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Myanmar leader in Oslo, to seek deeper ties with the West

Myanmar President Thein Sein (R) holds a press conference in Oslo on February 26, 2013
Myanmar President Thein Sein (R) holds a press conference in Oslo on February 26, 2013. Thein Sein on Tuesday met Norway's prime minister as he kicked off a milestone 10-day visit to Europe aimed at forging stronger ties between the former pariah state an

Myanmar President Thein Sein on Tuesday met Norway's prime minister as he kicked off a milestone 10-day visit to Europe aimed at forging stronger ties between the former pariah state and the West.

After meeting Jens Stoltenberg, the former general called for more cooperation between the two countries, which are both rich in energy resources but at very different stages of development.

"We wish to learn from you the manners in which we can manage these resources to the benefit of our people," he said.

The president will try to reap the fruits of his liberalisation policies as he visits Finland, Austria, Belgium and Italy before returning home on March 8.

"This kind of visit is important in the context of political change in the country because President Thein Sein and the reformers in this current government need encouragement and support from the international community so that the hardliners who oppose transformation can be isolated," said Khin Maung Win, deputy editor-in-chief of the independent broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

The swift pace of reforms undertaken by Thein Sein, who is described as a discreet and loyal conservative, has surprised many, including the opposition.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein (L) meets with Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Oslo on February 26, 2013
Myanmar's President Thein Sein (L) meets with Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Oslo on February 26, 2013.

Since the former prime minister took over the presidency in March 2011, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, elections have been held, and long-detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected into parliament.

Other reforms include lifting the country's press censorship laws.

"What he has introduced in the country since he came to power two years ago is enormous... These are things that Burmese people, including myself, would never dream of two years ago," Khin Maung Win said.

The European Union and Norway -- which is not a member of the EU -- have responded by suspending all their sanctions apart from an arms embargo, while the United States has also dismantled many of its key trade and investment sanctions.

Last month, Myanmar secured a deal with international lenders to cancel nearly $6 billion (4.6 billion euros) of its debt.

The former junta general's trip to Norway follows Suu Kyi's own landmark visit to Oslo last year, where she made her long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in person for the honour awarded to her in 1991, as she spent the better part of two decades under house arrest.

Stoltenberg said he supported the liberalising measures taken by his guest, and called for continued reform in the country formerly known as Burma.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein (L) meets with Norway's Foreign Affairs Minister Espen Barth Eide on February 26, 2013
Myanmar's President Thein Sein (L) meets with Norway's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Espen Barth Eide, in Oslo on February 26, 2013.

"Hardly any other country has during the last years seen a more rapid development towards democracy than Myanmar," he said

But the "long term stability in Myanmar will depend on continued political reforms, respect for human rights and a more equitable distribution of income and wealth," he added.

The Norwegian head of government said the Scandinavian country would raise the status of its diplomatic mission in Yangon to an embassy.

Thein Sein was on Wednesday expected to give his first interview to DVB, in what would be a highly-symbolic move.

Long based in Oslo and run by exiles, the broadcaster, which is financed by foreign countries, is in the process of moving its operations to Myanmar, now that the conditions exist to carry out "independent professional journalism", Khin Maung Win said.

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