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Catherine Ashton

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission

Speech on Myanmar

European Parliament

Strasbourg, 17 April 2012

After decades of internal repression, we see dramatic and hopeful changes taking place in Burma. Here is a democratic transition unfolding in a peaceful, collaborative fashion, –acclaimed by the domestic electorate and the international community. Myanmar is such a rare case.

Everything we see points to a Government which is serious about change and wants to end its country's isolation. President U Thein Sein shows courage and leadership. It would be a surprise if he did not face resistance from some who have profited from the old system. Most importantly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the President have established a relationship of trust.

We can measure the recent achievements against the three main items we have looked at in our policy review:

First national reconciliation: specifically a willingness to recognise the special position of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and to see the National League for Democracy take its place in the political life of the nation. Here our expectations have been more than met by growing relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, and by the change in the electoral law that enabled the NLD to register as a Party and take part in the recent by-elections.

This made it all the more important that the by-elections on 1 April should be well conducted. It was remarkable and welcome that the Myanmar Government invited the EU to send experts to witness the poll. I was delighted that we were able to associate the European Parliament with this historic event and that Mr Ivo Belet could join the EU team at the elections.

We did not observe the campaign but it seems to have presented a mixed picture. In the poll itself however there was no sign of fraud, and there was no reason to doubt the result. The NLD won a 42 out of the 43 seats they contested. Compared to the 2010 elections which were marred by massive fraud, this represents huge progress.

These bare facts hardly do justice to the importance of the occasion and the meaning it had for a people who have waited fifty years for democracy and have endured so many disappointments with so much patience.

Second, the release of political prisoners. A large majority have already been released, among them prominent figures from the so-called “88-Generation” and the National League for Democracy. It is difficult to be sure exactly how many remain – a grey zone of uncertainty, but the number is significant and we will continue to work for their release. Again, there is real progress – and a commitment to resolve the remaining cases.

Third, we wanted to see a real effort for peace in the ethnic areas. All peace talks – with one exception – have brought ceasefire agreements. These are important steps and we do not doubt the President's commitment. The longest civil war in the world, the conflict with the Karen, may soon be over, even if the Kachin conflict remains a cause of great concern.

There is also progress on less visible fronts: legislation for trade unions, easing of media censorship, including unrestricted access to the internet, progress on the economic front including liberalizing the currency.

There is so much to do that the process of reform will inevitably take time. There are problems with human rights, problems with macroeconomic management, problems with health, education, energy. It is hard to know where to start. But I believe that President U Thein Sein has made a wise choice by beginning with the political problems. Securing ethnic peace is perhaps the most important and most immediate challenge. But, here too, an effort that brings together all political forces can make a real difference..

We followed these historic changes with respect and appreciation. In January, we suspended the visa bans on the Government of Myanmar. At the end of this month, we will do more. Decisions will be taken by in the Foreign Affairs Council in a few days time.

We need to go further and build a partnership with Myanmar. I will travel to Burma at the end of the month. I have invited the Myanmar Foreign Minister to Brussels. The European parliament made a successful visit in February.

We will now enter into an active collaboration with Myanmar, to assist the reform process and to contribute to economic, political and social development. We have secured more funding. In addition to ongoing programmes in health, education and agriculture, I have launched a programme to help the national Human Rights Commission. We will also strengthen capacity in the public administration at central and regional level. And I plan to offer cooperation with the Election Commission to build on the success of the by-elections - for which they deserve much credit.

In particular, I want to work to secure peace and stability for ethnic regions and to open a long-term perspective for their development. I hope that this Parliament will support me in working with the Myanmar authorities to turn cease-fires into durable peace. In all of these areas we will want to consult opposition as well as working with the government. Indeed we very much hope that they will be working together

Removing sanctions and increasing aid is not enough. We all recognise the vital contribution the private sector has to make. We will encourage European companies to look for opportunities in Burma and also to bring the highest standards of corporate social responsibility with them. In a longer perspective, the EU hopes to re-instate the Generalized System of Preferences for Myanmar, following the assessment of the International Labour Organisation.

I believe I speak for all of us when I say that the EU looks forward to collaborating constructively with the Government, the opposition and indeed the entire people of Myanmar to reinforce their unity and prosperity.

Finally, Mr. President, let me express the hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be able to come to this Parliament to receive the Sakharov prize she was awarded 21 years ago.

Today it is the first day of the Burmese New Year: I wish all the people of Burma/ Myanmar a very Happy New Year! Thanks to the determination of President U Thein Sein, and the fortitude of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, there is a chance that for once a wish might come true!

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