Myanmar's Thein Sein offered fresh EU help on historic trip

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Thein Sein, on the first-ever visit to Brussels by a Myanmar president, received on Tuesday new pledges of EU economic assistance coupled with calls to protect his country's ethnic minorities.

The Myanmar leader, setting out on the fourth leg of a historic 10-day tour of Europe, met successively with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, EU president Herman Van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

"You have in the European Union a committed and long-term partner for the historic journey that Myanmar and its people have started," Van Rompuy told Thein Sein, who was warmly welcomed all round for his ground-breaking reforms in the once pariah state.

Since the former premier took over the presidency in March 2011, hundreds of political prisoners have been released and elections held, including the election to parliament of long-detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"The EU and Myanmar are turning a page in their relationship," said Barroso. "More dialogue, more and better aid, more trade and investment."

While EU development aid has more than doubled to around 200 million euros (S$325 million) for 2012-2013, Brussels said it was now ready to explore the feasibility of a bilateral investment agreement.

Ashton, flanked by commissioner for industry Antonio Tajani, will visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, later this year to look at further economic support.

The EU has also offered to reinstate a preferential tariffs deal with Naypyidaw. In April, it rewarded Myanmar's historic changes by suspending for one year a wide range of trade, economic and individual sanctions and said it would "monitor closely the situation on the ground, keep its measures under constant review."

On Tuesday, Brussels made clear it was monitoring minority rights, notably the ongoing conflict in the northern state of Kachin, and communal Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the western state of Rakhine - where the bloc has provided some 5.5 million euros to help the internally displaced from both communities.

"Important challenges remain. In particular, on the need for a comprehensive peace settlement in ethnic areas," Van Rompuy said.

Thein Sein, who has already visited Norway, Finland and Austria, will end his 10-day trip in Italy.

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