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Myanmar president in France for talks on ties

Wednesday - 7/17/2013, 1:00pm  ET

GREG KELLER
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- French leaders met with Myanmar President Thein Sein Wednesday to discuss widening economic and diplomatic ties, while human rights activists denounced the continued anti-Muslim violence in the largely Buddhist southeast Asian country.

French President Francois Hollande met with Thein Sein for about an hour. Earlier the Myanmar president also met with French corporate leaders and had lunch with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

It was the second leg in a European tour for the Myanmar president. He met British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week.

French foreign trade minister Nicole Bricq is scheduled to travel to Myanmar at the end of the month. France hopes to score contracts in sectors including water treatment, transport, energy and telecommunications. French oil giant Total SA is already active in the country via a stake in an offshore gas field.

France and other Western nations imposed sanctions on Myanmar's previous military junta and avoided military-to-military contacts. Most sanctions were dropped after Thein Sein took office in 2011 and instituted economic and political reforms.

However, just last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned Myanmar that it must end Buddhist attacks on minority Muslims in the Southeast Asian country if it wants to be seen as a credible nation.

In the talks with Thein Sein, Hollande inisisted on the liberation of all political prisoners, a French presidential advisor said, something Thein Sein has pledged to carry out by the end of the year. Hollande also brought up France's concerns over the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. The advisor spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Myanmar for decades has faced rebellions from several ethnic groups seeking autonomy. The Kachin Independence Army is the only major rebel group that has not reached a cease-fire agreement with the government.

Nearly 250 people have died and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, have fled their homes in religious violence in the past year. Buddhist mobs have marched through villages burning houses and mosques and brandishing machetes and clubs.

New freedoms of speech under Thein Sein have made it easier to disseminate radical views, while exposing deep-seated racism felt by much of the population toward Muslims and other minorities.

Sectarian violence began in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes. The violence had seemed confined to that region, but in late March, Buddhist-led violence -- fueled by the killing of a monk after a Buddhist mob burned down several Muslim-owned shops -- swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people.

Celestine Foucher of Info Birmanie, a French human rights organization, said Thein Sein's election triggered "misplaced and exaggerated euphoria" in the West.

"By inviting the new president, it looks like we're giving 100 percent backing to someone who is only making a 10 percent effort" to improve human rights in Myanmar, Foucher said, noting that the Myanmar leader's first meeting was with a business lobby.

"That shows you where the priorities lie," she added.

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Follow Greg Keller on Twitter @Greg_Keller


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