UK's Hague visits Myanmar to urge reforms

AP News
Posted: Jan 04, 2012 7:02 PM
UK's Hague visits Myanmar to urge reforms

Britain's William Hague was arriving in Myanmar on Thursday for the first visit by a U.K. foreign secretary since 1955 _ a new sign of the Southeast Asian nation's warming relations with the West.

Hague was scheduled to hold talks with Myanmar's president Thein Sein and government ministers in the nation's capital Naypyitaw before meeting with opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.

His visit follows a trip by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in November, as Western nations offer cautious support for reforms that have led to the release of some political prisoners and seen Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy rejoin the country's political process ahead of April parliamentary elections.

In a statement, Hague said his trip was intended to encourage the "government to continue on its path of reform, and to gauge what more Britain can do to support that process."

Though the two-day visit signals a shift in relations, Britain won't promise any immediate change in European Union sanctions on arms sales, asset freezes and travel bans _ or change a policy that discourages U.K. businesses from trade with Myanmar.

Britain recently pledged 185 million pounds ($289 million) over three years to fund health and education projects _ becoming Myanmar's largest bilateral aid donor _ but the U.K. channels funds only through non-governmental groups.

Hague will lay out a series of demands for Myanmar's leadership to meet before it considers offering funds direct to the government, or before the EU can lift any sanctions.

"We hope to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections, humanitarian access to people in conflict areas and credible steps towards national reconciliation," Hague said.

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Sein, a former army officer, has begun some reforms after 50 years of military rule that saw violent crackdowns on pro-democracy activists, the detention of Suu Kyi and international isolation.

Britain believes there are likely between 591 and 1,700 political prisoners held by Myanmar authorities, though poor record keeping and disputes over the status of captives means an accurate figure is difficult to gauge.

Diplomats also acknowledge Britain is wary of the potential for Myanmar's regime, which took office in March and is dominated by a military-proxy political party, to reverse on recent reforms.

"Further steps are needed that will have a lasting impact on human rights and political freedom," Hague said.