YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — U.S. Sen. John McCain reiterated a call for Myanmar to release more than 2,000 political prisoners, saying Friday that sanctions should remain on the repressive nation until its new government takes "concrete" steps toward democratic reform.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a three-day visit, the Republican from Arizona said both countries want better relations, but that Myanmar's government needs to take more steps toward democracy — including "the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience."
The release of political prisoners has been a top demand of Western nations that criticize Myanmar's human rights record and are maintaining long-standing political and economic sanctions against its government until it undertakes reforms.
McCain called on Myanmar to allow the International Red Cross "unfettered" access to all prisoners in the country, something he said he hoped would start as soon as Saturday.
The organization has been unable to visit inmates here since the former military junta halted access in 2005.
McCain was in Myanmar to assess progress on reform since a new civilian government took over from a military junta in March. Rights groups and critics say little has changed since then because the new government is simply a proxy for the military, which has ruled for decades.
McCain, however, acknowledged that the new government "represents some change from the past, and one illustration of this change was their willingness to allow me to return to this country after 15 years worth of attempts to do so on my part were rejected."
But "without concrete actions by this government that signal a deeper commitment to democratic change, there should be no easing or lifting of sanctions," the 2008 presidential candidate said.
One key test of the government's commitment to reform, McCain said, will be its ability to ensure the safety of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she tours the country later this month.
Suu Kyi's last tour of northern Myanmar in 2003 rattled the military and ended with an ambush that killed several of her followers. Suu Kyi escaped, but was arrested and placed under house arrest — from which she was finally freed late last year.
"The new government's ability and willingness to prevent a similar outcome this time will be an important test of their desire for change," McCain said. "Concrete steps like these need not, and should not, take a lot of time."
On Thursday, Suu Kyi expressed concern about the health of dozens of political prisoners who are staging a hunger strike to demand better food and conditions.
Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, held its first elections in 20 years in November. Suu Kyi's political party boycotted the polls, and critics say the vote was designed to deliver power to the military's allies.
Though the U.S. long tried to isolate Myanmar, the Obama administration has switched to a policy of engagement in hopes of coaxing democratic change.