Britain's Hague calls for new Myanmar era

6th January 2012, Comments 0 comments

Britain's foreign secretary called Friday for "much more" work to be done in Myanmar before sanctions could be lifted, but he ended a historic visit saying the nation may be "on the cusp of a new era".

William Hague, the first foreign minister of Myanmar's former colonial power to visit in over 50 years, saw democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for formal talks Friday, and met top government members and ethnic leaders during his trip.

Before departing Yangon, he praised the reformist steps that have been made since the nominally civilian administration took power in March and said he was "encouraged" by a government pledge to release all political prisoners.

"My message is that if the country continues on this promising path, as we hope it will, we are ready to offer a new relationship based on friendship and partnership," he told reporters.

But he warned "much more needs to be done" if restrictive European Union measures were to be lifted.

"It is not possible to say a country is free and democratic while people are still in prison on the grounds of their political beliefs," he said.

Hague also called for free and fair by-elections in April and improved humanitarian access to ethnic conflict areas, where he urged meaningful dialogue with armed groups.

"It is very important that we do not relax the pressures prematurely," he said.

The EU and the United States both impose economic sanctions on Myanmar over its human rights record, including the imprisonment of hundreds of political prisoners.

After meeting Suu Kyi, Hague described himself as a "great admirer" of the Nobel peace laureate and her struggles for freedom and democracy in Myanmar, which celebrated 64 years of independence from British rule this week.

"Today it may again stand on the cusp of a new era," he said.

Myanmar has played host to a series of top international envoys in recent months after controversial 2010 elections heralded the end of decades of direct military rule.

Suu Kyi, who has grown cautiously positive about Myanmar's future recently, said she expected to live to see a "full democratic election" in Myanmar, in comments to the BBC Thursday before a dinner meeting with Hague.

After meeting with him again on Friday, she echoed Hague's calls for further reforms in her country and said she looked forward to the time when Britain and Myanmar's relationship becomes "mutually beneficial".

The Nobel laureate is on course to run in April 1 by-elections after her National League for Democracy (NLD) was officially allowed to register as a political party on Thursday.

Suu Kyi, who was freed from seven straight years of house arrest days after the November 2010 election, could be propelled into parliament by the upcoming poll, although the majority held by the army and ruling military-backed party will not be threatened.

Since taking office last year Thein Sein -- himself a former junta general -- has surprised observers by holding talks with Suu Kyi, suspending an unpopular Chinese-backed dam project and indicating a desire to reach out to the international community.

Some political prisoners have also been released but the government this week caused disappointment when it announced reduced jail terms for inmates but failed to issue a much-anticipated amnesty for detained dissidents.

Hague's trip, the first by a European Union foreign minister since the new government took power, is the latest round of international diplomacy aimed at urging on the budding reforms.

It follows that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met Thein Sein and Suu Kyi during a trip to Myanmar at the end of last year.

© 2012 AFP

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