US appoints Burma special envoy Derek Mitchell

Celebrating Thingyan, Myanmar's new year water festival, Yangon 14 April 2011
Image caption Burmese are celebrating their New Year as the US is looking for a new start

US President Barack Obama has appointed Derek Mitchell as a special envoy to Burma.

Currently at the Department of Defense, Mr Mitchell is said by Washington media to be due to reinvigorate US policy on Burma's military-backed government.

He is expected to be the country's main interlocutor with Burma's rulers.

Earlier this week, the European Union relaxed some sanctions against members of Burma's government, signalling a more flexible approach by the West.

Mr Mitchell has held several posts in the defence and state departments and at think tanks pertaining to South East Asia.

If the appointment is confirmed by the Senate, his formal title will be Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, with the rank of Ambassador, Department of State.

Early on in the Obama administration, US diplomats sought a new approach towards Burma, based on greater dialogue.

The Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, said at that time that the US wanted a "sustained process of interaction" with Burma after only sporadic contacts in recent years.

But he added that key reforms were needed, including the freeing of all political prisoners and an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities.

Looking ahead

Since then, the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest at the expiry of her detention order, and the junta have held elections which they say marks a move towards civilian rule.

Former military officers have dropped their ranks and now lead most aspects of government as civilians.

Image caption The Burmese opposition says sanctions primarily affect Burma's rulers, not the general public

The US and most other outside observers said the elections were a sham.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has welcomed the elections and suggested that sanctions should be dropped in order to help Burma progress.

Western countries have yet to agree on that issue, but are looking for ways to move forward.

The EU suspended travel and financial restrictions on four ministers - including the foreign minister - and 18 vice-ministers in the new government.

It is the first easing of curbs since they were imposed in 1996 in response to abuses by the military junta.

It follows the swearing-in last month of the new nominally civilian government.

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