UK ready for Burma progress, says Hague


Britain stands ready to "respond positively" to improvements in human rights and political freedoms in Burma, Foreign Secretary William Hague told the south-east Asian country's leaders during a historic visit today.

He is the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Burma for more than 50 years, and his trip - a month after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - marks a further step in the country's return to the international fold following years of hardline military rule.

Mr Hague met President Thein Sein, who unexpectedly embarked on a series of liberalising measures after coming to office last year, including opening talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing more than 200 political prisoners, and legalising trade unions.

Mr Hague used their talks in capital Naypyidaw to urge the president to continue reforms, free political prisoners and hold "credible" elections.

"I emphasised the importance the British Government attaches to the reforms that the Burmese Government has undertaken in the last six months, and my sincere hope that there will be further progress in the weeks and months ahead," said Mr Hague.

"I made clear that the British Government expects to see the release of all political prisoners, credible by-elections in April, and a genuine alleviation of the suffering in ethnic areas, including through humanitarian access and peace talks.

"I spoke of the long-standing friendship that exists between our two peoples, one that can and should form the foundation of improved relations across the board between our two countries.

"I made clear that the British Government stands ready to respond positively to evidence of further progress towards that lasting improvement in human rights and political freedom that the people of Burma seek."

Aung Sang Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has now re-registered as a political party and will contest a series of 48 parliamentary by-elections due to take place on April 1, in what is being seen as an important test of the reform process.

But critics of the Burmese regime caution that significant numbers of political prisoners - variously estimated to number between 590 and 1,700 - remain behind bars, despite government promises to free them, while reports of abuses against ethnic minorities continue.

Britain is pushing for a process of national reconciliation to end the fighting between the government and the country's ethnic minorities, such as the Kachins, and to bring them into the mainstream political process.

Following his visit to Naypyidaw, where he also met Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, Mr Hague travelled to the former capital, Rangoon, for meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoners and ethnic leaders.

In a message on Mr Hague's Facebook page, Ms Suu Kyi said: "Britain and British politicians have provided us with invaluable support over the last 23 years.

"Foreign Secretary William Hague's visit will enable him to assess the present situation in Burma. It will also give me an opportunity to get to know better a man I have long regarded as a good friend of our country."