Leading article: Britain and Burma - a special relationship

Sanctions on the regime cronies who dominate the country's economy must be kept

Share
Related Topics

It is right and proper that the Prime Minister should be the first Western leader to visit Burma in more than five decades. The Burmese will see it that way and so should we. Modern Burma, warts and all, was fashioned by Britain far more than by any other country. As with many other former colonies, both its aspirations and its nightmares owe more to British influence than any other single factor.

When Britain banished the monarchy and merged the kingdom of Ava – ruled by the king from his capital at Mandalay – with the rest of the Indian Empire in 1886, a proud, pious and ancient civilisation was dismantled and de-natured. The Burmese spent the next decades trying to maintain their dignity and find some coherence in their new situation, both in the roasting lowlands and in the rugged marches populated by dozens of different ethnic groups.

The culmination of the struggle was the emergence of Aung San, father of the independent Burmese army, who came closer than anyone before him to personifying his people's ideals and identity. Britain's Clement Attlee recognised his unique role. Had Aung Sang not been assassinated, he would have led his nation into independence in 1948.

The democracy Aung San championed lasted little more than a decade before it was abolished by Aung San's former comrade, Ne Win, ushering in a half century of military rule. Much that Britain had tried to implant, from the university system to parliament and a free press, was thrown out. But two things were retained: the imperial concept of property relations and the army itself. Unconsciously or not, Ne Win built Burma's army as an élite, alien caste, its privileges justified by permanent civil war.

So when the excesses of Burmese army rule provoked nationwide rebellion in 1988, Britain rightly felt more than a twinge of responsibility. And it was more than blind chance that the woman who became the rebellion's figurehead, Aung San's daughter Suu Kyi, should be tied so tightly to Britain – by marriage and by 20 years' residence.

She was never, as her enemies said, a British stooge, but England made her, as her accent and her whole persona proclaimed. In the 24 years since then, Britain has often played an important role in the effort to coax, bully and badger Burma's ruling generals into behaving.

The attempt often appeared doomed, yet suddenly, with the election of Suu Kyi and 40 of her colleagues to parliament, it has yielded results. It is right that David Cameron should be among the first to offer congratulations.

But that primacy offers something else, as the composition of the Prime Minister's visiting party makes clear: the 35 British businessmen going in with him are not there for the noodle soup. Britain now would seem to have the opportunity to cut excellent deals on some of the many resources Burma has to offer, such as tropical hardwoods, precious stones and oil and gas.

The drawback, of course, is that sanctions imposed by the West ban all such trade. As Burma reforms, the calls by business and its supporters for sanctions to be removed grow more raucous. But these are calls that it is Mr Cameron's duty to resist. Sanctions are the only tool in the West's locker. More than any other external factor, they induced the regime to hold this month's reasonably fair elections.

Burma needs to be rewarded for progress so far, but those sanctions that prevent the regime cronies who dominate Burma's economy from establishing cosy relations with Western business must be maintained. In ensuring that they are, Britain will fight fierce pressure from Germany and elsewhere. But the goal is a democracy that not only holds fair elections but also brings into being a just as well as a prosperous society. It is a goal that Britain has championed for many years. It must not be jettisoned now that success is in sight.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?