EU pledges more aid for Myanmar reforms

Feb. 14, 2012 at 6:29 AM
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YANGON, Myanmar, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- The European Union says it is pledging more development aid to Myanmar since its military rulers began "unprecedented" moves toward democratic reforms.

EU Development Commissioner Andris Piedalgs arrived in Yangon Sunday with an agenda that included a $200 million aid package "to support democratic reforms and inclusive development in the country."

"The European Union welcomes the unprecedented developments taking place in the country on core values of the EU -- democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Piedalgs said on the eve of his weekend departure.

Meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and senior government ministers -- as well as with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- would allow the EU to get a firmer grasp on fast-moving reforms happening in the long-reclusive nation, Piedalgs said.

Suu Kyi is running for a seat in scheduled April 1 parliamentary by-elections, which the EU and the United States regard as a key test of the recent political reforms.

"Continued political progress could lead to a further easing or lifting of restrictive measures by the end of April," an EU statement said.

About two-thirds of the new aid package is expected to be committed this year with the rest coming in 2013.

As well as aiming to "strengthen civil society actors," the funding will be used to "finance initiatives in the areas of climate change and forestry" and to "support capacity-building for improved planning, environmental governance and statistics."

EU foreign ministers last month moved to recognize Myanmar's political reforms by agreeing to ease travel restrictions on senior government officials, including the suspension of visa bans on Sein and his Cabinet members, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

Piedalgs said another aim of the trip would be to assess the humanitarian situation with a visit to an EU-funded health clinic.

"The momentum of change in Myanmar is impressive and the EU recognizes the need to do all it can to support the country at this time," he said. "More dialogue will help better policies to emerge, more money for development cooperation will promote economic and social development and help reduce poverty."

Myanmar's grinding poverty presents huge problems for efforts aimed at reducing childhood mortality, the EU says. Among children under age 5, there are high rates of death caused by pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, as well as endemic tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

The EU is already contributing $23.7 million to Myanmar through the multi-donor Three Diseases Fund -- launched following the withdrawal of the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria from Myanmar in 2005.

That program "reaches out to those who are most at risk of any of these three diseases, particularly those living in remote and hard-to-reach areas with limited or no access to public health services."

Officials say 1.7 million confirmed and probable cases of malaria have been treated in Myanmar, while 160,000 new cases of pulmonary TB have been detected and 19,000 people living with HIV have received antiretroviral treatment.

Overall, the European Commission has provided $230 million in development assistance to Myanmar since 1996.

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