David Cameron may be first Western leader to visit Burma


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The Independent Online

David Cameron is expected to become the first major Western leader to visit Burma since decades of military rule were relaxed last year.

Reports yesterday suggested that Mr Cameron, currently on a tour of Japan and South-east Asia, could make a surprise visit later this week to the former Burmese capital Rangoon as part of international efforts to encourage greater democracy in the country.

A government official in Burma said Mr Cameron would meet with President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw and hold talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon – a plan also cited by other sources in Burma. Downing Street refused to say whether any trip to Burma had been included in Mr Cameron's schedule.

In January William Hague paved the way for the trip when he became the first Foreign Secretary to visit Burma since 1955 following on from the political and economic reforms instigated by President Thein Sein last year. The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has also visited the country.

But a visit by the British Prime Minister would be an important sign that the international community is keen to normalise relations with Myanmar.

In the last few months, Burma has released almost all of its acknowledged political prisoners, struck peace deals with ethnic rebels, given access to aid convoys, and held elections regarded as having been free and fair.

While some nations have argued for all sanctions to be removed, Britain and Nordic nations favour a "step-by-step" approach to ensure reforms continue, EU diplomats have said.

Mr Cameron, who is travelling with a group of leading British businessmen, will also want to use the opportunity to get ahead of other Western countries and push for British trade and investment in its former colony.

Asian countries such as China, Thailand and India are already investing in Burma's rich natural resources but because of sanctions that opportunity has been shut off to the West.

But the highlight of the trip is likely to be the meeting with Ms Suu Kyi, who won a seat in parliament for the first time in 1 April by-elections.