William Hague: Burma to free more 'political prisoners'

Burmese Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwi. William Hague is the first British foreign secretary to visit Burma since 1955

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague says Burma has agreed to free more political prisoners.

On the first visit by a UK foreign secretary to Burma for 55 years, he said that releasing all detainees would be the price for lifting sanctions.

His counterpart Wunna Maung Lwi promised that changes in Burma were "irreversible".

But he later said Burma did not acknowledge there were political prisoners.

Mr Hague said: "My message is, if you want those sanctions - those restrictive measures as we call them - lifted, then it is very important to show that you are completing this process of reform.

"We believe now that you are sincere about it, so now get ahead quickly and complete it by releasing the remaining political prisoners and by showing that the upcoming elections are free and fair."

Mr Hague's visit is the latest by top world diplomats after Burma's first elections in 20 years, which brought in a nominally civilian government.

Since then the new administration has freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and begun a process of dialogue.

Last month she formally registered her National League for Democracy as a political party, after boycotting the 2010 polls because of electoral laws that prevented her taking part.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Ms Suu Kyu said she was optimistic Burma would hold democratic elections "in my lifetime" - but she was not sure of whether she herself would run.

In December US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma, in what was seen as an endorsement of the reform process - although Western observers say much more is needed.

Stress on development

Mr Hague is the first British foreign secretary to visit Burma since 1955.

In the capital Nay Pyi Taw he held talks with President Thein Sein, a former top general who stepped down to contest the polls as a civilian, and a host of other top officials.

He will also meet Aung San Suu Kyi, representatives of some of Burma's ethnic minority groups and dissidents in Rangoon, Burma's commercial capital.

Ms Suu Kyi's party plans to contest by-elections in April that could see her elected to parliament. Her party secured a landslide victory in polls in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.

Mr Hague made the comments after meeting his counterpart in Nay Pyi Taw.

Analysis

William Hague is the latest in a series of high-profile diplomats to seek to engage the new government in Burma and to try to bolster nascent signs of reform.

Western officials have been encouraged by recent changes, including legalising trade unions, lifting some media restrictions and a limited release of political prisoners.

But there are still grave concerns about Burma's human rights record and the fact that several hundred political detainees remain behind bars.

The different messages by the two senior diplomats after their talks in Nay Pyi Taw may be due to the different audiences they were addressing.

"The foreign minister has reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners," he told reporters.

"He said the changes are irreversible and I welcome that way of thinking," Mr Hague added.

"I stressed that the world will judge the government by its actions."

But in an interview with the BBC Burmese service later, Wunna Maung Lwi said Burma did not acknowledge there were political prisoners.

They are all criminals, he said, and it was up to the president to decide when prisoners were released - adding that prisoners had already been freed on three recent occasions.

The government, he said, was focused on the development of the whole country.

Between 600 and 1,000 journalists, dissidents and monks who led anti-government protests in 2007 are thought to remain behind bars in Burma.

In her interview with the BBC, Ms Suu Kyi said all political prisoners must be freed - regardless of whether the government admitted their existence.

She said the country had not yet reached the stage where she could say Western investment ought to be encouraged.

There is now a general acceptance that change is under way in Burma, says the BBC's Rachel Harvey in Rangoon, but it is not clear how far or how fast any transition will be.

And the different account of the talks by the two senior diplomats may merely be explained by the different audiences they were addressing, says our correspondent.

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