(Recasts throughout with details)
* EU ministers hail “remarkable” programme of reform
* Further reform could bring further easing in April
By David Brunnstrom and Sebastian Moffett
BRUSSELS, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The European Union agreed on Monday to suspend visa bans on the president of Myanmar and other senior officials, following reforms that have included the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels hailed a “remarkable programme of political reform” in Myanmar and the government’s commitment to economic and social development.
They said that in response, the EU would suspend visa bans on Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, the country’s vice-presidents, cabinet members and parliamentary speakers.
In a statement, the ministers also pledged to promote reform by increasing assistance to reduce poverty and for professional training and by strengthening dialogue with the government. They also called for “progressive engagement” by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Further reforms, including the release of remaining political prisoners, the holding of free and fair by-elections in April and progress in resolving ethnic conflicts could lead to more sanctions being eased by the end of April, they said.
“These changes are opening up important new prospects for developing the relationship between the European Union and Burma/Myanmar,” the statement said of Myanmar’s reforms.
EU sanctions were imposed after bloody military crackdowns on a pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
They target nearly a thousand firms and institutions with asset freezes and visa bans have affected almost 500 people. The sanctions also include an arms embargo, a prohibition on technical assistance related to the military and investment bans in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors.
“QUITE EXTRAORDINARY CHANGES”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said “quite extraordinary changes” had taken place in Myanmar in the last weeks and months and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was important to recognise the progress made.
Ashton said she aimed to visit the country soon -- probably after the April ballot.
“Colleagues who have already been there have experienced a real sense of transition in that country,” she said. “We are working closely with Aung San Suu Kyi and I will visit Burma in coordination with her -- we’ve done this entirely with her.”
She said the aim of the visit would be to offer “full support in what we hope will be a very successful transition”.
The reforms in Myanmar have followed a March election that saw a new government take over from a military junta and have included loosening media restrictions and other repressive laws, peace talks with ethnic insurgents and the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners.
Ashton sent her top foreign policy adviser to Myanmar last year, and the EU, in a move to encourage reform, slightly eased sanctions last April by suspending travel bans and asset freezes on 24 civilian government officials.
Earlier this month, the European Union said it would open a representative office in Myanmar to manage aid programmes and promote political dialogue.
Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who was freed in 2010, has reversed her stance on boycotting Myanmar’s army-dominated political system following the reforms and has agreed to stand in the April polls.
The lifting of sanctions could lead to Western investment in oil, gas and other sectors to compete with Myanmar’s neighbours, especially India, Thailand and China.
The United States has decided to upgrade diplomatic ties with Myanmar as a result of its reforms and is considering lifting its sanctions if the by elections are fair and open.
As big as France and Britain combined, Myanmar lies between India, China and Southeast Asia with ports on the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, all of which make it an energy security asset for Beijing’s landlocked western provinces and a U.S. priority as Obama strengthens engagement with Asia.
Its resources include natural gas, timber and precious gems. Myanmar is building a multibillion-dollar port through which oil can reach a 790-km (490-mile) pipeline under construction with Chinese money and workers. (Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Philippa Fletcher)