The most important step Myanmar can take to improve its international relations is to free its more than 2,000 political prisoners, a U.S. official said Monday, as Washington prepares to appoint a special envoy to the country.
Joseph Yun, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, described the November release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after years of house arrest as "very significant."
But Yun urged Myanmar to go further. He described the government recently installed after elections that were boycotted by Suu Kyi's party as "much the same people as before," which means they are dominated by the military.
Yun said the United States was continuing its two-track policy of retaining sanctions while seeking to engage Myanmar. That approach was adopted by the Obama administration about 18 months ago after two decades of efforts to isolate the military government failed to force positive change.
Speaking at a conference on Myanmar at Washington's Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Yun said the coming appointment of a U.S. envoy to the country, expected to be defense official Derek Mitchell, would give Washington a new interlocutor to speak with government and opposition, coordinate U.S. policy and work with the international community.
"We are looking for the release of political prisoners. I think that would be the single most concrete item Naypyidaw could do for the international community," Yun said, referring to Myanmar's administrative capital.
Yun said the U.S. also wants assurances the security of Suu Kyi and her supporters is not under threat, and the government to legitimize her party and bring it and other democratic and ethnic opposition parties into the political mainstream.
The U.S. offer of engagement was not sustainable forever "unless we get something for it," Yun said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is urging Western nations to lift sanctions against Myanmar, an ASEAN member. They have been imposed for its alleged rights abuses and suppression of democracy. The European Union is likely to ease sanctions slightly on Tuesday by lifting a visa ban for a year on certain civilian members of the military-led regime, an EU official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information.
Any easing would open a gap between the EU and the U.S., which says it is too early to lift sanctions.
Suu Kyi's party won elections 1990 but was barred from taking power. The party was outlawed for refusing to participate in the November vote. Suu Kyi has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest.
Associated Press writer Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.