Britain's Hague urges reforms in historic Myanmar visit

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Story highlights

  • Opposition party says it has received approval to run in elections in April
  • Hague meets with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday
  • He calls for the release of all political prisoners and "credible" elections
  • Hague's visit is the first by a British foreign secretary in more than 50 years
British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed recent reforms by the Myanmar government but called for further change after meeting with President Thein Sein on Thursday.
"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," Hague said in a prepared statement.
"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."
Hague will also talk with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the course of his two-day trip.
He arrived as Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, received approval from the authorities for its registration for the parliamentary by-elections in April. Suu Kyi plans to run as a candidate in those elections.
"We plan to compete in most of the constituencies," Nyan Win, a spokesman for the NLD, said Friday. "There are 48 seats available."
Hague started his trip Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, meeting with his counterpart, Wunna Maung Lwin. He also held talks with Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann.
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The visit, the first in more than 50 years by a British foreign secretary, follows that of Hague's U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton, a little more than a month ago.
Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since 1962, and the generals have come under criticism for their human rights record in recent years. Thein Sein, a former military official and prime minister, became president last year after an election criticized by democracy activists as a sham.
In a statement posted on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website on Wednesday, Hague highlighted such recent reforms as the "release of some political prisoners, the dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, improvements in media freedoms, and changes to legislation that have enabled the National League of Democracy to participate in this year's by-elections."
A decree by Thein Sein marking the country's independence day this week reduced sentences and released dozens of prisoners. However, opposition activists said the actions were not enough, and that none of the released prisoners were high-profile.
Last March, Britain announced it would boost aid to Myanmar via the United Nations, NGOs and community groups to an average of 46 million British pounds ($72 million) per year over the next four years.
Under current EU policy, according to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Myanmar is under an arms embargo; an asset freeze and travel ban; investment ban; and a ban on development assistance except in specific sectors.
Then-Burma was a part of British India from 1886 until gaining its independence in 1948. Since 1989, the ruling military has said the nation should be called Myanmar, but some Western nations still refer to it as Burma.