Leading article: Burma must prove it wants to reform

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The Independent Online

What difference has Hillary Clinton's visit to Burma this week made to that benighted country?

The US has pledged $1.2m to microcredit and other schemes, surely one of the tiniest American grants ever awarded anywhere; the Secretary of State and Aung San Suu Kyi had a long and friendly dinner together; and Mrs Clinton said that Burmese generals should be held "accountable" for crimes against their people without being put on trial for them – whatever that might mean.

Ordinary Burmese might with reason see her visit, the first by a US official of her rank for 50 years, as just another in the long line of attempts by the junta to burnish its image with empty gestures. Ms Suu Kyi herself hinted at the paltry progress made so far when she said: "If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy. We are not on that road yet..."

But it is only fair to judge Burma's progress by reference to what has happened there in the past, not to the leaps and bounds made by other countries. Last year's rigged elections promised scant hope of real change. Few people expected much of Thein Sein – himself a retired general – when he became President. We must hope that slowly, haltingly, the hermit nation is moving from the shadows, to accept that the only way to avoid becoming a de facto Chinese province is to begin going through the motions of civilisation.

It would be wildly optimistic to imagine that a military caste which has created a Raj-like fortress of wealth and privilege will surrender its position willingly. There are risks, too, of the regime using engagement with the US merely to secure an easing of sanctions and lessen its reliance on Chinese investment, while entrenching its grip on power and keeping its ethnic minorities repressed.

But perhaps, as Ms Suu Kyi has also said, there is now no turning back. The coincidental signing by the regime yesterday of a peace deal with the Shan State Army (South) – one of the insurgent forces which has been battling Burma for decades – may indicate that more ambitious moves are in the offing.