Foreign Secretary William Hague warned today against moving too fast to lift sanctions against Burma despite a “very important process of change” in the country.
He was speaking at talks in Luxembourg as the beacon of Burmese change - Aung San Suu Kyi - boycotted the opening of the new parliament in a dispute highlighting daily difficulties on the path to democratic reform.
Mr Hague said that was why suspending, rather than removing, current EU sanctions against Burma was the right thing to do.
“A very important process of change is taking place in Burma,” he said on arrival for talks with fellow EU foreign ministers.
“The UK has advocated the suspension of sanctions rather than complete lifting of them.
“That is the right thing to do - great progress is being made (towards opening up Burma), but we remain concerned about ethnic conflict, political prisoners, and the swearing-in of opposition members of parliament.”
Earlier Ms Suu Kyi and other elected members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party boycotted the opening of parliament in protest at a requirement to sign an oath to “safeguard” the Burmese constitution - a constitution the NLD wants to change.
Mr Hague, who visited Burma in January ahead of David Cameron's meeting there with Ms Suu Kyi after her landmark election victory, made clear it was too early to be over-confident about the degree of likely change.
The Foreign Secretary insisted: “They (EU sanctions) can be re-imposed if Burma turns in the wrong direction.”
EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, chairing today's talks, agreed that the suspension of sanctions was the cautious way forward.
She said: “We must recognise the tremendous changes that have taken place by suspending sanctions - apart from the arms embargo - and we look forward to working to support the development of Burma. We are closely watching events.”
Ministers fear the Burmese parliamentary protest by the NLD could set back change, but argue that postponing today's suspension of EU sanctions would be counter-productive.
Instead the “carrot” of revived trade and investment opportunities after years of Burmese isolation is seen as the right response to the democratic steps taken so far.
Ms Suu Kyi insisted there was no “boycott” of parliament - just a limited protest at being expected to support a constitution enshrining a military-based political system which the NLD has pledged to change.
EU foreign ministers will also discuss continuing government-backed violence in Syria.
Mr Hague said: “It is very important to discuss Syria to continue to intensify the pressure on the Assad regime, which is not in full compliance with the ceasefire requirements of the Annan plan.
“It is hard to be optimistic after everything that has happened in the last 13 months in Syria. The Syrian regime continues to fail to implement key aspects of the ceasefire and clearly there are breaches going on.”
Mr Hague said he hoped a new Security Council resolution dramatically increasing the number of peace monitors in Syria from 30 to 300 would have the right impact.
He said: “The resolution is progress. I hope it helps to stop the scale of slaughter we have seen in the recent few months, but it does not mean the problem is resolved.
“This is a regime that is continuing in some cases to kill, to abuse, that only implemented the ceasefire at the last possible moment and still hasn't implemented key requirements of the ceasefire, so it's far too early for optimism.”