Bloomberg News

Cameron Urges Myanmar to Make Political Changes Irreversible

April 13, 2012

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a “new era” after her National League for Democracy rejoined the political system and claimed victory in 43 of 44 seats it contested in April 1 by-elections. Photographer: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a “new era” after her National League for Democracy rejoined the political system and claimed victory in 43 of 44 seats it contested in April 1 by-elections. Photographer: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged Myanmar’s leaders to make progress toward democracy “irreversible” on the first trip by a Western leader to the nation since the opposition rejoined the political system.

“We need to see progress on political reform,” Cameron said before he met Myanmar’s military-backed president, Thein Sein, for talks in the capital, Naypyidaw, today. “We need to see prisoners freed and changes to show the reform is irreversible.”

Cameron is looking for signs that Myanmar’s rulers are genuine about change before he lobbies the rest of the European Union to drop or soften sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation, which has been controlled by the army for decades. The premier was cautiously optimistic after his talks and regards Thein Sein as being sincere in what has been done so far, according to an official from the premier’s office, who declined to be identified in line with government policy.

After his discussions with Thein Sein, Cameron arrived in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has called for a “new era” after her National League for Democracy claimed victory in 43 seats it contested in April 1 by-elections.

“Aung San Suu Kyi has shown incredible courage over these past decades,” Cameron said, recalling the opposition leader’s time under house arrest. “We should be under no illusion about what a long way there is to go and how much more the government has to do to show this reform is real.” He spoke of the need to “be very cautious and very skeptical.”

‘Significant and Historical’

“We are very encouraged by your acknowledgement of our efforts we have made on human rights and democracy,” Thein Sein told Cameron before the talks in the presidential palace in Naypyidaw. “The visit is significant and historical.”

The NLD boycotted a 2010 election won by Thein Sein’s army- backed party, which along with the military still controls more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

“I am confident that he genuinely wishes for democratic reform,” Suu Kyi said of Thein Sein in a March 30 press briefing in Yangon. “But as I have always said, I have never been certain as to exactly how much support there is behind him, particularly from the military.”

Britain currently discourages trade with Myanmar and EU sanctions prohibit all but humanitarian assistance. Cameron wants a program that will support better and stronger governance, encourage sound public finances, strengthen the rule of law and consolidate parliamentary democracy, the official said. He won’t be able to roll out that assistance without the EU softening its sanctions at a foreign ministers’ meeting on April 23.

‘Not Being Backwards’

“Just as Britain played a leading role in Europe in placing tough sanctions on that regime, so we should be the ones, if we are satisfied change is taking place, we should be the ones not being backwards in our response,” Cameron told reporters yesterday.

Myanmar lawmakers are pushing to revamp the financial system and attract investment to revive an economy hindered by military rule and the EU and U.S. sanctions. The central bank implemented a managed float of its currency this month to improve the business climate in the country of 64 million people that borders China and India.

Trade Mission

Cameron’s visit closes a four-day trade and diplomatic mission to the region in which he’s sought to rebuild political ties with former colonies such as Malaysia and boost U.K. exports and inward investment.

All but about 10 of the 35 executives from British companies who traveled with Cameron this week abandoned the prime minister’s jet for the Myanmar leg of the visit because it is strictly political and not commercial, his office said. The visiting business leaders will attend cultural programs and will avoid any commercial meetings.

In 1990, the military rejected an election victory by the NLD in which the opposition party won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” was detained during both that vote and the 2010 elections.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called the April 1 elections, held to fill parliamentary vacancies, an “important step.” Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said April 4 that “this reform process has a long way to go. The future is neither clear nor certain.”

Investor Interest

Rich in natural gas, gold and gems, Myanmar represents one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets, attracting investors such as Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings, who predicted a global commodities rally in 1999. Cambodia-based Leopard Capital plans to raise $100 million for a fund to invest in Myanmar once sanctions are lifted, according to Douglas Clayton, its founder and chief executive officer.

Myanmar’s per-capita gross domestic product amounts to $2.25 per day, about half that of Vietnam and 14 percent of neighboring Thailand’s, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Only one in 30 people have a mobile phone and even fewer have Internet access, Nomura Holdings Inc. said in a March 14 report.

For Suu Kyi to have a shot at the presidency in 2015, she’ll need the army’s help. The constitution passed in 2008 bans her from becoming head of state because her children have British nationality. Amending that article requires support from 75 percent of lawmakers, a quarter of whom are active-duty soldiers, followed by a referendum, according to the constitution.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gonzalo Vina in London at gvina@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net


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