largest demonstrations in two decades.

The White House dismissed the move as “cosmetic,” a day after President Bush announced new penalties against the military-run government.

“The actions of the regime are “cosmetic’. What we need are signs of serious intent to move toward a democratic transition,” presidential press secretary Dana Perino said.

The relaxing of restrictions imposed Sept. 25 was announced from government vehicles driven through the streets of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.

“The curfew and ban on assembly has been revoked effective today, because security and stability has improved,” according to the announcement issued from a speaker atop one of the vehicles.

It was not immediately clear if the restrictions were also lifted in Mandalay, another major city and a focus of last month’s anti-government demonstrations.

The lifting of the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and ban on gatherings of more than five people indicates the junta believes it has stamped out the uprising that was sparked in August by public anger at a sharp rise in fuel prices.

Small protests quickly grew into anti-government demonstrations tens of thousands of people strong and spearheaded by legions of the country’s respected monks.

It was the largest showing of dissent in the tightly controlled state in nearly two decades.

The junta responded by detaining thousands of demonstrators and shooting into the crowds, killing as many as 10.

Diplomats and activists say the death toll is much higher.

Since the crackdown, authorities in Myanmar have attempted to apply a softer touch. They have cleared the streets of soldiers and released some prominent activists.

In Maryland, Perino said Saturday’s announcement was “a bad sign that the regime now feels confident that it has cleared the monasteries of dissidents by either jailing them or sending them to their home villages, and arrested all the major players in the demonstrations and sent into hiding or exile those they have not captured.”

Perino urged the junta to enter talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, and invite U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari to return. “What we need are signs of serious intent to move toward a democratic transition.”

The junta has also been intensifying efforts to arrange talks with Suu Kyi, issuing an unusual plea in state media Saturday for her to compromise for the sake of national reconciliation.

The government announced earlier this month that military leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe was willing to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize winner, but only if she meets certain conditions including renouncing support for foreign countries’ economic sanctions targeting the impoverished nation.

The junta has also urged Suu Kyi, detained for 12 of the last 18 years, to give up her support for “confrontation” and “utter devastation” – an apparent reference to the recent protests.

The regime accuses Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party of working with other nations to sabotage the junta’s own plans for a phased return to democracy.

Than Shwe has only met with Suu Kyi once before, in 2002. The talks quickly broke down.

In a lengthy commentary, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the time was right for Suu Kyi to respond positively to the offer of talks “with a view to serving the interest of all.”

“We are tired of watching a stalemate … we should not go on like this forever,” the commentary said. “There should be some forms of compromise. If one side makes a concession, the other side should do so. The situation will get worse if both sides are arrogantly intransigent, refusing to budge from their stand.”

The views in the commentary are believed to represent those of the junta.

Myanmar’s repressive regime has repeatedly rebuffed the world’s calls for democratic reforms, saying it will follow its own seven-step road map to democracy that is supposed to culminate in a general election.

While Gambari has been working toward a dialogue, the United States and other governments have stepped up pressure on the regime by tightening sanctions.

Bush announced Friday that Washington would expand sanctions imposed last month to punish the military-run government and its backers for the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Bush ordered the Treasury Department to freeze the U.S. assets of additional members of Myanmar’s ruling junta, and tightened controls on American exports to the country. He also urged China and India to do more to pressure the government of neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma.

AP-ES-10-20-07 1327EDT

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