Yangon: France's Foreign Minister is due to meet democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday during a historic visit to assess the Myanmar regime's commitment to change after a string of dramatic reforms.

Alain Juppe, who arrived in Myanmar's main city Yangon on Saturday, is the highest level French diplomat to ever visit the military-dominated nation, long criticised by the West for its human rights record.

He is scheduled to meet Suu Kyi at the lakeside mansion where she was held as a prisoner in her own home for most of the past two decades before her release by the regime in November 2010.

He will award the Nobel laureate with one of France's highest honours, Commander in the National Order of the Legion d'Honneur, in recognition of her long struggle for democracy.

On Monday Juppe will hold talks in the capital Naypyidaw with President Thein Sein, whose government is eager to see the end of sanctions imposed on the regime by the United States and the European Union since the late 1990s.

Juppe wants to encourage the government "to continue and amplify" the reform process with steps towards human rights, democracy and national reconciliation, his ministry said last week.

He will also insist that parliamentary by-elections on April 1 are held "in a manner consistent with democratic practices" after a general election in November 2010 that was denounced by the West as a sham.

After nearly five decades of outright military rule, the junta was replaced in March last year by a nominally-civilian government, still dominated by former generals.

Minister to encourage reform process

Alain Juppe "wants to encourage President Thein Sein and Myanmar's authorities to continue and amplify this movement" with steps towards human rights, democracy and national reconciliation, his ministry said this week.

He will also insist that parliamentary by-elections on April 1 are held "in a manner consistent with democratic practices" after a general election in November 2010 that was denounced by the West as a sham.

A diplomatic source said that Juppe arrived in commercial hub Yangon late Saturday, the day after Myanmar released just over 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents.

Juppe is due Sunday to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he will make a Commander in the National Order of the Legion d'Honneur, and on Monday he will hold talks with Thein Sein.

He is the first French Foreign Minister in history to visit the Southeast Asian country, which gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the first French minister to visit since a popular uprising was brutally crushed in 1988.

His trip follows the landmark visits in early December of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in early January.

After nearly five decades of outright military rule, the junta was replaced in March last year by a nominally-civilian government, still dominated by former generals and with a quarter of seats reserved for the current military.

The government has surprised observers with its pace of reform, including the political inclusion of Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in November 2010 and now running for the Parliament in April.

The government has also held talks with ethnic rebel groups, and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed Karen group, which has been involved in one of the world's longest-running civil wars.

The agreement was "welcomed" by Juppe on Friday as "another important step on the path of national reconciliation and respect for minorities."

(Agencies)