David Cameron to be first Western leader to visit Suu Kyi

Prime Minister's forthcoming Asian tour set to include surprise stop-off in Rangoon

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David Cameron is expected this week to become the first premier of a leading Western nation to visit Burma since military rule there was relaxed last year.

Reports yesterday suggested that Mr Cameron, who is touring 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 President Thein Sein in the capital, Naypyidaw, and hold talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon the same day. Downing Street would not confirm whether the visit had been agreed.

In January William Hague paved the way for the trip when he became the first British foreign secretary to visit Burma since 1955, after 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 Mr Cameron would be an important sign that the international community is keen to normalise relations with Myanmar. European Union ministers will meet later this month to review sanctions against the country after last week's elections, which saw Ms Suu Kyi elected to parliament.

In the last few months, Burma has released most of its acknowledged political prisoners, struck peace deals with ethnic rebels, allowed aid convoys in, and finally staged elections widely 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. The US announced last week it would ease selected sanctions, including restrictions on investment to Burma, but said measures would stay in place against those opposed to reform.

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, an opportunity shut off to the West because of sanctions. But the highlight of the trip is likely to be the meeting with Ms Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 22 years locked up by the former junta.

She won a seat in parliament for the first time in by-elections on 1 April that were largely praised as a step towards democracy. Her National League for Democracy party secured 43 of the 44 seats it contested, becoming the main opposition force in a national parliament dominated by the military and its political allies.

She will take her seat in the lower house for the first time on 23 April. Mr Hague hailed the 66-year-old's election success as a "historic result" for the people of Burma, and urged Thein Sein to stay on the track to reform.

Observers say the regime now needs Ms Suu Kyi in parliament to bolster the legitimacy of its political system and help to further ease Western sanctions.