U.S. welcomes Myanmar moves but unsure of real reform

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 17, 2011 7:14 PM
U.S. welcomes Myanmar moves but unsure of real reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There are signs that Myanmar may be moving toward greater openness but it is unclear whether it has embarked on genuine, thorough-going political reform, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

The official, Derek Mitchell, said the United States welcomed Myanmar's release last week of about 200 political prisoners but made clear it wants to see the nearly 2,000 dissidents who remain imprisoned to be freed.

"We have seen encouraging signs over time," said Mitchell, noting that Myanmar had not, however, curbed violence against ethnic minorities in the north and east of the country.

"What we're looking for is a release of all political prisoners without condition to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country," said the U.S. special representative and policy coordinator for the country, which the United States refers to by its colonial name, Burma.

Mitchell did not directly answer questions about whether the United States deemed the latest prisoner release sufficient for Washington to take reciprocal steps toward Myanmar.

Western nations have shunned Myanmar for decades because of its poor human rights record, but its new civilian government, which came to power this year after the military nominally gave up power, is taking tentative steps to end its isolation.

The release of about 200 political detainees on Wednesday, under a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners, followed a loosening of some media controls and more dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United States, Europe and Australia have said the freeing of political prisoners is essential to considering lifting sanctions that have crippled Myanmar and driven it closer to China.

Saying he had "very, very productive and candid meetings" when he visited the country in September, Mitchell said "we've seen ... since then even more gestures and more moves by the government that seems to be a trend toward greater openness."

But Mitchell said there are still questions within the U.S. government "about whether, in fact, we are seeing something fundamentally different in the country.

"Are we seeing a real path to reform as they laid out their goals of democracy, human rights, national reconciliation, and development, national development for the country?"

"There are still questions about how far they're going to go and where this is going to lead," he said. "If in fact we do see change, reform along those lines of democracy, human rights, national reconciliation and development, they will have a partner in the United States ... that is what we have sought to pursue for many years now."

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Mohammad Zargham)