Adrian Hamilton: A little democracy suits the Burmese regime

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Sanctions on Burma would be eased but not entirely lifted, said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday. Restrictions, she added, would continue "on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts".

Some hyperbole is forgivable, given the extent to which the elections that returned Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament have excited world attention. It's the reference to the "wrong side of historic reforms" that is troubling. The US, of course, has long believed in a course of history that leads to democracy, with America having a historic duty to promote it. Now European leaders are adopting the same rhetoric.

Time was when Western interests were as clear as the denunciation of their pursuit of commercial gain. Oil and commodities ruled policy, whatever the nature of the regime. Now – and it is one of the most striking developments of the past few years – the West seems to be giving up the struggle for resources to China. Instead, "democracy", "liberal values" and "gender equality" – the "soft power" beloved of foreign policy think-tanks – have become the flags under which the West would take "ownership" of foreign political developments.

Because that is what Western politicians are seeking, in their fundamentally patronising talk of easing sanctions here and keeping them there: a form of ownership.

Have sanctions really been the instruments by which the Burmese military leadership has been brought reluctantly to democracy? And can their partial retention now work as a carrot and stick to keep Burma on its "historic" course?

As symbols of Burma's growing isolation in the past 20 years, they've certainly been useful. But as actual instruments, there's no evidence they've had much effect at all.

The military dictatorship has decided to undertake reforms not because it has been driven to them but because it now sees it as in its interests to do so. Indeed, you could argue that the regime's willingness to allow a limited form of democracy comes from its confidence in power rather than the opposite.

Burma's leaders have, after a generation of warfare, largely got on top of the ethnic revolts on their borders. They've released the Karen leader and are starting peace talks with ethnic leaders. And they seem to have an agreement with the Thai government to keep it from meddling.

At the same time, difficult though it is to swallow, they appear to have kept a pretty tight hold on civil dissension since the "Saffron Revolution" led by Buddhist monks five years ago. They can afford to let in a bit of democracy at the margins if it helps to secure their political power and brings in greater international trade and investment.

Whether, having opened the door a fraction, they will find they can no longer keep it even half-closed is another question. The British ruling class managed it with the Reform Acts and social measures in the 19th century. Most of the Continental countries, including Russia, found that they had to reverse course quickly to avoid annihilation.

The West, when it comes to it, hasn't much influence on events either way. The fear is that, by partially easing sanctions, it may help the generals' hold. Released from travel bans, they will be invited to Washington and Europe – have already been invited, indeed – by a West eager to gain whatever economic benefits it can. Just as in the past, Western leaders will find it convenient to deal with top men who can "deliver" the advantages they seek and who can prevent the insecurity they fear.

The one hope remains with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, who understands absolutely the long game she needs to play if she is to achieve real political freedom. She won't be helped by Western politicians acclaiming Burma's small moves to limited elections as "historic reform".

What's good for Sarkozy may not be good for the eurozone

It's difficult to avoid, hard as one tries, a sneaking regard for President Sarkozy as he throws himself into the election with the promise that he will be thinking up fresh ideas right through the campaign until its end. "Otherwise why bother campaigning?" he argued at the weekend.

Why indeed? Responding to every new headline with a new policy is what British politicians, do all the time. But at elections they fear a daily diet of novelty might be seen as opportunistic.

No one could accuse Sarkozy of shirking opportunity. The problem with his politics, as with the economic manifesto he announced yesterday, is that it is just that: an agglomeration of gestures on tax and spend without any overall sense of how to get France back to work again.

So far the eurozone has been held together by the European Central Bank pumping money into medium-term finance for commercial banks. But it can't go on for ever. In the meantime, the markets are sliding back again. The cost of Spanish debt is up, and austerity is facing real opposition everywhere except Germany.

As Sarkozy talks of new rules on immigration, suspending open borders and instituting more protectionism, it is hard not to sense a European project that is foundering.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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