LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union may lift some sanctions on Myanmar after Sunday’s elections but will keep up pressure for the release of remaining political prisoners, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday.
Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 of 45 seats contested, sending a clear message to a ruling party created by the former military junta that kept her locked up for 15 years.
Hague warned it was too early to judge how free and fair the elections were, saying he was awaiting reports from observers and the views of the various parties, “but certainly they appear to have been a very important moment of change”.
Hague said EU foreign ministers had indicated that many of the sanctions imposed on Myanmar, still known in Britain as Burma, would be lifted if political prisoners were released and Sunday’s elections were free.
“We are now working on our options about that. We want to see the final election results and the verdict on the elections,” Hague said, answering questions from an audience after giving a speech in London.
The EU’s executive Commission hinted on Monday that the bloc’s foreign ministers would lift some sanctions on Myanmar when they meet on April 23.
Suu Kyi, who led opposition to military rule for 20 years and on Sunday won a lower house seat, noted there had been voting irregularities in the poll that accounted for only a small fraction of the 440-seat lower house and 224-seat senate.
“There are still political prisoners being held so the process of releasing them is not complete. We will keep up the pressure on that but I anticipate flexibility and our readiness to remove some of the restrictive measures given the improvement in the situation,” Hague said.
“That does not mean an instant and complete opening up of trade with Burma,” added Hague, who visited Myanmar in January, the first foreign minister from the former colonial power to do so since 1955.
The EU agreed in January to suspend visa bans on Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, and other senior officials following the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Diplomats say EU countries are divided over how fast to remove remaining sanctions, with Germany and Italy among those pushing for scrapping the measures immediately while Britain and France are part of a group favouring a more gradual easing.
Hague, speaking to an audience that included representatives of the tourism industry, talked up Myanmar’s potential as a tourist destination.
“I think if this change continues one of the things they can look forward to in Burma is a real booming tourist industry ... but tapping fully into that potential does require this path of reform that Burma has embarked on to be truly and fully implemented. We will keep up the pressure in the mean time,” he said.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alistair Lyon