Myanmar`s Suu Kyi, UK`s Hague in tune on sanctions

Aung San Suu Kyi is a key player now that Myanmar`s civilian government is trying to end Western sanctions against the country.

Yangon: 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 last March and Hague, in the former Burma for a two-day visit, has 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 news conference what she wanted to see before sanctions should be lifted, 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.

The news conference was held on the lawn of Suu Kyi`s lakeside home, where she spent years under house arrest until her release days after a general election in November 2010.

Scores of foreign and domestic journalists were in attendance, photographers and television crews scrambling to get shots of Suu Kyi and Hague as they strolled around the grounds after their talks.

"I hope we`re at a stage where we can say a long-held dream now has a chance of being realised, but there`s so much work to be done. The long darkness in which the people of this country have lived may be coming to an end," Hague said.

He is the first foreign minister from the former colonial power to visit Myanmar since 1955. The army seized power in a 1962 coup.

Balancing act

The new civilian administration quickly embarked on political and economic reforms last year, to the surprise of many, given the number of former junta officials in its ranks.

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 its rich natural resources, which are already being exploited by Asian countries such as China, Thailand and India.

Two Yangon-based sources said on Friday Myanmar had awarded 10 onshore oil and gas blocks to eight firms in its biggest energy tender in years and was offering nine offshore blocks.

The winning firms were mostly from Asia, the sources, with direct knowledge of the deals, said.

Hague is in a tricky situation, wanting to encourage the reformers led by President Thein Sein but liable to face criticism at home if he seems to be cozying up to former junta members, including Thein Sein, still pulling the strings.

"I think they`re sincere, particularly the president," Hague told the news conference.

"The risk of how foreign governments engage with this is that we assume it`s all done and forget that this is only part way through," he added. "We must not relax our efforts prematurely. That`s the risk we must guard against."

Suu Kyi, the daughter of the leader of the campaign for independence from Britain, is important because of her influence at home and abroad.

Analysts and diplomats say that if she withdrew her long-standing support for sanctions, that would make it easier for Britain and others to scale down the embargoes.

"She`s crucial to driving this process," said a British diplomat. "She has a lot of sway."

Suu Kyi has recently shown willingness to compromise and plans to run for parliament in by-elections on April 01.

The new government may be happy to see her there: Suu Kyi and her party will give the assembly more legitimacy but it will still be controlled by an Army-dominated party plus military representatives who have a quarter of the seats.

The authorities formally registered her National League for Democracy (NLD) as an authorised party on Thursday.

Parliamentary Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, a powerful member of the former junta, made it clear to Hague he wanted Suu Kyi on board. He said laws had been amended to allow the NLD to contest the by-elections, which would be fair, according to prepared comments seen by a news agency.

Hague met him and other 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 were fair.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark visit to Myanmar late last year, seeking the same reforms and offering similar concessions.

On Thursday, the European Union said it planned to open a representative office in the main city, Yangon.

Britain expressed guarded optimism after the release of 230 political prisoners last October but as many as 600 may remain behind bars.

About 900 prisoners were freed as an Independence Day gesture this week but only 22 political detainees were among them, according to the latest estimate by NLD official Naing Naing.

Bureau Report