KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron will tell Myanmar’s president he is ready to call for an easing of European sanctions on the country when he makes an historic visit on Friday, the first by a British premier in six decades.
Cameron will meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 2010 emerged from 15 years of house arrest to go on to score an April 1 by-election victory, and President Thein Sein, whose reforms in military-dominated Myanmar have startled those who for decades viewed the country as a pariah state.
“Let’s show them when they have the courage to reform, we have the courage to respond,” said Cameron, who is on a tour of Asia to boost British trade and investment.
Cameron’s visit is the first by a Western leader in decades and comes as countries jockey for business and influence in the long-isolated, resource-rich state.
Also known as Burma, the former British colony has for years been the target of Western sanctions over human rights abuses. After winning independence in 1948 - largely due to the efforts of Suu Kyi’s late father - a 1962 coup ushered in 49 years of unbroken military rule.
That ended a year ago after the transfer to a quasi-civilian government stacked with former generals, a hegemony now at risk after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took 43 of 45 seats in the recent by-elections.
The smooth polls, which were a stark contrast to a 2010 general election widely seen as rigged to favor an army-backed party, came amid a wave of reforms, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks with ethnic minority rebels and the easing of media censorship.
Those developments have triggered calls for the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar, and on Thursday Cameron indicated he would push for trade bans to be eased if convinced by its transition to a fledgling democracy during his visit on Friday.
“I hope following my meetings tomorrow I will have the confidence to go back to my country, to go back to others in the European Union, and argue that the change in Burma is irreversible,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
“And we should respond in a way that makes that regime feel that it is moving in the right direction and that the world is on its side.”
A decision on whether to ease some EU sanctions is expected by April 23, when Western firms hope they can pile into Myanmar, where they fear Asian rivals that have already secured a foothold could boost their presence.
Cameron will offer a package of assistance, including support on democratic and legal reform.
Britain is the only major European power that has recently argued for maintaining sanctions on Myanmar, but it appears to have changed its tune.
“The prime minister will make clear to the president and Aung San Suu Kyi that the UK stands ready to provide support to Burma if it continues on this path of reform,” a source at Cameron’s office told Reuters.
EU sanctions include assets freezes, bans on arms sales and investments or trade related to timber or mining of metals and gemstones and deny Myanmar access to trade privileges. It was unlikely all the bans would be lifted at once, the source said.
”If you look at the EU sanctions approach and our approach to sanctions it’s carrot and stick.
“We will want that decision on the 23rd of April to be the right balance that recognizes the great progress that’s been made ... versus not taking our foot too much off the pedal and going backwards.”
While the West seems set on lifting some sanctions, critics point to political prisoners still in detention and the prospect of a backlash by hardliners in Thein Sein’s cabinet and his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) after it was thumped by the NLD in the by-election.
Others worry that Myanmar’s rapid opening up to foreign trade could result in rushed investments that benefit only the economic elite closely allied with the military old guard.
Several business people are expected to accompany Cameron on his trip to Myanmar but the British leader runs the risk of appearing too keen and stealing a march on European and U.S. rivals in the hunt for deals and influence.
His office insists business is off the agenda on Friday and businessmen accompanying him would “be like tourists”.
Mohammed Abbas reported from Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Martin Petty and Myra MacDonald