- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday announced that the U.S. and Myanmar will start the process of exchanging ambassadors, a distinct sign of a thaw in once frosty relations between the two countries.

Mrs. Clinton said the lengthy process will depend on the pace of reform in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which has pursued several political reforms since the election last year of a civilian government backed by the country’s erstwhile military rulers.

The Obama administration stopped short of lifting the sanctions against Myanmar. “There is more work to be done,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The decision to re-establish diplomatic ties followed Myanmar’s amnesty for many prisoners of conscience and its announcement Thursday of a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels who have been fighting for autonomy since the country became independent in 1948.

Both were key U.S. demands for an improvement in the bilateral relationship.

Mrs. Clinton urged Myanmar to “unconditionally release all political prisoners, halt hostilities in ethnic areas and seek a true political settlement.”

She also called on the government to cut all illicit military ties with North Korea.

Mrs. Clinton visited Myanmar in December, and met President Thein Sein, a former general, and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. Mrs. Suu Kyi was released in November after spending 15 of the past 20 years in prison or under house arrest.

Earlier Friday, President Obama called Thein Sein’s decision to release political prisoners “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.”

There were about 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar, according to sources in Myanmar. The government says the number is much lower. About 220 political prisoners were released in October.

Since Mrs. Clinton’s December visit, Myanmar has announced plans to hold elections on April 1 in which it has said Mrs. Suu Kyi and her party can participate.

The National League for Democracy won the election by a landslide in 1990, but the military prevented it from ruling. The party was barred from participating in November 2010 elections, which the U.S. declared a sham.

The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Myanmar since 1990.

Mr. Obama said he directed Mrs. Clinton and his administration to take additional confidence-building measures with the government and people of Myanmar.

“We will continue to support universal rights, and engage the government as it takes the additional steps necessary to advance freedom for prisoners of conscience, democratic governance, and national reconciliation,” he said.

“Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government in Nay Pyi Taw,” he added, referring to the Myanmarese capital.

Since Thein Sein took office in March, he has taken several steps to improve relations with the international community. In September, he suspended construction of a Chinese-operated hydropower dam in Kachin state, a significant development that angered China, a key ally of the Myanmarese military.

Mrs. Clinton will speak on the phone with Thein Sein and Mrs. Suu Kyi over the weekend.