Tokyo – Japan plans to resume full-blown development aid to Myanmar to help finance its infrastructure projects as the Southeast Asian country takes steps towards democracy, Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said on Tuesday.Myanmar’s cabinet, led by President Thein Sein, has embarked on a wave of reforms since taking office last March, such as the release of more than 600 political prisoners, an easing of media censorship and laws allowing protests and trade unions.

Gemba said that he had visited Myanmar last December and was convinced that the country was taking genuine steps towards democracy and national reconciliation.

“In order to expedite these positive movements further, full-fledged infrastructure development is indispensable, and that requires the resumption of loans,” he said in a speech.

Japan has been offering Myanmar grants for humanitarian purposes, but has withheld low-interest, long-term loans, which are bigger in size than grants and used for port, railway and other big projects, since a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988.

Gemba did not specify the timing of loan resumption or expected size of the development aid, but a typical loan of this nature extended by Japan is in tens of billions of yen (hundreds of millions of dollars).

Myanmar’s strategic location at a crossroads in Asia and its natural resources mean it has long been regarded as an investment opportunity by its neighbours, particularly China. Now the country, which missed out on Asia’s economic boom, is being eyed with interest by overseas investors.

Gemba’s comment comes after the European Union this month lifted travel restrictions against Myanmar’s top officials in a first step towards rewarding the government for democratic reforms after half a century of military rule.