EU to open office in Myanmar after reforms

Published on Jan 06 2012 // News Update

Thu Jan 5, 2012 1:01pm EST

* Office to open as soon as possible

* EU already reviewing sanctions policy

* More progress sought on human rights

By David Brunnstrom

BRUSSELS, Jan 5 (Reuters) – The European Union will open a representative office in Myanmar to manage aid programmes and promote political dialogue, an EU spokesman said on Thursday.

The move follows the handover of power to a civilian government in Myanmar last year — albeit one stuffed with former military men and backed by the army — and a series of political and economic reforms since then.

Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said an agreement to open the office in Yangon had been reached with the Myanmar government. It would not be a full delegation but would report to the EU ambassador in Bangkok, capital of neighbouring Thailand.

“It will be responsible for management of aid programmes but will also have a political role,” he said. “We will open it as soon as it is administratively possible.”

Last November, the European Union said it was looking at whether reforms in Myanmar could justify the bloc further easing sanctions imposed after bloody military crackdowns on a pro-democracy movement.

It said positive moves by the civilian government since the elections had exceeded expectations but urged the reclusive Asian country to release more dissidents — hundreds of whom remain in detention.

Mann said the EU was still reviewing its policy and looking at what help it might be able to provide to Myanmar, including the possibility of assisting the national Human Rights Commission.

“We are now working on setting up an early contact with our human rights experts here in order to take that forward,” he said.

Sustained political reform in Myanmar could pave the way for an end to stiff economic sanctions and lead to Western investment in oil, gas and other sectors to compete with Myanmar’s neighbours, especially India, Thailand and China.

News of the EU plans came as Britain’s William Hague was making the first visit by a foreign minister from the former colonial power to Myanmar since 1955, before the military takeover in what was known as Burma in 1962.

Hague welcomed a pledge by Myanmar to continue reforms and release more political prisoners, saying such progress, if sustained, would lead to deeper economic and political ties with the West.

His trip follows one late last year by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also promised concrete support if Myanmar moved faster on political reforms and the release 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 in April by ending travel bans and asset freezes on 24 civilian government officials. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Rosalind Russell)