Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is making a landmark visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country that has suffered for nearly half a century under the tyranny of a military junta.

Baird, who left Tuesday morning for the capital city of Naypyidaw, is the first Canadian foreign minister to visit the southeast Asian nation.

Shortly before 9 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Baird used Twitter to announce his departure. "Wheels up. En route to Burma. A first for Canada," he tweeted.

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Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center left, shakes hands with an unidentified parliamentarian after a meeting in Naypyitaw, Burma on Tuesday. Foreign Minister John Baird is en route to Burma's capital and expected to meet with Suu Kyi during his visit, a first for a Canadian foreign minister. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win, Pool)

The military ruled Burma with an iron fist, jailing thousands of critics, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades under house arrest.

The military junta stepped down last year and a new military-backed civilian government, dominated by a clique of retired army officers, embarked on a series of democratic reforms.

During his visit, Baird is expected to meet with Suu Kyi, 66, who was given more freedom and is now campaigning as the leader of the opposition in a round of by-elections.

Visit affirms Canadian support for Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi, one of only five people to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship, addressed Canadians through an Internet link last week, to thank them for supporting the pro-democracy movement in her country.

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 but was barred by the military from forming a government and she was placed under house arrest.

"Minister Baird will go to Burma to reaffirm the importance of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," a source close to Baird told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

"Minister Baird's visit will underscore Canadian support for the embrace towards democratic development in Burma."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ottawa is "cautiously optimistic" about recent changes in the country.

"While we're not at a point of lifting sanctions, we want to make sure advances made are not reversible," the official said.

Canada opened a strategic engagement with Burma last summer that included the exchange of ambassadors, but continues to maintain a tough regime of sanctions that were toughened considerably in 2007.

The United States and European Union have praised Burma's progress but say they will be closely watching how a byelection in April, to be contested by Suu Kyi's party, is conducted before deciding whether to lift sanctions.

Democracy efforts in Burma received a major boost when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December, the first such high-profile visit by an American official in more than half a century.

Clinton, one of a series of foreign ministers to visit Burma, met with President Thein Sein and also made a memorable stop to Suu Kyi in Rangoon, the former capital.

International observers in Bangkok, Thailand are watching developments in neighbouring Burma with great interest and caution.

"Everyone who goes there sees that there are changes," one Western diplomat, whose foreign minister has travelled to Burma recently, told The Canadian Press.

Baird's exact itinerary is not known, but a visit to Suu Kyi, who's become a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression, would be an obvious stop.

'Don't be too optimistic, don't be too pessimistic': Suu Kyi

"Canada has helped us greatly with regard to our movement towards democracy," Suu Kyi said last week via an Internet link with students at Carleton University in Ottawa.

It was the first time that Suu Kyi had addressed Canada.

Baird met Burma's foreign minister at a security forum in Indonesia last summer and stressed the need for his government to release thousands of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi's own direct message to Canada was equally reserved.

"The way in which you can continue to help us is to keep up your awareness of what is happening in Burma. Don't be too optimistic. Don't be too pessimistic. Try to see things as they are and try to keep contact with the ordinary people of Burma. That is how you will learn whether or not we are making any progress under this new government."

with files from CBC News