By Martin Petty
YANGON (Reuters) - The European Union should respond fast to changes under way in Myanmar driven by a former military junta leader and "key reformer" committed to democracy and boosting the country's economy, a top EU official said on Monday.
European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs said President Thein Sein gave clear confirmation reforms would continue in Myanmar and an 11-month-old civilian government stacked with former generals appeared to have changed its tack from the days of iron-fisted military rule.
The EU is keen to ease sanctions it placed on Myanmar for the former junta's atrocious human rights record, but needs more than just assurances of reforms in order to convince all 27 members states to lift the embargoes, he said.
"The president is a key reformer, he is part of the changes ... I got clear confirmation the president is fully committed to the reforms," Piebalgs, the most senior EU official to meet Myanmar's civilian rulers, told Reuters in an interview after his landmark visit to the capital Naypyitaw.
"Evolution is possible," he said. "There's a possibility that people transform their thinking, they become more open, they see the challenges the country faces and they would like to lead the real change ... so it's important to notice that this is not the same country."
Thein Sein, the former junta's fourth-in-command, has overseen a series of changes that have stunned the international community, including the release of an estimated 650 political prisoners and ceasefire deals with ethnic rebel groups in its push to get Western sanctions removed.
Piebalgs came to Myanmar for a three-day visit to announced a new 150 million euro ($198 million) development package that would support health and education but said it would have little impact on an underdeveloped country that faced high expectations from its people and urgently needed to stimulate its economy.
A further easing of EU sanctions, which started last month with suspension of travel bans on top government officials, would allow Myanmar tariff-free access to European markets under its "Everything But Arms" initiative, which could create jobs and be a major boost the economy, he said.
It was therefore crucial the EU to moved fast in responding to the changes, he said.
"I don't have the power to speak for 27 countries that should agree on this, but I clearly said (to the government) that if the (reform) process continues then sanctions will be lifted as soon as possible," he said.
"I will try to convince (member states) of this positive change and the need to act rapidly," he said. "If the process is moving in the right direction, you should not lose momentum when you can make the most positive influence to the country.
"If you don't respond, you lose opportunities that you would like to take to support democracy, human rights and prosperity."
A key litmus test of the government's sincerity will be the holding of free and fair by-elections on April 1, which take place just weeks ahead of the EU's annual sanctions review.
The parliamentary polls will be contested by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party that boycotted the 2010 vote but was urged by Thein Sein to join Myanmar's fledgling democratic system.
Piebalgs said Suu Kyi was Myanmar's biggest strength and her participation in politics was crucial, because the country had a "lot of vulnerabilities."
Myanmar's economy was still fragile, he said, and wealth from its oil, gas, timber and gemstones needed to be shared evenly among its 60 million people, many of which live in poverty. Ceasefires with armed ethnic groups needed to hold and the government should be to be open to criticism and scrutiny.
Piebalgs said he expected European businesses would not race to get into Myanmar because of its long-standing stigma and reputation for political risks and once sanctions were removed, it was up to the government and member states to encourage investors and win their confidence.
"They will not come by themselves because they'll say 'how stable is this change?'," he said.
"I believe this country has big enough opportunities and has a lot of wealth potential, but at the same time, companies will be extremely conservative and that's where I'm a bit afraid we will lose time. Investments could make a difference."
(Editing by Alison Williams)