UN chief Ban arrives in Myanmar to promote reforms

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived Sunday in Myanmar to see how the world body can help promote the country's tentative steps toward democratic reform.

Ban will meet President Thein Sein and visit a U.N. drug control project during the three-day visit. He will also pay his respects at the tomb of U Thant, a Myanmar diplomat who was U.N. Secretary-General in 1961-71.

His visit is the latest in a series by foreign dignitaries since Thein Sein's reform campaign gathered steam by winning the endorsement of the leader of Myanmar's democracy movement, formerly jailed Aung San Suu Kyi. Thein Sein came to power a year ago after a general election that left the military in firm control but signaled a desire for political reconciliation.

Also currently visiting Myanmar are German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief. Since January, Myanmar has also hosted the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Canada, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron. Their visits have heralded the easing of sanctions their governments had maintained against Myanmar because of the previous military regime's repressive policies.

Western nations had held out the prospect of easing sanctions if Thein Sein, a former general who retains close ties to the military, continues the political liberalization he began after taking office a year ago. The European Union last week announced it was suspending for a year, rather than dropping outright, most of its sanctions as a way of sustaining pressure for change. An arms embargo remains in place because of counterinsurgency campaigns Myanmar's army continues to carry out against rebel ethnic minorities.

Ban last week said he is making his visit because there is "an unprecedented opportunity" to help democratic change in Myanmar at this "critical moment." He said he would explore practical ways the United Nations can help the country.

The U.N. chief said Myanmar has seen encouraging economic and political reforms followed by recent landmark elections and important steps toward reconciliation, but he said the country's transition is also fragile and many challenges lie ahead.

Thein Sein's reforms are seen as being mainly driven by a desire for sanctions to be lifted, with those imposing them gradually easing restrictions in return for more reforms, which so far have included the freeing of many political prisoners and reconciliation with Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

Westerwelle said Sunday after meeting Suu Kyi that Germany wants to support a "sustainable way for democracy, freedom and the rule of law."

"We know changes take time, they need to be well embedded and they need to be guaranteed so that people can feel confident in their own future," the EU's Ashton said Saturday. "And we hope that we can work alongside you to help that be a lasting achievement."