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

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” following Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip  

Douglas Carswell’s defection reminds us that it's the Tories who have the most to fear from Ukip

Andrew Grice
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone