November 18, 2011 / 2:30 PM / 6 years ago

Japan steps closer to full-fledged aid to Myanmar

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Japan told Myanmar on Friday that it wants to soon start working-level talks that could lead to the resumption of full-fledged development aid, following reforms in the long-isolated country.

However, Japan also urged Myanmar to release more political prisoners to continue a series of changes since the army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades.

Japan froze new official development assistance (ODA) to the country in 2003, while continuing humanitarian aid. In June, it lifted its ban on new ODA, but has fallen short of resuming full-fledged aid for infrastructure projects.

At a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein in Indonesia, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda welcomed Myanmar’s recent reforms toward democracy, including Friday’s decision by the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to contest upcoming by-elections.

“At the same time, Prime Minister Noda expressed hope for the release of more political prisoners (in Myanmar),” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tsuyoshi Saito told reporters.

Japan has distanced itself from the policy of Western powers, which have imposed tough sanctions on Myanmar, and from that of China, which has pumped billions of dollars into the country. It prefers engagement and dialogue to push for democracy in the country.

President Thein Sein told Noda that Myanmar hoped for Japan’s ODA assistance for infrastructure projects, but Japan’s premier stopped short of promising specific aid at the summit, he added.

Recent overtures by Myanmar’s new civilian government have included calls for peace with ethnic minority groups and the release of about 230 political prisoners and reaching out to Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate freed last year from 15 years of detention.

Reporting by Yoko Nishikawa

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