03/05/2012 10:08 EST | Updated 05/05/2012 05:12 EDT

John Baird, Foreign Affairs Minister: Myanmar Visit Would Make History


BANGKOK - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is planning a landmark visit to Myanmar, a country that has suffered for nearly half a century under the tyranny of a military junta.

Baird, who is expected to arrive in the capital Naypyidaw later this week, is the first Canadian foreign minister to visit the southeast Asian nation, formerly known as Burma.

The military ruled Myanmar with an iron fist, jailing thousands of critics, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades under house arrest.

The military junta stepped down last year and a new military-backed civilian government, dominated by a clique of retired army officers, embarked on a series of democratic reforms.

During his visit, Baird is expected to meet with Suu Kyi, 66, who was given more freedom and is now campaigning as the leader of the opposition in a round of byelections.

Suu Kyi, one of only five people to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship, addressed Canadians through an Internet link last week, to thank them for supporting the pro-democracy movement in her country.

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 but was barred by the military from forming a government and she was placed under house arrest.

"Minister Baird will go to Burma to reaffirm the importance of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," a source close to Baird told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

"Minister Baird's visit will underscore Canadian support for the embrace towards democratic development in Burma."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ottawa is "cautiously optimistic" about recent changes in the country.

"While we're not at a point of lifting sanctions, we want to make sure advances made are not reversible," the official said.

Canada opened a strategic engagement with Myanmar last summer that included the exchange of ambassadors, but continues to maintain a tough regime of sanctions that were toughened considerably in 2007.

The United States and European Union have praised Myanmar's progress but say they will be closely watching how a byelection in April, to be contested by Suu Kyi's party, is conducted before deciding whether to lift sanctions.

Democracy efforts in Myanmar received a major boost when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December, the first such high-profile visit by an American official in more than half a century.

Clinton, one of a series of foreign ministers to visit Myanmar, met with President Thein Sein and also made a memorable stop to Suu Kyi in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.

International observers here in Bangkok, Thailand are watching developments in neighbouring Myanmar with great interest and caution.

"Everyone who goes there sees that there are changes," one Western diplomat, whose foreign minister has travelled to Myanmar recently, told The Canadian Press.

Baird’s itinerary was not yet known, but a visit to Suu Kyi, who's become a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression, would be an obvious stop.

"Canada has helped us greatly with regard to our movement towards democracy," Suu Kyi said last week via an Internet link with students at Carleton University in Ottawa.

It was the first time that Suu Kyi had addressed Canada.

Baird met Myanmar’s foreign minister at a security forum in Indonesia last summer and stressed the need for his government to release thousands of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi’s own direct message to Canada was equally reserved.

"The way in which you can continue to help us is to keep up your awareness of what is happening in Burma. Don’t be too optimistic. Don’t be too pessimistic. Try to see things as they are and try to keep contact with the ordinary people of Burma. That is how you will learn whether or not we are making any progress under this new government."

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