HANOI (Reuters) - U.S. sanctions on Myanmar could begin to come down if by-elections scheduled for April 1 in the former British colony are fair and open, U.S. Senator John McCain said on Thursday.
After half a century of authoritarian rule Myanmar has taken a series of dramatic steps in recent months to open up, the latest of which was the release last week of some 300 political prisoners.
The United States decided to upgrade diplomatic ties with Myanmar as a result, and President Barack Obama called the move a "substantial step" in democratic reform but stopped short of lifting economic sanctions.
Senator Joe Lieberman, speaking in Vietnam ahead of a visit to Myanmar with McCain and two other senators, said if the by-elections were "fair and open and legitimate" Myanmar could expect "some response from the United States in terms of the status quo between our countries as it exists now."
"And certainly lifting of the sanctions, or some of them, would be part of that consideration," McCain added.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament will run in the by-election, seeking a voice in parliament after boycotting polls in November 2010.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to "meet action with action" in relations with Myanmar, and instructed a team at the State Department to identify further steps that the United States could take in conjunction with others to support the reforms.
Sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations have crippled Myanmar's economy, despite its rich resources including natural gas, timber and precious gems, and driven it deeper into the embrace of regional power China.
Analysts have said Obama's motivations for re-engagement with Myanmar include his stated desire to reassert U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific.
McCain, a former navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, said ties between the United States and Vietnam should be strengthened to help counter China, but Vietnam's human rights record would limit progress.
"There is increased tensions with China about the South China Sea and other issues and we believe that a multilateral approach to China and an increase in our strategic partnership with Vietnam is certainly called for," he said.
Lieberman said many in the U.S. Congress would like to be able to transfer weapons to Vietnam "to particularly enhance maritime security" of the South China Sea, but that was unlikely unless human rights improved.
Human Rights Watch has said there has been an increase in the use of "national security" charges in Vietnam to silence critics.
(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by Ed Lane)