U.S., Europe should ease Myanmar sanctions: Thailand

NUSA DUA, Indonesia Thu Nov 17, 2011 2:26pm GMT

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - The foreign minister of Thailand encouraged the United States and Europe to relax sanctions on Myanmar to reflect the isolated country's progress in reforms, offering support to its neighbor under pressure to improve human rights conditions.

The United States and Europe have applauded a recent freeing of political prisoners in Myanmar but say they want more reforms before considering lifting sanctions imposed in response to decades of human rights abuses in the former British colony, also known as Burma.

Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaiku told Reuters in an interview that he was "quite confident" that the resource-rich country would stick to reform efforts and intended to bring the country "back to normal."

"They should ease sanctions they have done in the past," he said when asked if Thailand believed the United States and Europe should relax their sanctions.

In his first remarks about the authoritarian regime after the Southeast Asian nation released political prisoners, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Myanmar had opened a dialogue on reform but needed to do more to improve human rights.

On the Indonesian resort island of Bali, the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Thursday endorsed Myanmar for the chairmanship of its regional grouping in 2014, gambling that the country can stick to reforms begun this year that could lead it out of half a century of isolation.

"They (Myanmar) want to enhance economic growth and they would like to see political stability in their country," Surapong said.

"I don't think they will reverse the decision (on reforms)," Surapong said, adding that he expected Myanmar to release more prisoners soon. "You have to keep confidence and trust in what they are trying to do."

Surapong said he expected Washington to honor ASEAN's decision to let Myanmar host its gatherings in 2014, two years ahead of schedule.

ASEAN leaders are set to meet with dialogue partners, including China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3) on Friday and then convene an East Asia summit with more partners namely Australia, India, New Zealand, and new members -- the United States and Russia, on Saturday.

The role of the United States in Asia is in the spotlight at the East Asia Summit as Obama, the first American president to attend the EAS, pushes to reassert his country as a Pacific power.

The growing rivalry between Washington, the Pacific's traditional military power, and Beijing, its economic engine, could complicate a delicate balancing act played by Asia's smaller nations.

Asked about recent signs of U.S. assertiveness on security and trade issues in the Asian region, Surapong said ASEAN would need to have a balancing act between "new friends like the United States and old friend China."

"We don't want them to compete with each other."

(Editing by Neil Fullick)