WASHINGTON - The United States is restoring full diplomatic relations with Burma, a landmark in the Obama administration's drive to reward democratic reforms by a government the U.S. previously treated as a pariah.
The decision announced Friday to exchange ambassadors with Burma for the first time in two decades followed the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but Washington probably will be looking for fair conduct in coming elections and an end to ethnic violence before it lifts sanctions.
The U.S. also wants Burma to open up to U.N. nuclear inspectors and sever illicit military ties with North Korea because of concerns that Pyongyang has sold Burma defense hardware, including missiles, in defiance of international sanctions.
Burma President Thein Sein pardoned 651 detainees on Friday, among them leaders of brutally repressed democratic uprisings, heads of ethnic minority groups, journalists and even a former prime minister who had been blamed himself for incarcerating activists.
President Barack Obama, in a statement, described the pardons as "a substantial step forward for democratic reform."
The U.S. decision follows a historic visit by Hillary Rodham Clinton in December, the first by a secretary of state in 56 years, as a way to deepen engagement and encourage more openness in the country. That is part of a broader administration policy to step up U.S. involvement across the Asia-Pacific region as well as a way to counter the growing influence of China, which has remained Burma's core ally during its decades of isolation.
"As I said last December, the United States will meet action with action," Clinton said at the State Department. "Based on the steps taken so far, we will now begin."
The highest-level U.S. diplomat based in Burma has been a charge d'affaires rather than an ambassador. Washington downgraded its representation in 1990, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party swept elections but was barred from power by the military.
Burma's own diplomatic representation in Washington also currently is a step below the level of ambassador.
Clinton cautioned that exchanging ambassadors is a lengthy process any candidate for U.S. ambassador requires Senate confirmation and that the process would depend on continued progress toward reform.
The U.S. limits diplomatic relations with several countries for political reasons. In countries without a U.S. ambassador, such as Venezuela, a charge d'affaires is usually entrusted with directing diplomacy. The diplomat would lack the same standing as an envoy appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
In the cases of Iran and North Korea, with which Washington has broken off diplomatic relations entirely, no American diplomats are posted.
Clinton said the U.S. also would identify further steps it could take to support reforms, but she gave no specifics. Among the other recent moves she commended by the Burma government was its reaching a cease-fire with the Karen National Union, which is waging a long-running ethnic insurgency.
There are myriad U.S. sanctions against Burma that heavily restrict trade, investment and foreign aid. The restrictions also block financial transfers, especially by military-backed leaders and their cronies, and deny visas to the same VIPs.
A senior State Department official indicated that the administration was now actively considering easing restrictions but said it did not want to "over-promise and under-deliver."
Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the official said the administration is beginning a dialogue with U.S. lawmakers who are important to implementing and interpreting sanctions. They include the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who will visit Burma next week. Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and independent Joe Lieberman also are slated to visit the country this month.
Burma's path to reform began with elections in 2010 that were widely criticized as unfair but culminated in an end to nearly five decades of direct military rule. Although the government still is dominated by the army, Burma has freed Suu Kyi and begun a dialogue with her. It also has eased restrictions on the news media and passed legislation to permit trade unions and freedom of assembly.
The senior U.S. official, however, said that levels of ethnic violence were still "unacceptably high." He said Washington wanted to see the Karen cease-fire replicated with other groups across the country and subsequent steps to resolve their disputes, which he said was "the most serious and sensitive" issue facing the country.
Clinton urged Burma to release its remaining political prisoners, a number that probably still is in the hundreds, and hold free and fair by-elections on April 1 in which Suu Kyi's party will compete.
Clinton said she would call Suu Kyi and Burma's president this weekend "to underscore our commitment to walk together with them on the path of reform."
U.S. has yet to verify all 651 releases, and some of those freed Friday signed waivers barred them from "illegal activities," according to the senior official. The U.S. would be urging that all the releases should be unconditional, he said.
McConnell supported Friday's move by the Obama administration, a reflection of the bipartisan consensus on the Burma issue despite Washington's polarized politics. McConnell has been a prominent voice in Congress on Burma and a staunch supporter of Suu Kyi.
"While the Thein Sein government will need to do more to explain the military relationship with North Korea and hold free and fair elections, it appears entirely appropriate that the United States would consider restoration of more formal diplomatic ties," McConnell said in a statement.
Commenting on Burma's military relationship with North Korea, the senior U.S. official said that Thura Shwe Mann, who was the third-ranking general in the former ruling junta, has expressed some regret to the U.S. over those ties. That general is now speaker in the lower house of parliament.
The official said the U.S. has asked the new government not to enter into any new defense contracts with North Korea. Missile sales are of particular concern, because they could cause a proliferation of such weaponry in Southeast Asia and a spike in regional tensions, he said.