By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's new military-backed government wants better ties with the United States, but must show concrete progress on improving human rights and political freedoms for Washington to reconsider its approach, U.S. Senator John McCain said on Friday.
McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for the presidency, met with key figures in Myanmar's new civilian administration, which he said had shown willingness to cooperate by allowing him to visit the country after he was refused for 15 years.
His trip to the capital, Naypyitaw, was significant since he was granted better access to the government than U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East-Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun and United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar last month.
"It was clear from my meetings in Naypyitaw that the new government wants a better relationship with the United States, and I was equally clear that this is an aspiration that I and my government share," McCain told reporters.
"I acknowledge that this new government represents some change from the past, and one illustration of this change was their willingness to allow me to return to this country."
McCain met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from seven years of house arrest on November 13, a week after the resource-rich country held its first election in two decades.
The poll was widely dismissed as a sham to create the impression of a democratic transition after 49 years of direct military rule. Critics say the civilian government is under the tight grip of the same generals who plundered the country's economy and stifled political freedom.
The restructuring of power has thrust the thorny issue of Western sanctions back into the spotlight as the former British colony seeks to attract investment and boost economic ties with countries willing to do business there.
Critics of sanctions say two decades of embargoes have failed to bring about improvements to Myanmar's dire human rights record and have only alienated the reclusive rulers from the West. However, there are hopes that the change of guard, however nominal, could lead to some reforms.
McCain said he delivered the message that the United States would respond positively if Myanmar made progress through "tangible actions," which included the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners.
He held separate talks on Wednesday with parliament Speaker Shwe Man, senate Speaker Khin Aung Myint and Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, all of them hardliners from the old regime who rarely met foreign visitors in the past.
"The United States should be willing to put all aspects of our policy on the table and give fair consideration to the requests this new government makes of us," McCain added.
"But as I told the government leaders ... any improvement in relations will need to be built not on warm words, but on concrete actions."
McCain said Suu Kyi, the 65-year-old Nobel Peace laureate and figurehead of Myanmar's struggle against dictatorship, was one of his heroes and he urged the government to ensure her safety during her planned tours of the country.
McCain had voiced concerns of a repeat of what is known as the Depayin Massacre in 2003, when Suu Kyi's motorcade was attacked by pro-junta thugs, resulting in the death of 70 of her supporters in what was seen as an assassination attempt.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)