EU foreign chief lauds 'new chapter' in Myanmar ties
(YANGON) - EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hailed a "new chapter" in relations with Myanmar ahead of talks Saturday with Aung San Suu Kyi, in the latest high-level mission to the former pariah state.
Her visit for talks with the opposition leader and the reformist regime comes just days after the European Union suspended a wide range of trade, economic and individual sanctions against the long-isolated country.
"The European Union welcomes the remarkable changes in Burma/Myanmar and has decided to open a new chapter in our relations," Ashton said in a statement released late Friday.
"Of course reforms need to continue -- we need to see further progress, in particular the unconditional release of all political prisoners and efforts to end ethnic conflicts," she added.
"We are ready to assist with these efforts as well as with economic and social development. We will continue to support the democratic transition, including through electoral assistance and encourage trade and investment in the country."
After her talks with Suu Kyi, Ashton will open a new EU office in Yangon that diplomats say will mostly oversee the management of aid programmes but also have a political role.
Speaking in Brunei on Friday at the end of a meeting of European and Southeast Asian foreign ministers and senior diplomats, Ashton said it would be a "first step" towards establishing a full delegation.
Myanmar, which languished for decades under a repressive junta, has announced a series of reforms since a controversial 2010 election brought a civilian government to power -- albeit one with close links to the military.
The suspension of the EU sanctions is intended to bolster sweeping reforms that culminated in opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's election to parliament on April 1.
Suu Kyi's debut as a lawmaker has been delayed because the Nobel Peace Prize winner and other newly elected members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party are refusing to swear to "safeguard" an army-created constitution.
The veteran dissident said on Thursday she hoped the issue would be "smoothed over without too much difficulty before too long."
On Monday Ashton will hold talks with President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw.
The former army general has ushered through a broad range of changes since coming to power last year, including welcoming Suu Kyi's party into the political mainstream and freeing political prisoners.
A steady stream of foreign dignitaries, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have visited Myanmar since the quasi-civilian government took power last year.
Canada also recently suspended most sanctions and Japan waived $3.7 billion of Myanmar's debt.
But the United States on Wednesday ruled out an immediate end to its main sanctions on Myanmar, saying it wanted to preserve leverage to push the regime on an end to ethnic violence and other key issues.
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