French minister makes historic visit to Burma
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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé arrived in Burma on Saturday, the highest-ranking French diplomat to visit the junta-ruled nation, as it launched a limited reform process, whereby hundreds of political prisoners have been freed.
AFP - The French foreign minister arrived in Myanmar on Saturday for a historic trip, the highest level diplomat from his country to ever visit, in a bid to encourage the new leaders' reform process.
Alain Juppe "wants to encourage President Thein Sein and Myanmar's authorities to continue and amplify this movement" with steps towards human rights, democracy and national reconciliation, his ministry said this week.
He will also insist that parliamentary by-elections on April 1 are held "in a manner consistent with democratic practices" after a general election in November 2010 that was denounced by the West as a sham.
A diplomatic source told AFP that Juppe arrived in commercial hub Yangon late Saturday, the day after Myanmar released just over 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents.
Such an amnesty had been long demanded by the West and was hailed by the international community. France welcomed such an "important step" and the United States said it wanted to restore top-level diplomatic ties.
Juppe is due Sunday to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he will make a Commander in the National Order of the Legion d'Honneur, and on Monday he will hold talks with Thein Sein.
He is the first French foreign minister in history to visit the Southeast Asian country, which gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the first French minister to visit since a popular uprising was brutally crushed in 1988.
His trip follows the landmark visits in early December of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in early January.
After nearly five decades of outright military rule, the junta was replaced in March last year by a nominally-civilian government, still dominated by former generals and with a quarter of seats reserved for the current military.
The government has surprised observers with its pace of reform, including the political inclusion of Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in November 2010 and now running for parliament in April.
The government has also held talks with ethnic rebel groups, and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed Karen group, which has been involved in one of the world's longest-running civil wars.
The agreement was "welcomed" by Juppe on Friday as "another important step on the path of national reconciliation and respect for minorities".
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