Burmese President Thein Sein appealed on Monday for the lifting of European Union sanctions against his country.
“What we lack is capital and modern technologies… all these are because of the economic sanctions for the last 20 years,” he told journalists following talks with Austrian President Heinz Fischer.
Speaking through an interpreter, Thein Sein also appealed directly to his Austrian counterpart “to cooperate on this,” during a joint press conference on the third leg of his first European visit as president.
Last April, the EU suspended all sanctions against Burma, apart from an arms embargo, in the wake of reforms introduced by Thein Sein’s government since coming to power in early 2011.
The US has also dismantled many of its key trade and investment sanctions, while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have stepped up assistance for the once pariah state.
But concerns remain over an ongoing conflict in the northern Kachin state and communal Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the western Arakan state.
Following a new round of peace talks last month with Kachin rebels, Thein Sein claimed the unrest was over.
“There’s no more hostilities, no more fighting all over the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict,” he insisted.
Praising the reforms implemented so far by Burma, Fischer expressed support for ending European sanctions.
“The Austrian government belongs to those countries, which after all the progress that has been reached, are in favour of lifting these sanctions,” he said.
But he urged Burma to stick to the democratic process that has now been started.
“It is our hope that the policy can be continued and that good and fair elections in 2015 will decide about the future way of Myanmar [Burma],” he said.
The Austrian president said he had discussed human rights issues and “the problems of building up a democracy” with his counterpart but did not elaborate.
However, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to pressure the Burmese head of state to end ongoing rights abuses in Kachin state and to follow up on a pledge Thein Sein made to President Obama, which would allow the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a presence in the country.
“Thein Sein no doubt has his talking points polished and is primed to be applauded for his reforms. But any realistic analysis of the current situation on the ground in Burma would conclude much more needs to be done to entrench reforms,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release published on Tuesday.
“The EU is not genuinely assisting Burma’s transition – and, more importantly, its people – if it settles for feel-good platitudes. Only constructive and firm pressure will ensure durable protections for civilians, and basic human rights for all.”
In an open letter ahead of Thein Sein’s visit, the Islamic Coordination Council in Austria had urged Fischer to “strongly condemn the ethnically motivated violence and repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority.”
The minority, numbering about 800,000, has been described by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet, with thousands seeking refuge in neighbouring countries as boat people.
Thein Sein dismissed the issue however on Monday, noting: “All our nationalities are living together side by side and they are living in harmony and peace. The rights of the minorities are also ensured in our state constitution.”
Following meetings with Chancellor Werner Faymann and parliament president Barbara Prammer, the Burmese president met Monday evening with representatives of the Austrian trade chamber, where he pushed for investment in his country.
An Austrian delegation already travelled to Burma last month to investigate investment possibilities.
After Norway, Finland and Austria, the Burmese leader will now head to Brussels for EU and bilateral talks, before ending his 10-day trip in Italy.