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The European Union will respond “in concrete terms” to recent reforms by Burma’s regime, France’s foreign minister said Sunday after a historic meeting with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Alain Juppe is the highest level French diplomat to ever visit the country, long criticised by the West for its human rights record and ruled outright by the military for almost five decades until last year.
The nominally civilian government which took power last year has surprised observers with a series of reformist moves, including dialogue with Suu Kyi’s opposition, which was recently allowed to re-register as a political party.
“Like the rest of the international community, we have observed with a lot of attention the positive signs given by President Thein Sein,” Juppe said after meeting Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she was detained for most of the past two decades.
“We will respond — France and the EU — positively and in concrete terms to these significant gestures.”
It was unclear whether he was alluding to a relaxation of EU sanctions on the regime, whose recent reforms have surprised even sceptics.
On Friday the regime released about 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents, a day after signing a ceasefire with a major armed Karen ethnic minority group.
“We hope that these new developments will reinforce the process of democratisation and national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi, who was freed by the regime in November 2010, said after her talks with Juppe.
“One of our main concerns is to achieve an end to the ethnic conflicts,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner added, reiterating her support for Thein Sein.
“I can say that I trust the president because he kept his promises.”
Juppe was due to award Suu Kyi with one of France’s highest honours, Commander in the National Order of the Legion d’Honneur, at a ceremony later Sunday, in recognition of her long struggle for democracy.
On Monday Juppe will hold talks in the capital Naypyidaw with Thein Sein, whose government is eager to see the end of sanctions imposed on the regime by the United States and the European Union since the late 1990s.
He told reporters that France would press the regime to ensure parliamentary by-elections due to be held on 1 April are “free and fair”, after a general election in November 2010 was denounced by the West as a sham.
Suu Kyi indicated that she did not rule out taking a government position if she wins a parliamentary seat but said it “depends on the circumstances”.
Friday’s prisoner release was the most significant yet by the new government, whose ranks are filled with former generals including Thein Sein.
Such an amnesty had been long demanded by the West and was hailed by the international community. France welcomed such an “important step” and the United States said it wanted to restore top-level diplomatic ties.
It is not clear how many more political prisoners are still behind bars but some activists estimate about 1,000 political prisoners remain locked up.
Juppe is the first French foreign minister in history to visit the Southeast Asian country, which gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the first French minister to visit since a popular uprising was brutally crushed in 1988.
His trip follows the landmark visits in early December of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in early January.