Peter Popham: All the big challenges remain to be confronted

The civil wars on the borders go on unabated, producing a fresh crop of refugees every month

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The new year began in Burma not with a bang but a whimper: a prisoner amnesty in which very few political prisoners were set free. Many of the hundreds who remain have been in jail for years. I am thinking of the family I met in a poor suburb of Rangoon two years ago: the father had served more than 10 years for handing out fliers for the NLD; now his son was serving 40 years for trying to organise opposition political activity.

It is people like these who U Win Tin, Aung San Suu Kyi's colleague in the National League for Democracy, was referring to when he said this week: "We see the light but we are still in the tunnel." Win Tin spent 19 years in jail. The people responsible are still in power: nothing that has happened over the past year has endangered their positions.

On the contrary: every new visit by the likes of William Hague brings closer the day when the gates of this low-wage, resource-rich land where unions have only been legal for the past few months will swing open and a great cheer will go up – not from the huddled masses of Burmese but from the would-be billionaires.

Burma has been moving with cunningly calibrated steps, doing just enough to persuade Hillary Clinton and Mr Hague and the rest that the place is on the move, but deferring until some unnamed date nearly all the reforms that would improve the people's lot.

The civil wars on the borders go on unabated, producing a fresh crop of refugees every month: when is President Thein Sein going to demonstrate real courage and launch a peace conference? When is he going to release the rest of the political prisoners? All the big challenges remain to be confronted. No serious engagement should begin until that happens.

Peter Popham is the author of 'The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi' (Rider)

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