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Hague rewards Burma thaw with aid boost

British Foreign Secretary William Hague touched down in Naypyidaw today to become the high-ranking British politician to visit Burma in more than half a century, and brings with him a pledge to boost aid to the beleaguered country in response to what Britain sees as political progress over the past year.

Hague, a member of the Conservative party, will meet with both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his two days in the country, as well as parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann. In a statement prior to his departure, he said the trip “has been made possible by the encouraging recent steps taken by the Burmese government”, including the “release of some political prisoners [and] the dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.

Tomorrow he is expected to make an announcement on boosting funding for Britain’s Livelihoods Programme, which includes microfinance initiatives to Burma’s rural poor, as well as humanitarian aid to the estimated 50,000 Kachin refugees displaced by fighting in northern Burma.

Britain is already the top bilateral donor to Burma, channelling some $US290 million to the country over the next three years, and Hague hopes to use the increased aid to encourage the government to enact further reforms. The foreign secretary will “gauge what more Britain can do to support this [reform] process”, according to the statement.

But his trip follows only days after widespread disappointment at a prisoner amnesty in which only 32 out of more than 1,500 jailed activists were released. Their ongoing incarceration is seen by the west as a key obstacle to warmer ties with the Burmese government, and some will argue that Britain’s pledge to boost aid has come prematurely.

“Before Clinton went my fear was that it’s too much too soon – the government likely saw it as reward rather than challenge,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher. “With Hague’s visit however, there is more pressure because they did not respond to Clinton’s demands – 32 prisoners released after the US visit is completely insufficient and shows the government hasn’t risen to the challenge.”

He added that the reluctance to release more prisoners after Clinton’s visit showed in fact that they are “beginning to move in the wrong direction”.

Hague’s visit is the latest in a flurry of high-profile delegations to travel to Burma over the past few months, and follows a trip to the country by financier George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations channel money to Burma’s pro-democracy movement.

In a signal of further change in the country, Hague will be flanked by a posse of foreign reporters after the government agreed to grant a number of journalist visas for the trip. The trip, his first of the year, and the first time a British foreign secretary has visited Burma since Anthony Eden in 1955, has attracted widespread interest in British press.

Clinton’s visit in November was presaged by much of the same rhetoric as Hague’s, and both countries are quietly looking to gain a foothold in Burma, which is rapidly becoming a prized regional asset. The US however has so far stood strong on the issue of lifting sanctions, and expressed disappointment this week at the prisoner amnesty. A further release has been mooted for February, in which it is rumoured a number of high-profile dissidents will be included.

Burma is due to hold by-elections on 1 April in which Suu Kyi could make her first entrance to parliament. Hague will meet the Nobel Laureate tomorrow morning, her spokesperson Nyan Win told DVB, after urging Thein Sein this afternoon to ensure the vote is free and fair.

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