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EU foreign policy chief visits Myanmar

By the CNN Wire Staff
April 28, 2012 -- Updated 0846 GMT (1646 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Catherine Ashton is to open a new EU diplomatic office in Yangon
  • She is meeting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior government officials
  • The EU has suspended many of the sanctions it imposed on the country
  • Myanmar's authoritarian military rulers have brought in a series of reforms

(CNN) -- EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi Saturday, as she became the latest in a series of high-ranking international figures to visit the country.

Ashton is also expected to meet President Thein Sein during her three-day visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The trip, which follows a series of political reforms in Myanmar, marks the latest step in the country's international rehabilitation after decades of isolation.

"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 ahead of her visit.

"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.

"We are ready to assist with these efforts as well as with economic and social development."

Ashton will open a new embassy-level office for the European Union in Yangon to "help support Myanmar/Burma on its path to full democracy."

She will meet with Myanmar's ministers for foreign affairs, industry and borders and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, as well as civil society representatives, her statement said.

Her itinerary also includes a visit to the headquarters of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

On Monday, the European Union suspended most of the sanctions it had imposed on the country, citing the "transparent and credible" election that brought Suu Kyi to office and other reforms.

The decision came at the foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg. Only a ban on arms exports continues, according to the EU.

EU sanctions against Myanmar, first imposed in 1996, have included limits on diplomatic contacts and non-humanitarian aid and development programs, a freeze on the offshore accounts of Myanmar officials and visa restrictions.

Myanmar's authoritarian military rulers have begun loosening their grip on power after decades during which dissent was stifled and freedoms severely limited.

In the past 12 months, the government has pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, secured a ceasefire with Karen rebels and agreed to negotiate with other ethnic rebel groups.

Suu Kyi and 42 other candidates from her party won seats in elections on April 1, a result welcomed by the United States and Britain as a sign of progress toward democracy after decades of repressive military rule.

After the elections, Suu Kyi and other newly elected opposition members were invited to attend the session of parliament this week in the capital, Naypidaw.

But they demurred, requesting instead that the wording of the lawmakers' oath be changed first.

The tension over the oath marks the first public sign of conflict between the opposition and the reformist government of Sein since the elections.

Suu Kyi said her party members' refusal to take their seats in parliament to protest the wording of the 2008 constitution was based on nothing more than a "technical" obstacle, and that she did not want it to become a political issue.

Other high profile visitors to Myanmar in recent months include British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

CNN's Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.

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