First EU official off to Myanmar ahead of 'crucial' polls
(BRUSSELS) - Myanmar's upcoming elections will be crucial for the credibility of reforms that remain "fragile," the EU's foreign aid chief told AFP ahead of a trip to offer 150 million euros to the country.
While calling for free and fair polls that "bring more unity," Andris Piebalgs, the European Union development commissioner, said the EU would not be sending observers to the April 1 by-elections.
"There is a lot of opening and a very promising dynamic in Myanmar, even if it is still fragile," Piebalgs said in an interview before traveling to Myanmar on Saturday in the first trip by a top EU official since reforms began there.
"We'll pass the message that we have noticed it and appreciate what is being done, and what still has to be done," he said, adding that more political prisoners could be released.
"The elections will be crucial for the credibility of the change," the commissioner added.
After nearly half a century of outright military rule in the country formerly known as Burma, the regime has surprised observers with a series of reforms culminating recently with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi standing for a seat in parliament.
A nominally-civilian government came to power in Myanmar last year following controversial November 2010 elections and has since surprised observers with a number of positive moves including a major release of political prisoners.
The EU agreed in January to begin easing sanctions on Myanmar to encourage reform, lifting travel bans against the nation's leaders and pledging further action pending continued change.
The 27-nation bloc will progressively re-examine its sanctions, which include an arms embargo, a ban on gems and an assets freeze on nearly 500 people and 900 entities.
"We haven't fully re-evaluated yet our relations with Myanmar," Piebalgs told AFP. "We have removed part of the restrictive measures, but the country is still in transition, the political situation is still delicate."
But the EU will provide 150 million euros (almost $200 million) in additional aid to Myanmar over the next two years, he said, adding that it "will make a huge difference."
The EU has provided 174 millions euros to the Southeast Asian nation since 1996 to help combat malaria and tuberculosis, improve conditions in rural areas and send more than six million children to school.
"The new situation allows us to beef up the support," Piebalgs said, noting that the aid is channeled through non-government organisations and the United Nations.
"The problem is how to use it, and the best way is to discuss with the government. We could look at the building of capacity in the administration to run the social services, for example," he said.
"Part of the money we provide could be used for microcredits, but the biggest engagements are in health and education."
The EU is not attaching conditions to the 150 million euros "because we would like to support the people of Myanmar," he said, adding: "I assume the process will not go backwards."
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