U.S. hails Myanmar election as step for democratic change

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 2, 2012 5:01pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Monday hailed a strong showing by Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party in Myanmar's by-elections, calling the vote an important step in the country's democratic transformation.

"We hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency and reform," Jay Carney, press secretary for U.S. President Barack Obama, said in a statement.

The United States and European Union had hinted they could lift some sanctions - imposed in the past two decades in response to human rights abuses in the country formerly known as Burma - if the election were free and fair.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy secured 40 of the 45 available legislative seats in Sunday's poll, the Union Election Commission said. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has come to symbolize the struggle against decades of military dictatorship, will take a seat in the lower house.

The State Department said it still was evaluating the election results and repeated calls for any irregularities to be investigated.

But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States would stand by its pledge of "action for action" in response to concrete political and economic reforms in Myanmar.

"I don't have anything to announce here in terms of our next steps, in terms of action for action, but we'll be looking at that," Nuland told a news briefing.

The United States in January announced it was upgrading diplomatic ties with Myanmar, including the first exchange of ambassadors in two decades, in response to reforms that had been undertaken.

But the overlapping web of U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar could prove difficult to undo quickly, even though lawmakers say there is bipartisan support in Congress to move ahead on that.

Suzanne DiMaggio, a Myanmar specialist at the Asia Society, said the complex nature of U.S. sanctions meant any moves to lift them would be slow and gradual, allowing more time to test the endurance of Myanmar's reforms.

"We have every reason to be cautious," she said. "The last time the NLD swept into office and won an election by a landslide they then were not allowed to take up their seats and we saw a crackdown."

DiMaggio said she did not expect the NLD from taking its seats as happened after 1990 elections that were annulled by the Burmese junta.

"Because it's going be such a complicated effort, we need to get started now," DiMaggio said. "One fear is that because it's so complicated it will be a very slow process and we won't be able to be responsive."

The U.S. business community, eager not to lose ground to European and Asian rivals as the Myanmar market begins to open, welcomed the election results as an important milestone and said Washington should continue and expand its diplomatic outreach to the country.

"We believe that such engagement has been, and will be, crucial in encouraging and supporting further reform," the National Foreign Trade Council, the US-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a joint statement.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Andrew Quinn and Paul Eckert; Editing by Bill Trott)

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