WASHINGTON - The United States restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar yesterday, hours after the new civilian government took a major step in its rapid campaign of political and economic changes, releasing many of its most prominent political prisoners.
The announcement is the latest in a series of cautiously choreographed steps that have eased tensions between the United States and Myanmar and that could remake US diplomacy in Asia, where the Obama administration has sought to refocus its foreign policy.
President Obama, in a statement, welcomed the presidential pardon and release yesterday of 651 prisoners, including prominent leaders of student protests against the country’s military rulers in 1988, a signal uprising.
It was the most significant release of political prisoners by the newly elected government and answered a primary demand of Western nations and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Obama called it “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.’’
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in December became the first secretary of state to visit Myanmar since 1955, later announced that the United States would send a US ambassador back to the country for the first time in more than two decades.
The administration is also considering additional steps to reward the reforms already announced and to encourage more.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Myanmar following the election of 1990, which was won by Suu Kyi’s party, though the military government never recognized the results.
It never severed relations fully, as with countries like Cuba, Iran, or North Korea, but downgraded the diplomatic status of its embassy.
In remarks at the State Department, Clinton said that the administration would soon nominate and seek Senate confirmation of an ambassador - and invite Myanmar to send one to Washington.
“An American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding,’’ she said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France lauded the prisoner releases and spoke to Suu Kyi by telephone yesterday, his office said, and praised her “political courage.’’
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, is to visit Myanmar tomorrow and Monday and is to give Suu Kyi France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor. She will receive the rank of commander, the third highest of five ranks.