Washington – The United States restored diplomatic relations with Myanmar on Friday, responding to the new civilian government’s rapid campaign of political and economic changes that most recently included a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels and the release of prominent political prisoners.
The announcement is the latest in a series of cautiously choreographed steps that have eased tensions between the United States and Myanmar and that could remake American diplomacy in Asia, where the Obama administration has sought to refocus its foreign policy.
President Obama, in a statement, welcomed the pardon and release on Friday of 651 prisoners, including prominent leaders of student protests against the country’s military rulers in 1988, a signal uprising. It was the most significant release of political prisoners by the newly elected government, and Mr. Obama called it “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.”
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Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in December became the first Secretary of State to visit Myanmar since 1955, later announced that the United States would send an American ambassador back to the country for the first time in more than two decades. The administration is also considering a series of additional steps to reward the reforms already announced and to encourage more.
The releases were detailed by The Irrawaddy magazine, a Thailand-based Burmese exile magazine. The leaders of the signal 1988 protests who were freed included Min Ko Naing, who served two long terms in prison; Htay Kywe, Mya Aye, Nilar Thein and Ko Ko Gyi.
Television images showed large groups of family members and supporters greeting prisoners as they emerged from detention.
It was in 1988 that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, first rose to prominence. The government has engaged her in a dialogue since her release from house arrest in November 2010, and she has announced that she will run for a vacant parliamentary seat in April.
The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident news organization based in Norway, also reported that former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was released, along with members of the Karen National Union, a leader of the Shan ethnic group, monks arrested in the August 2007 antigovernment protests, former military intelligence officials and various journalists, including five from its own organization.
Since Myanmar’s civilian government took office last March, ending nearly 50 years of military rule, the government has held talks with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, approved the registration of her political party and her candidacy in April’s by-election, and suspended plans for a huge Chinese-backed dam that drew strong opposition from within and outside Myanmar, which was once known as Burma.
On Thursday, it announced the cease-fire with the Karen rebels, who have been fighting for autonomy since shortly after the country achieved independence in 1948 from Britain.