WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is matching Myanmar's tentative steps toward democracy after decades of harsh military rule with a calibrated re-engagement, aware of the potential for setbacks, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Friday.
Patrick Murphy, the State Department's deputy special representative for Myanmar, said Washington is deepening its engagement with the reformist government, looking at easing more sanctions and likely to appoint a U.S. ambassador "in coming weeks."
"We embrace these changes that are taking place with eyes wide open," he said in remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
Washington was pleased so far with dramatic developments over the past year that have seen the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, a more liberal media environment and the seating in parliament of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy lawmakers, said Murphy.
But he said the nascent reform process in the former British colony also known as Burma remained a work in progress.
"What it's not, however, is a change that is guaranteed. It's fragile and it's incomplete," said Murphy.
Experts note that poverty is widespread in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country, hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, the army that ruled the country for 50 years is still at war with some ethnic minority groups, notably in the Kachin state in the north.
"Anything less than stable, prosperous, freer spells trouble for the region and it spells trouble for the country's population of roughly 60 million," said Murphy.
Under an "action for action" policy, Washington has gradually peeled back some of the economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar since 1990, allowing technical assistance by international financial institutions and authorizing financial transactions for selected non-profit projects.
The State Department is working with stakeholders, including the U.S. Congress, on revising U.S. sanctions, said Murphy, who noted the complexity of penalties covered by five federal laws and four presidential executive orders issued from 1990-2008.
"To really describe all of our sanctions and how they can be adjusted, I'd need a team of 20 lawyers and the rest of the day," he said.
(Reporting By Paul Eckert; Editing by Doina Chiacu)