06/01/2012 11:36 GMT | Updated 06/01/2012 11:48 GMT

Hague Says Burma Still Needs 'Bold Steps' Towards Reform

The international community must maintain pressure on Burma's government to make further "bold steps" towards reform, Foreign Secretary William Hague said today as he completed a historic visit to the south-east Asian country.

Mr Hague said that he was "encouraged" by liberalising measures introduced since President Thein Sein's arrival in office last year, but insisted that more ambitious action is needed, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

His comments came after talks yesterday with Thein Sein and a meeting with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi this morning.

In signs of a thaw after decades of hardline military rule, the president has opened talks with Ms Suu Kyi, legalised her National League for Democracy (NLD) party and released more than 200 political prisoners.

Speaking at the end of his two-day trip, Mr Hague described the visit as "a gesture of good intent on the part of the United Kingdom" in the light of the new regime's reforms, adding that "if the country continues on this promising path, as we hope it will, we are ready to offer a new relationship based on friendship and prosperity".

He announced that Britain will provide £2 million in additional aid for thousands of people displaced by conflict in the country.

However he signalled that further change will be needed before the UK can back the lifting of European Union sanctions.

"There are hundreds of men and women still remaining in jail here for their beliefs," said Mr Hague. "This has no place in any democracy, and it has no place in the future of this country.

"I was encouraged to hear that the Government plans to release remaining political prisoners. But more ambitious action will be

needed and we look to them rapidly to honour this commitment.

"Second, it is vital that the by-elections on April 1 are credible, free and fair and enable all parties to compete. We welcome the NLD's courageous decision to participate in these elections, and the world will watch these elections closely.

"Third, for too long this country's border regions have been scarred by conflict and suffering, particularly in Kachin state, where fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people in recent months...

"I encourage all sides today to seize this moment of change, to agree to a formal cessation of hostilities and uphold

international law, and to begin serious political dialogue as part of a national reconciliation process.

"These are indispensable steps for confidence in the country's development and they are achievable in the near future."

Speaking alongside Ms Suu Kyi following their talks in Rangoon earlier today, Mr Hague said he hoped that Burma's "long-held dream" of freedom and democracy now has a chance of being realised.

He added: "It is not possible to say a country is free and democratic while people are still in prison on grounds of their political beliefs.

"The risk is that we assume it's all done and forget that this is only part way through. It's very important that we do not relax the pressure prematurely."

Mr Hague's visit is the first by a British foreign secretary in more than 50 years and the latest in a string of recent trips by international figures, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amid efforts to bring Burma back into the international fold.

He hailed Ms Suu Kyi as "an immensely important figure" in bringing about change in Burma, and said his talks with her today convinced him she was "full of determination to carry on and to complete this work".

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, speaking alongside Hague after their meeting, said: "In order to realise our dreams we have to work very hard indeed.

"We will work very hard and we are sure our friends will be with us at our side and together we will succeed in fulfilling the dreams of the people of Burma."

Mr Hague said that Britain may be able to offer help to the Burmese authorities in resolving ethnic conflicts, some of which have dragged on for more than 40 years.