Leading article: Britain and Burma - a special relationship

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

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.