YANGON European firms seeking to invest in Myanmar are unlikely to rush into business deals until more concrete reforms are put in place, despite a suspension of economic sanctions by the EU, its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Saturday.
The European Union and other powers have moved in recent weeks to ease sanctions on Myanmar, as the once pariah nation embarks on landmark reforms and seeks engagement with the world.
Speaking on her first visit to the former British colony, Ashton said punitive measures could be lifted fully before their next scheduled review in a year's time but only if all 27 EU members were convinced Myanmar's overhaul "cannot go backwards".
"There's a lot of delegations that have been here with business leaders very interested in what can be done here but they'll make their judgments like us," Ashton told Reuters in an interview during the EU's most high-profile visit to Myanmar since the military ceded power a year ago.
"The suspension is important for them, but they'll make their business decisions based on what they see on the ground. Companies need the rule of law to exist. They need to know that if they invest in this economy, it will be well looked after and secured. They want stability and a workforce that is trained."
European companies have lobbied aggressively as they seek to tap one of Asia's last frontier markets. Firms from Asian powers like Japan, China, India, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand are already preparing to enter Myanmar's mining, energy, tourism, telecoms and manufacturing sectors.
Ashton said key targets to be met for a full lifting of sanctions would include freeing all remaining political prisoners, an inclusive political climate and permanent solutions to conflicts with ethnic minority rebels.
"They need to keep up the momentum and look at releasing all political prisoners. It's about trying to makes sure that after ceasefires, people can go home, that there's a role for them in the economy ... they can feel their own identity but also part of the country," she said.
"We'll assess (sanctions) over the coming months into next year and if there is a consensus, then that's when we can look to lift them... when the 27 countries are really confident this cannot possibly go backwards, that there are many indicators that this is not just for real, but long-term and irreversible."
Ashton will spend two days in the capital Naypyitaw and will meet key drivers of Myanmar's unforeseen facelift, including its top peace negotiator Aung Min, the influential lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein.
Ashton said she would urge Thein Sein to introduce more changes, especially concerning the economy and the peace process.
"I'll be saying how impressed I am with what he's been willing to lead already," she said. "He knows very well what needs to be done, the difference is, I'll be telling him how much we want to support him in doing that."
She would not say what it would take for sanctions to be re-imposed and was confident the reforms were irreversible, as Thein Sein has repeatedly promised.
"What you see from his statements and the work going on is there seems to be a genuine commitment to make the changes," she said. "The point of suspending them is we haven't seen the end of this, but the beginning."
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)