Peter Popham: The fruits of PM's trip to Burma will be a very long time coming

Share
Related Topics

He may have picked an odd day to go – the first day of the water festival, which heralds Burma's new year, when citizens joyously drench each other from dawn to dusk – but when David Cameron visits the former British colony on Friday, becoming the first British leader to do so since Anthony Eden, he will have much to talk about.

A week after Aung San Suu Kyi's crushing victory in by-elections – days after the first serious attempt to bring sanity to a business environment marked for more than 30 years by the state-sanctified lunacy of two wildly different exchange rates – Burma is suddenly Asia's new frontier.

On 23 April, the day Ms Suu Kyi takes her seat in parliament, the EU will decide whether to renew sanctions against the country that has been an international pariah since the brutal suppression of the democracy movement in September 1988. It is likely that many punitive measures will be lifted. With the National League for Democracy in parliament for the first time, and with most high-profile former political prisoners out of jail, few would dispute that Burma has turned some important corners since Ms Suu Kyi met the reforming President Thein Sein last August.

But although Mr Cameron will have a party of British businessmen in tow, experts warn against expecting quick commercial results. Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand and the man behind Network Myanmar, which has long advocated the lifting of sanctions, cautions that Burma will continue to promise more than it can deliver. He expects sanctions on defence sales to be retained for years to come. In many industries, he says, "local chicanery remains a hazard", with cronies of kleptocratic former generals still controlling key parts of the economy. Local partners must be able to gain entry to the economy, he said, but he pointed out that "there is no way of knowing if they are going to be in favour or go out of favour".

Mr Cameron's companions include business representatives from defence, energy and construction. Offshore gas and oil reserves, already exploited by Chevron and Total, could be rapidly expanded, Mr Tonkin says. International tourism, which has exploded in the past 18 months, offers the prospect of dependable returns for hotel-builders, and the managed float of the kyat and a planned law on foreign investment will create instant demand for financial services that have been lacking for many years. Burma is one of very few countries without ATMs, and credit cards are virtually useless.

But tourism's expansion underlines how much more needs to be done. Only a fraction of the country is open to foreign visitors, and they are likely to remain penned within tight confines as long as civil wars continue to simmer along the Thai border, in the far north and near the border with India.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine