by Feng Yingqiu
YANGON, Feb. 25 (Xinhua_) -- Myanmar President U Thein Sein left Nay Pyi Taw started on Monday his official visits to five European Union (EU) countries -- Norway, Finland, Austria, Belgium and Italy in a bid to enhance relations with the EU nations.
Thein Sein's tour to Europe signifies his first foreign trips in 2013.
In light of Myanmar's rapid political and economic reforms, more and more European countries have been seeking improvement of relations and cooperation with Myanmar after Norway, the first European country, eased sanctions on Myanmar in 2012, while keeping arms embargo in force.
The improved bilateral relations brought about a visit to the Southeast Asian nation by Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in November 2012.
Norway opened its embassy in Yangon on the occasion of Stoltenberg's visit.
Meanwhile, Myanmar was granted a reduction in international debt of over 6 billion U.S. dollars, including the relief of 534 million dollars' debt Myanmar owed to Norway after coordinating with creditor countries of Paris Club in January this year.
In November last year, government leaders or senior government officials of some European countries including Finland, Austria and Italy met Myanmar President U Thein Sein on the sideline of the Ninth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held in Vientiane, Laos, agreeing unanimously to seek lifting of all the remaining sanctions on Myanmar and re-grant the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) to the country to accelerate its reform efforts and encourage its active participation in international affairs.
Finnish Prime Minister Jykri Katainen said businessmen from Finland will seek investment opportunity in Myanmat and provide technological assistance for the development of the country in the field of education.
Finland will establish workshops and factories in Myanmar to produce value-added products in a bid to create job opportunities for the local people and will conduct exploration of oil and gas and minerals resources.
Again in January this year, Finnish Minister of International Development Heidi Hauta visited Nay Pyi Taw, saying it is high time for mutual cooperation in promoting diplomatic ties and further strengthening friendship between the two countries,
The pair touched upon capacity building for Myanmar and its nationalities development, Finland's assistance in total lifting economic sanctions for economic development of Myanmar and regaining of its GSP.
At the sideline of Vientiane ASEM, Austrian Deputy Finance Minister Andreas Schiender also agreed to provide technological assistance to Myanmar and help build infrastructures and develop agricultural sector including systematic utilization of water, development of hydropower generation sources.
As a follow-up in early this month during his visit to Myanmar, Dr Christoph Leitl, President of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, exchanged views with U Thein Sein on establishing fair and genuine partnership for long-term interest of both sides, mutual trust, qualified vocational training courses, EU's grant of GSP rights to Myanmar and cooperation in energy and environmental conservation, food security, education, health, banking services, finance and technology.
At the November ASEM, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti pledged more humanitarian aid to Myanmar, offering to write off loan to be repaid by Myanmar to Italy and to grant low-interest loan, provide assistance for holding workshops and conduct courses for human resources development in conservation of ancient cultural heritage in Bagan Ancient Cultural Zone.
Myanmar and Italy also discussed the partnership between Turin and Yangon as sister cities, putting Myanmar on the priority list of 2013-14 development program and encouraging Italian oil and gas enterprises to follow human rights and environmental conservation practice set by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in making investment.
Meanwhile, Myanmar and Italy are stepping up cooperation in capacity building for cultural heritage preservation of Myanmar and the program is being done with Italy's assistance under the supervision of the UNESCO.
Myanmar and the EU have made a step forward in their relations ever since the visit to Myanmar by President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and the successive opening of embassies in Myanmar of three European countries -- Switzerland, Norway and Denmark in November 2012.
Myanmar and the EU signed a joint declaration at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Yangon on EU's support of Myanmar's peace process and offering of development assistance to the country, announcing making joint efforts in building domestic peace.
After EU foreign ministers announced in Luxembourg on April 23 suspension of most sanctions against Myanmar for a year except arms embargo, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton visited Myanmar, opened EU representative office in Yangon and brought a package of up to 150 million euro in agricultural development aid.
The European Commission in September 2012 adopted a proposal to bring Myanmar back under a preferential trade regime granting duty- free and quota-free access to the European market, beginning in 2013.
EU's investment in Myanmar from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Cyprus amounted to about 3.47 billion U.S. dollars as of the end of 2011, accounting for 8.5 percent of the total foreign investment in Myanmar. Enditem