Myanmar leader in Oslo, to seek deeper ties with West

Myanmar President Thein Sein arrived in Oslo on Tuesday, kicking off his first trip to Europe aimed at forging stronger ties between the former pariah state and the West.

The reformist leader landed at Oslo's international airport, Norwegian officials said, for a three-day stay in the Scandinavian country to be followed by visits to Finland, Austria, Belgium and Italy before he returns to Myanmar on March 8.

The former junta general has impressed the international community with a string of reforms since coming to power in early 2011, including welcoming long-detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.

Thein Sein'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 her in 1991, as she spent the better part of two decades under house arrest.

"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).

While in Oslo, Thein Sein was due to discuss issues pertaining to future democratic reforms, development aid, the environment and economic cooperation, though no major agreements were expected to be signed, Norwegian foreign ministry spokesman Kjetil Elsebutangen said.

"Many positive things have taken place in Myanmar in recent years but there is still more to be done," Elsebutangen said.

"On the Norwegian side, we think it's important to support these positive developments and to try to help those who are moving things in the right direction," he added.

Thein Sein, described as a discreet and loyal conservative, is due to hold talks with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, and meet with members of the Myanmar community in Norway.

He may also 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, formerly known as Burma, now that that the conditions exist to carry out "independent professional journalism", Khin Maung Win said.

In Yangon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in oppposing apartheid in South Africa, said Tuesday he hoped to see a "truly free" Myanmar as he met Suu Kyi during a visit to the former junta-ruled nation.

The swift pace of reforms undertaken by Thein Sein has surprised many, including the opposition.

"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 trip to Belgium was meanwhile due to include both bilateral and EU high level meetings in Brussels.

The Myanmar leader was to meet with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on March 5 for talks centred on the domestic reform process and socio-economic development of the country, bilateral relations, and regional issues, an EU official said.

Another European diplomatic source said other topics to be discussed would include sanctions and development aid, the country's human rights record and efforts to negotiate peace in ongoing conflicts.

After the swift reforms Thein Sein undertook after coming to power, the European Union responded last April by suspending all sanctions apart from an arms embargo, while the United States has also dismantled many of its key trade and investment sanctions.

But concerns remain over an ongoing conflict in the northen state of Kachin and communal Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the western state of Rakhine.