By Mohammed Abbas
(Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron will push for more reforms during a landmark visit to Myanmar on Friday, the first by a major Western leader in 50 years as countries jockey for business and influence in the long-isolated state.
Cameron will meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 2010 emerged from 15 years of house arrest to go on to score a stunning April 1 by-election victory, and President Thein Sein, whose reforms in military-dominated Myanmar have startled those who for decades viewed the country as a pariah state.
"Where reform is beginning, like in Burma, we must get behind it ... so let's pay tribute to the inspirational Aung San Suu Kyi. Let's pay tribute also to the leadership of President Thein Sein," Cameron said in a speech in Indonesia on Thursday.
"Let's show them when they have the courage to reform, we have the courage to respond," said Cameron, who is on a tour of Asia to boost British trade and investment.
Also known as Burma, former British colony Myanmar has for years been the target of Western sanctions over human rights abuses. After winning independence in 1948 - largely due to the efforts of Suu Kyi's late father - a 1962 coup ushered in 49 years of unbroken military rule.
That ended a year ago after the transfer to a quasi-civilian government stacked with former generals, a hegemony now at risk after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) took 43 of 45 seats in the recent by-elections.
The smooth polls, which were a stark contrast to a 2010 general election widely seen as rigged to favor an army-backed party, came amid a wave of astonishing reforms, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks with ethnic minority rebels and the easing of media censorship.
Those developments have triggered calls for the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar, and on Thursday Cameron indicated he would push for trade bans to be eased if he felt convinced by its transition to a fledgling democracy during his visit on Friday.
"I hope following my meetings tomorrow I will have the confidence to go back to my country, to go back to others in the European Union, and argue that the change in Burma is irreversible ... and here is one bright light that we should encourage," he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur later on Thursday.
"And we should respond in a way that makes that regime feel that it is moving in the right direction and that the world is on its side."
A decision on whether to ease some EU sanctions is expected on April 23, and Western firms hope they will finally be able to pile into the resource-rich and underdeveloped country, where they fear Asian rivals that have already secured a foothold could boost their presence.
Still, critics point to political prisoners still in detention and the prospect of a backlash by hardliners in Thein Sein's cabinet and his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) after it was thumped by the NLD.
The USDP is still parliament's dominant party, but the margin of defeat does not bode well for it ahead of a 2015 general election. Some members of parliament from smaller parties have already sought to defect to the NLD, suggesting Suu Kyi's presence in parliament could be a game-changer.
Others worry that Myanmar's rapid opening up to foreign trade could result in rushed investment deals that benefit only the economic elite closely allied with the military old guard.
Several business people are expected to accompany Cameron on his trip to Myanmar, the final leg of his Asian trade mission, and the British leader runs the risk of appearing to pre-judge the EU decision on sanctions in order to steal a march on European and U.S. rivals in the hunt for deals and influence.
His office insists business is off the agenda on Friday.
"It is not a trade mission. We are going to Burma for reasons of geography and the recent elections which led to a positive outcome," Cameron's office said, adding the roughly 10 business people accompanying him would "be like tourists".
(Mohammed Abbas reported from Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)