YANGON, Myanmar — British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautioned Friday while visiting Myanmar that foreign supporters of democracy must not slacken pressure on its military-backed government while reforms remain incomplete.
Hague is the first British foreign secretary to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, following counterparts including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton late last year, as nations try to nuture ties to the country and encourage its reforms.
Hague said after a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the country's democracy movement, that while reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein raise hopes that democracy and freedom are within reach, the measures taken so far are insufficient.
"I hope we are at a stage where we can say that a long-held dream now has a chance of being realized," he said, but added much more must be done.
Britain and other nations instituted political and economic sanctions against Myanmar – also called Burma – because of repression by the previous military regime, and these pressures should not yet be lifted while political prisoners are still being held, Hague said.
Thein Sein's government, which came to power last year after elections in 2010, has released about 200 political prisoners, legalized labor unions and eased some restrictions on freedom of expression. However, it still holds some 600 to 1,700 political activists, some on long prison sentences, and critics fear that liberalization and conducted dialogue with Suu Kyi's democracy movement are minimal gestures aimed at appeasement.
Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, however, have virtually endorsed the reform process by rejoining mainstream electoral politics after years of resistance to military rule.
The NLD won 1990 elections but the ruling junta detained Suu Kyi and other NLD figures for years and refused to allow parliament to be seated. Myanmar did not hold another election until November 2010, and the rules set by the military perpetuated its dominance in parliament and government. The NLD boycotted that election and was delisted as a result, but it was reinstated by the government Thursday, in time to run candidates in a by-election on April 1.
Hague, who met Thursday with Thein Sein, said he supported the president's reform efforts so far, but said much more needs to be done.
"It is not possible to say a country is free and democratic while people are still in prison on grounds of their political beliefs," he said, adding that such prisoners must be released before Britain supports a lifting of European Union restrictions against Myanmar.
Other areas of Britain's concern are improved humanitarian access to areas of ethnic conflict – the government is currently engaged in a brutal fight with the Kachin ethnic minority in the country's remote north – and openly free and fair by-elections.
"The risk is that we assume it's all done and forget that this is only part way through," Hague said, adding, "It's very important that we do not relax the pressure prematurely."
Suu Kyi, speaking alongside Hague after their meeting, said he reflected her movement's themes and aspirations exactly.
"In order to realize our dreams we have to work very hard indeed," she said, adding "We will work very hard and we are sure our friends will be with us at our side and together we will succeed in fulfilling the dreams of the people of Burma."