REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration formally restored U.S. diplomatic relations with Myanmar on Friday in recognition of the isolated regime’s recent steps toward reform, including the release of political prisoners and a cease-fire with a rebel group.
Capping months of cautious steps toward normalization, U.S. officials said they had growing confidence that the Myanmar’s government is serious about political reforms and opening up to the outside world after years of repression.
President Obama hailed the pardon and release Friday of 651 prisoners in Myanmar, also known as Burma, calling it "a substantial step forward for political reform." The released group included a number of prominent pro-democracy leaders, some of whom were imprisoned after major protests in 1988.
The administration will send an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time since 1990, and is considering other steps toward normalization, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The United States has invited Burma to send an ambassador to Washington.
Although Myanmar is a relatively small country, normalization could boost U.S. interests in the region by advancing the pro-Western orientation of Southeast Asia. It may also relieve U.S. worries that Myanmar was developing dangerous security ties with the renegade regime in North Korea, and could offer valuable business ties.
Even as Clinton visited the country recently, U.S. officials continued to press for prisoner releases, political power sharing and reconciliation with minorities that the junta has treated harshly.
On Thursday, the government announced a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels, who have been seeking autonomy for more than 60 years.
Photo: Myanmar democracy activist Nilar Thein receives a kiss from her daughter after she was released from prison in a government amnesty in Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/EPA