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Canada 'optimistic' as Myanmar frees more political prisoners

Jim Mee, right, and Nilar Thein, center, activists of the 88 Generation Students Group, gets welcomed by their daughter, left, at Yangon airport after being released from prison Friday, Jan.13, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar freed many of its prominent political prisoners Friday in a long-awaited step toward national reconciliation that also has been a key condition set by Western nations for easing sanctions against the country.

Khin Maung Win/AP

A delegation of Canadian officials will travel to Myanmar next week to kick the tires on the country's reforms as Ottawa considers whether, and when, to ease sanctions.

The sudden quickening of reforms in the former Burma after decades of repressive and insular rule hit new milestones this week with the announcement of a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels Thursday and the release of 651 political prisoners Friday.

While other Western nations such as the United States, Australia and Britain are sending high-profile signals of a softening approach, a shift by Stephen Harper's government, which has for years proudly touted its sanctions on Myanmar as the toughest in the world, would symbolize the extent of the sea change.

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While Ottawa has stressed that sanctions should remain in place and called for all political prisoners to be released, it is sending more diplomats to visit out of "cautious optimism" that the reforms of President Thein Sein, in power since last March, are signs of real change.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird welcomed Friday's release of high-profile political prisoners, including leaders of 1988 student protests, ethnic-minority activists and monks, with reduced skepticism.

"Canada is encouraged by this latest development," said Joseph Lavoie, Mr. Baird's spokesman. "While we continue to call on Burma to release all political prisoners, this is nonetheless an important and necessary step towards improving the human rights situation in Burma.

Already, other Western countries have signalled a remarkable willingness to re-engage after shunning Myanmar for years, hoping it will encourage further reforms. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in December, and the British foreign secretary earlier this month. Australia has eased its sanctions slightly.

And Friday's prisoner pardon sparked the United States to announce that it will post an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time since 1990.

The Canadian diplomatic delegation headed to Myanmar next week includes officials from Ottawa and Canada's embassy in Bangkok, which covers relations with Myanmar, a government source said.

Among them is an official from the Canadian International Development Agency – significant because it indicates Canada is considering whether to launch new aid initiatives to show encouragement for continued reforms.

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Many Western officials now believe President Thein Sein, a former general, is intent on reforms, but faces resistance from within the military leadership that has held power for decades. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed hope for a breakthrough to democracy, and said she will run in parliamentary elections in April.

Last year, Canada exchanged ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time since 2005. Some in the government have proposed limited grassroots aid programs to display the benefits of opening steps. But some remain highly skeptical: the group Canadian Friends of Burma stressed yesterday that the country is far from democratic, and its military continues to prosecute a "brutal war" against northern Kachin people.

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