Naypyitaw (Myanmar): British Prime Minister David Cameron made on Friday an historic visit to Myanmar where he planned to tell its President he is ready to urge an easing of European sanctions if convinced of the former general's reform credentials.

In the first visit to Myanmar by a Western leader in decades, Cameron will meet Nobel laureate and newly elected parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, who he said was "a shining example" to the world.

But before that, he met President Thein Sein, a former junta heavyweight who has ushered in sweeping changes in the long-isolated, Army-dominated country.

"This is a government now that says it is committed to reform, that's started to take steps and I think it is right that we encourage those steps," Cameron told reporters in Naypyitaw, the remote, sparsely populated and grandiose capital built in 2005 by the former dictators.

Cameron's visit is the first by a British Prime Minister since Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948 and comes as countries jockey for business and influence in a country rich in untapped resources and desperate to attract foreign investment.

Also known as Burma, Myanmar has for years been the target of Western sanctions over human rights abuses. After winning independence - largely due to the efforts of Aung San, Suu Kyi's late father - a 1962 coup heralded 49 years of unbroken, brutal and inept military rule.

That ended a year ago after the transfer to Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government stacked with former generals, a hegemony now at risk after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) took 43 of 45 seats in April 1 by-elections.

The smooth polls, which were a stark contrast to a 2010 general election widely seen as rigged to favour the army-backed party that won, came amid a wave of reforms, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks with ethnic minority rebels and t he easing of media censorship.

Those developments have triggered calls for the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar, and Cameron has indicated he would push for trade bans to be eased if convinced by its transition to a fledgling democracy during his visit.

More had to be done, however, and democratic institutions needed to be strengthened and all political prisoners freed. The government, he said, needed to back up promises that reforms would not be undone.

"We should be under no illusions about what a long way there is to go and how much more the government has to do to show this reform is real and irreversible," he said. "We should be very cautious and very skeptical about that."

Bright light

A decision on whether to ease some EU sanctions is expected by April 23.

Western firms hope they can pile into Myanmar, where they fear Asian rivals that have already secured a foothold could boost their presence. Cameron will offer an assistance package to facilitate democratic and legal reforms.

Britain is the only major European power that has recently argued for maintaining sanctions on Myanmar, but it appears to have changed its tune.

"The Prime Minister will make clear to the President and Aung San Suu Kyi that the UK stands ready to provide support to Burma if it continues on this path of reform," a source in Cameron's office said.

EU sanctions include assets freezes, bans on arms sales and investments or trade related to timber or mining of metals and gemstones and deny Myanmar access to trade privileges. It was unlikely all the bans would be lifted at once, the source said.

"We will want that decision on the 23rd of April to be the right balance that recognises the great progress that's been made ... versus not taking our foot too much off the pedal and going backwards."

While the West seems set on lifting some sanctions, critics point to political prisoners still in detention and the prospect of a backlash by hardliners in Thein Sein's cabinet and his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party after it was thumped by Suu Kyi's NLD in the by-elections.

Others worry that Myanmar's rapid opening up to foreign trade could result in rushed investments that benefit only the economic elite closely allied with the military old guard.

Several business people accompanied Cameron on his trip to Myanmar but the British leader runs the risk of appearing too keen and stealing a march on European and U.S. rivals in the hunt for deals and influence.

His office insists business is off the agenda on Friday and businessmen accompanying him would "be like tourists"

(Agencies)