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Hague warning over change in Burma

Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned against moving too fast to lift sanctions against Burma despite a "very important process of change" in the country.

He was speaking at talks in Luxembourg as the beacon of Burmese change - Aung San Suu Kyi - boycotted the opening of the new parliament in Rangoon in a dispute highlighting daily difficulties on the path to democratic reform.

Mr Hague said that was why suspending, rather than removing, current EU sanctions against Burma was the right thing to do. "A very important process of change is taking place in Burma," he said on arrival for talks with fellow EU foreign ministers.

He added: "The UK has advocated the suspension of sanctions rather than complete lifting of them. That is the right thing to do - great progress is being made (towards opening up Burma), but we remain concerned about ethnic conflict, political prisoners, and the swearing-in of opposition members of parliament."

Earlier Ms Suu Kyi and other elected members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party boycotted the opening of parliament in protest at a requirement to sign an oath to "safeguard" the Burmese constitution - a constitution the NLD wants to change.

Mr Hague, who visited Burma in January ahead of David Cameron's meeting there with Ms Suu Kyi after her landmark election victory, made clear it was too early to be over-confident about the degree of likely change. The Foreign Secretary insisted: "They (EU sanctions) can be re-imposed if Burma turns in the wrong direction."

EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, chairing Monday's talks, agreed that the suspension of sanctions was the cautious way forward.

She said: "We must recognise the tremendous changes that have taken place by suspending sanctions - apart from the arms embargo - and we look forward to working to support the development of Burma. We are closely watching events."

Ministers fear the Burmese parliamentary protest by the NLD could set back change, but argue that postponing today's suspension of EU sanctions would be counter-productive. Instead the "carrot" of revived trade and investment opportunities after years of Burmese isolation is seen as the right response to the democratic steps taken so far.

Ms Suu Kyi insisted there was no "boycott" of parliament - just a limited protest at being expected to support a constitution enshrining a military-based political system which the NLD has pledged to change.

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