EU signals prospect of easing Myanmar sanctions
(BRUSSELS) - The European Union on Monday held out the prospect of further easing sanctions on Myanmar this month as it congratulated the country after elections seen as a key test of reform efforts.
"I congratulate the government and people of Myanmar on the conduct of the by-elections on April 1," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is expected to visit the country later this month.
"We will continue to support the ongoing reforms in Myanmar and look forward to developing a new and cooperative relationship as these go forward," she said in a brief statement.
The 27-nation EU already lifted some sanctions on the regime this year to encourage reforms and foreign ministers will decide the next steps when they meet on April 23 in Luxembourg.
EU governments are debating over how fast they should remove the remaining sanctions to ensure there is no backsliding on reforms, or if they should lift them all.
"It's for the foreign affairs council to decide unanimously how they will address this issue, the extent to which the sanctions are eased and lifted," Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told a news conference.
"But we do expect the foreign ministers will recognise the changes and there will be a positive signal coming from the council," she said.
The spokeswoman stressed that the EU needed first to review the post-election process.
"There are still some votes being counted," she told AFP after pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won her first-ever seat in parliament, with her party securing 40 of 45 seats at stake, according to partial official results.
The sweep, however, is not enough to threaten the army-backed ruling party's huge majority in parliament.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke of "a historic day for the Burmese people."
The EU ministers, he added, will take into account "the evolution of the situation in the past year as a whole, notably the manner in which the Sunday elections were conducted."
An EU official invited to observe the election, Malgorzata Wasilewska, said she saw "very encouraging" signs.
In February, the EU lifted a travel ban on 87 Myanmar officials, including President Thein Sein, in an effort to encourage more political reforms but kept an assets freeze against them.
The bloc is reviewing other sanctions which include an arms embargo, a ban on gems and an assets freeze on nearly 500 people and 900 entities. They are all due to expire on April 30.
After almost half a century of military rule, the junta a year ago handed power to a new government led by Sein, one of a clutch of former generals who shed their uniforms to contest a 2010 poll.
The regime has surprised even its critics with a string of reforms such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
But remaining political detainees, fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels, and alleged human rights abuses remain major concerns for Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Suu Kyi, calling the election a victory for democracy.
"The opposition and the government should now be encouraged after this by-election to continue on the path of democratisation and reforms that they embarked on together," said Merkel's spokesman.
EU Parliament president Martin Schulz said he was "encouraged" by the elections "despite reported irregularities, which I hope will be addressed promptly by the authorities."
"I am convinced this vote will be deemed as historic," he said.
"If followed by further reforms, it could be a turning point in Myanmar's history, marking the departure from autocracy to the path of democracy."
He renewed his invitation for Suu Kyi, who had spent much of the past two decades under house arrest, to visit the European Parliament to receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which she was awarded in 1990.
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