British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, set out similar conditions for the lifting of sanctions imposed on the country under the previous military regime at an historic meeting on Friday.
Western countries are cautiously renewing ties with the civilian government in place since March and Hague, on a two-day visit to Myanmar, set out four conditions for the easing of sanctions.
Those are the release of hundreds of political detainees, an end to human rights abuses by the army, an effort to resolve ethnic conflicts, and the holding of free and fair elections.
Asked at a press conference what she wanted to see before sanctions should be lifted, Aung San Suu Kyi referred to what Hague, standing beside her, had said the day before.
“All political prisoners should be released and there should be all efforts made to put an end to all ethnic conflict within our country. Certainly, we would want to see free and fair by-elections,” she said.
Hague is the first foreign minister from the former colonial power to visit Myanmar since 1955, before the army took over in what was known as Burma in 1962.
The army ran the reclusive country until elections in 2010 that ushered in an army-backed civilian government in March. The new administration has since embarked tentatively on political and economic reforms.
Other developed countries are cautiously seeking to engage with Myanmar’s new rulers, keen to improve living conditions in the country, but also to let their companies invest in the rich natural resources there, which are already being exploited by Asian countries such as China, Thailand and India.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years in detention until just after the 2010 election, plans to run for parliament in by-elections on April 1. The authorities formally registered her National League for Democracy as an authorized party on Thursday.
Hague met members of the former junta now running the nominally civilian administration in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Thursday, urging them to release all remaining political prisoners and ensure the by-elections are fair.
“My message is, if you want those sanctions, those restrictive measures, lifted, then it’s important to complete this process of reform. We believe now that you are sincere about it, so now, get ahead quickly and complete it,” he told reporters in Naypyitaw.
Britain is the biggest aid donor to Myanmar.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a landmark visit to Myanmar late last year, seeking the same reforms and offering similar concessions.
On Thursday, the EU said it plans to open a representative office in the main city, Yangon.
Hague is in a tricky situation, likely to be criticized by vocal opponents of the junta at home if he is seen as cosying up to an old guard that may still be pulling the strings, but keen to encourage a reform movement that surprised many in the West.
Britain expressed guarded optimism after the release of 230 political prisoners in October, but just 12 political detainees were thought to have been freed this week among 900 prisoners set free as an Independence Day gesture. As many as 600 may remain behind bars.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a key player because of her influence at home and abroad. Analysts and diplomats say a decision to withdraw her long-standing support for sanctions would make it easier for Britain and others to scale down the embargoes.