U.S. To Exchange Ambassadors With Myanmar

The United States announced Friday that it will exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, also known as Burma, partly in response to the release of hundreds of political prisoners there. This is the latest development in what appears to be a dramatic turnaround for the repressive government in that Southeast Asian nation. President Obama calls the prisoner release "a substantial step forward for democratic reform." Currently, the U.S. Embassy is headed by a charge d'affaires rather than an ambassador.

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Hundreds of prisoners walked free in Myanmar today, including some of the countries best-known dissidents. President Obama called the move a significant step. His administration has been trying to promote reforms in the reclusive Asian nation.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. responded to today's release by offering better ties and an upgrade in diplomatic relations.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: This was the news Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been waiting to hear ever since she visited Myanmar, or Burma, late last year.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: This is a substantial and serious step forward in the government's stated commitment to political reform. And I applaud it and the entire international community should, as well.

KELEMEN: Among those released were dissidents who, she says, have been languishing in prison for years. They include monks involved in the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, ethnic minority activists, and veterans of the 1988 student protest movement.

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon tells the BBC she heard from her father, a former student activist who had been serving a 65-year prison term.

WAI HNIN PWINT THON: He sounds very happy. But at the same time, he said don't forget there are political activists who are still remain in jail.

KELEMEN: Like her father, she's cautious about the changes taking place in the country, which could easily be reversed.

THON: What we have to bear in our minds that I know too well my father and his friends, they won't stay quiet. They will still be outspoken about it. And the law that put them in prison in the first place is still remain in place under this military backed government. So, if they are outspoken and critical about the government and they can go back to prison anytime.

KELEMEN: Others are sounding more upbeat. Secretary Clinton, for instance, was welcoming news that in addition to releasing prisoners, Myanmar's government announced a ceasefire this week with ethnic Karen rebels. Clinton says she promised Myanmar's President Thein Sein that the U.S. would respond to any positive steps he takes. And she says she's keeping that pledge by upgrading the U.S. embassy, which has been at the charge d'affaires level for more than two decades.

CLINTON: We will identify a candidate to serve as U.S. ambassador, to represent the United States government and our broader efforts to strengthen and deepen our ties, with both the people and the government.

KELEMEN: While the Obama administration says it's matching action with action, T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA says Washington is moving too fast.

T. KUMAR: These are kind of piecemeal gifts that the Burmese administration is giving out to satisfy primarily, I will say, the United States. And, unfortunately, the Obama administration is getting satisfied very quickly when it comes to Burma.

KELEMEN: The U.S. still has sanctions on Myanmar and those won't be eased unless Congress is convinced things are moving in the right direction. Secretary Clinton spoke today with two senators getting ready to travel to Myanmar, Republicans Mitch McConnell and John McCain.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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