Clinton Moves to Upgrade Myanmar Ties After Prisoners Released

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her Myanmar counterpart after the Southeast Asian nation released hundreds of political prisoners, as the U.S. moved to upgrade relations strained for more than two decades.

Clinton spoke with Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to welcome the release of detainees and a cease-fire with the country’s largest armed ethnic group, Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said on Jan. 14. Both were conditions Clinton set for lifting sanctions during a visit to Myanmar last month.

Clinton “told Foreign Minister Lwin that the United States is prepared to meet action with action,” Nuland said in the statement, adding they discussed exchanging ambassadors. She also said Myanmar should “unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners” in addition to ending violence in ethnic areas and cutting military ties to North Korea.

The U.S., Europe and Australia have reconsidered sanctions against Myanmar as it reaches out to political dissidents and lifts repressive measures imposed by the country’s former military junta, opening up opportunities for western companies in the country of 62 million people. China, Hong Kong and Thailand account for more than 70 percent of total investment in the nation formerly called Burma, compared with less than 1 percent for the U.S., according to government data.

By-Election

Prisoners pardoned by Myanmar President Thein Sein last week included Min Ko Naing, a student leader from a 1988 uprising, and Khun Tun Oo, a Shan ethnic leader, the Associated Press reported. Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was also freed after more than seven years under house arrest, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, a news outlet run by exiles.

Suu Kyi told Clinton she supported U.S. engagement with the government, Nuland said. The Nobel laureate will run in a by- election on April 1 in a bid to take office for the first time after spending more than 15 years in house arrest.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called the prisoner release a “very important” step toward democratic changes. He pledged further steps after Australia reduced the number of people to whom it applies sanctions in relation to Myanmar on Jan. 9, according to a statement.

European Union representative Catherine Ashton said the prisoner release and initial cease-fire with the KNU “takes us a further step toward a new relationship” with Myanmar.

Prisoner Numbers Disputed

EU sanctions on Myanmar include asset freezes on state- owned companies and travel restrictions on officials. U.S. measures ban imports, restrict money transfers, curb aid funding and target jewelry with gemstones originating in Myanmar.

The number of jailed dissidents in Myanmar is disputed. Suu Kyi had called for the government to free 525 political prisoners on Nov. 16. The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said that 272 of the 651 prisoners released two days ago were political detainees and more than 1,000 remained locked up.

“The number of political prisoners released is limited,” the group said in a statement. “The demands of the opposition, the Burmese people and the international community were not met.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch called for international monitors to account for all political prisoners. The release came immediately after an agreement signed Jan. 12 with the Karen National Union in a bid to end more than 60 years of fighting in one of the world’s oldest conflicts.

Chevron, Standard Chartered

The KNU will discuss “how the terms and conditions of the proposal will be materialized on the ground, in detail, before both sides can agree on the final cease-fire agreement,” the group said in a Jan. 14 statement.

Chevron Corp. (CVX), based in San Ramon, California, is one of the few U.S. companies operating in Myanmar through its 2005 purchase of Unocal Corp., which invested in a gas field and pipeline prior to a 1997 ban on new investment. Standard Chartered Plc, the U.K. bank that earns more than two-thirds of its profit in Asia, said this month it’s seeking to return to Myanmar once the U.S. and Europe lift sanctions.

China National Petroleum Corp. is building oil and gas pipelines across Myanmar, a move that would allow it to access Middle Eastern crude without having to go through the Malacca Straits. China and India, which account for more than a third of the world population, share more than 3,600 kilometers (2,237 miles) of border with Myanmar, whose citizens earn an average of $2.20 per day.

Myanmar’s army is still fighting with ethnic groups, including the Kachin Independence Army. That conflict has displaced 50,000 ethnic Kachin since last June, Human Rights Watch said on Dec. 21. Kachin, bordering China and India, is the northernmost of Myanmar’s 14 provinces.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Tighe at ptighe@bloomberg.net

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