Thein Sein to meet Hollande in Paris on Wednesday

PARIS (AFP) - Myanmar President Thein Sein is to meet his French counterpart Francois Hollande in Paris on Wednesday, as rights campaigners reacted sceptically to his promise to free all political prisoners.

The former general, fresh from a three-day trip to London, is in Europe to build on support for introducing much-lauded reforms in the former pariah state.

During his first official visit to Britain, Mr Thein Sein on Monday promised that all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar would be freed by the end of the year.

He also voiced optimism about ending decades of conflict that have raged between the government and more than a dozen ethnic groups since independence from Britain in 1948.

Activists in Myanmar, however, have called for actions, not words, from Mr Thein Sein, accusing the former junta premier of using headline-grabbing amnesties to secure foreign aid and investment.

Mr Thein Sein was due to have lunch with French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault before meeting Mr Hollande at the Elysee Palace later on Wednesday.

"The president will express our desire that the process of transition continues, speeds up and that the liberation of political prisoners comes about as quickly as possible," said an Elysee spokesman.

The resumption of visits by Red Cross officials to the country's prisons was a promising development, the spokesman added.

But he said France remained concerned about ongoing communal violence.

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year left about 200 people dead, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship by Myanmar. Further clashes have erupted in recent months.

A number of leading rights groups - including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Reporters Without Borders - urged Mr Hollande in a joint letter to press Mr Thein Sein on the human rights situation in his country.

"France must not let itself be guided solely by economic interests as major French businesses such as Vinci Bouygues, Total and Orange are in the process of negotiating contracts in Myanmar," they wrote.

Trade between France and Myanmar remains at a modest level, with one diplomatic source putting the figure at 18 million euros (S$29.66 million) a year.

French Minister of Foreign Trade Nicole Bricq is scheduled to visit Myanmar later this month. Development Minister Pascal Canfin travelled to the country in March.

Mr Hollande had said he was willing to host Mr Thein Sein after rolling out the red carpet for Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during her landmark visit to Paris in June 2012.

Since coming to power in 2011, the Myanmar president has sought to end his country's isolation with a series of political changes that have won him international praise.

He has freed hundreds of political dissidents, eased media restrictions and welcomed Suu Kyi and her party into parliament.

In response, the European Union has scrapped most of its sanctions, except for an arms embargo, and readmitted Myanmar to a preferential trade scheme.

The United States has also lifted most embargoes and foreign companies are now eager to enter the resource-rich nation, with its perceived frontier market of some 60 million potential consumers.

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