- 'This is an exciting time' for Myanmar, says the British foreign secretary
- He holds talks with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi
- He says the country has a chance to make progress toward democracy
- His visit is the first by a British foreign secretary in more than 50 years
The British foreign secretary held talks with the Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday, expressing hope that she and her party can help move the Southeast Asian country further along the road to democracy.
"This is an exciting time, because now there is the chance that what she and her colleagues have hoped and longed for for so long will actually take place in this country -- that progress toward democracy will continue to be made," William Hague, the first British foreign secretary to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, said at a news conference after meeting with Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy at her lakeside house in Yangon.
Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since 1962, and the generals have started to loosen their grip on the country after coming under criticism for their human rights record in recent years. Thein Sein, a former military official and prime minister, became president last year as a result of an election criticized by democracy activists as a sham.
The authorities released Suu Kyi in 2010 after years of house arrest, and then freed dozens of political prisoners in October 2011.
The NLD announced in November that it had decided to re-enter politics in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and that Suu Kyi would run in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for April.
Hague on Friday reiterated his call for all political prisoners to be released and for the April elections to be "freely and fairly held."
The NLD received government approval on Thursday for its registration for the elections, at which 48 seats are up for grabs.
Suu Kyi said Friday that she hoped the party would perform "very well in this election."
Hague started his two-day trip Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, meeting with Thein Sein and other senior government officials.
He suggested that Britain and other Western countries were willing to ease sanctions on Myanmar if the country's government makes bigger strides in improving civil liberties.
"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," he said Thursday.
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.
Hague's trip comes about a month after a visit to Myanmar by the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who also met with Suu Kyi.
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.