Since then, we have seen progress on several fronts. Today, I join President Obama in welcoming the news that the government has released hundreds of political prisoners, several of whom have languished in prison for decades. This is a substantial and serious step forward in the government’s stated commitment to political reform, and I applaud it, and the entire international community should as well. Aung San Suu Kyi has welcomed these dramatic steps as further indication of progress and commitment.
Many of the people released today have distinguished themselves as steadfast, courageous leaders in the fight for democracy and human rights at critical times in their country’s recent history. And like all of the people of their country, they want and deserve to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
I also warmly welcome news of a cease-fire agreement between the government and the Karen National Union. The KNU has been involved in one of the longest-running insurgencies anywhere in the world, and entering a ceasefire agreement that begins to address the longstanding grievances of the Karen people is an important step forward. It is in that spirit that I urge the government to enter into meaningful dialogue with all ethnic groups to achieve national reconciliation, to allow news media and humanitarian groups access to ethnic areas.
In addition to the ceasefire and the release of political prisoners, the civilian leadership has taken other important steps since assuming power in April 2011, including easing restrictions on media and civil society; engaging Aung San Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue and amending electoral laws to pave the way for the National League for Democracy to participate in the political process; setting a date for the by-elections this year; passing new legislation to protect the right of assembly and the rights of workers; beginning to provide humanitarian access for the United Nations and NGOs to conflict areas; and establishing their own national Human Rights Commission.
As I said last December, the United States will meet action with action. Based on the steps taken so far, we will now begin. In consultation with members of Congress and at the direction of President Obama, we will start the process of exchanging ambassadors with Burma. We will identify a candidate to serve as U.S. Ambassador to represent the United States Government and our broader efforts to strengthen and deepen our ties with both the people and the government.
This is a lengthy process, and it will, of course, depend on continuing progress and reform. But an American Ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding. I have also instructed my team at the State Department to identify further steps that the United States can take in conjunction with our friends and allies to support the reforms underway. And I intend to call President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi this weekend to underscore our commitment to walk together with them on the path of reform.
Of course, there is more work to be done, and we will continue to work with the government on their reform and reconciliation efforts, including taking further steps to address the concerns of ethnic minority groups, making sure that there is a free and fair by-election, and making all the releases from prison unconditional, and making sure that all remaining political detainees are also released.
But this is a momentous day for the diverse people of Burma, and we will continue to support them and their efforts and to encourage the government to take bold steps that build the kind of free and prosperous nation, that I heard from everyone I met with, they desire to see. We believe that that future is achievable, and we look forward to being a partner and a friend as we see the progress continue. Thank you.