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EU to lift travel restrictions on Myanmar leaders

By the CNN Wire Staff
January 24, 2012 -- Updated 0533 GMT (1333 HKT)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visit with President Thein Sein was in recognition of Myanmar's reforms.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visit with President Thein Sein was in recognition of Myanmar's reforms.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • EU foreign ministers praise Myanmar's "remarkable" political reforms
  • They say they have decided to suspend a visa ban on senior Myanmar officials
  • That "first step" could be followed by further easing of restrictions, the ministers say
  • The Pakistani president will be the latest in a string of foreign officials to visit the country

(CNN) -- European foreign ministers said Monday that they would loosen travel restrictions on senior members of the Myanmar government in recognition of the Southeast Asian country's recent efforts at political reform after decades of military rule.

Describing the Myanmar government's program of changes as "remarkable," the foreign ministers said they had decided to suspend a visa ban on the country's president, vice presidents, Cabinet members and speakers of Parliament. The European Union ministers met in Brussels to discuss Myanmar and other issues.

In recent weeks, the Myanmar regime has pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, approved the participation of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in April elections and pledged to pursue a peace deal with an ethnic rebel group.

Western governments have applauded the effort, with the United States announcing this month that it would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time since 1988. That came after a visit to the country last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first top U.S. diplomat in the nation in more than five decades.

Top European officials have followed in Clinton's footsteps, including the foreign ministers of Britain and France. And on Tuesday, Pakistan said that President Asif Ali Zardari was leaving for a two-day visit to Myanmar, where he would meet government leaders and Suu Kyi.

Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since 1962, but the generals are loosening their grip on the country after coming under criticism for their human rights record and as the economy suffered from economic sanctions.

Thein Sein, a former general, became president in March 2011 after elections that were criticized by democracy activists. But his rapid introduction of reforms has raised hopes of a lasting improvement in civil liberties within the country.

The EU ministers on Monday called the suspension of the visa ban on Sein and other officials "a first step" that could be followed by a "further easing" of restrictions in the coming months.

The lifting of more restrictive measures is dependent on the Myanmar government following through on its commitment to "continue and complete these reforms," the ministers said, "notably by the unconditional release of the remaining political prisoners within the next few months and by the free and fair conduct" of the parliamentary by-elections in April.

The ministers also drew attention to the commitment by Sein's government to address "the ethnic conflicts through an inclusive political process."

The government earlier this month reached a cease-fire with the Karen National Union. The largely Christian Karen have been fighting in the country's eastern jungles for greater rights since the nation's independence from Britain in 1948.

Karen leaders and activists said when the cease-fire was signed that it was too early to gauge whether peace would take hold.

Other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, such as the Shan, are also at odds with the country's government.

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