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Derek Tonkin: West's hardline policy has been a disaster

US Sectretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation that the US would soon reveal a change of approach on Burma will mean a considerable change of style in dealing with the military regime. It is rather less likely to herald any change of substance.

The country has had military regimes of one sort or another since 1962. Helping the present regime to break out of this vicious cycle will require time and patience. The generals who rule Burma have little or no experience of the outside world. To expect them to hand over power without guarantees for their personal future or the stability of the country is simply not on the cards.

Attempts by Western powers to force a transition to democracy through sanctions have been an unmitigated failure because of a simple fact: Burma's regional neighbours have not joined in. As a result, Western countries have surrendered influence to China, Russia and other Asian countries, with nothing to show in return.

Britain, France and the EU attended yesterday's meeting of the "Group of Friends" of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, at which Mrs Clinton spoke, and are said to have supported the new line.

But the EU has shown little sign of imaginative diplomacy in recent months. It tends to follow the hard-line British lead on Burma, which flows directly from Gordon Brown. With so many other problems on his plate, not least over Libya, Afghanistan and at home, a change of direction on Burma is just not a priority for the Prime Minister. At least the US initiative should encourage the EU to look at Burma policy afresh.

We need to look beyond the elections due next year. Political prisoners are being slowly released, but there is little hope of most Western conditions, to which China and Russia pay lip service, being met, and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. In the short term, it would be prudent to have only low expectations of the results of any engagement. But the first step is always the most difficult.

The writer was the British ambassador to Thailand from 1986 to 1989 and is the chairman of Network Myanmar