The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, is obviously a cause for celebration – but we have to be realistically doubtful about the prospects of change in Burma. While it is just possible that her freedom might light the slow-burning fuse of a popular uprising against the military junta, it is likely that her release is, on the contrary, an indicator of the regime's confidence and strength. Unlike her release in 2002, which was part of a dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations, this time it forms no part of a recognition by the junta that it needs to engage with her or her party, the National League for Democracy, which it recently dissolved.
While there are superficial similarities, therefore, with another global media event, the release of Nelson Mandela 20 years ago, the story is very different. Yes, a charismatic leader of a national liberation movement can shape history, but only by pushing at a door that is already being opened by wider pressures. Those pressures are largely absent in the case of Burma.
The protests led by Buddhist monks three years ago were easily suppressed. It seemed, briefly, that the junta's inept response to the cyclone a year later, in which 80,000 died, might provoke a further convulsion. But no. UN sanctions, imposed a decade ago, have been undermined by China, France, Japan, India, Malaysia and Thailand, all hungry for its natural resources. Although the generals may be divided between hawks and doves – as ever with closed regimes, it is hard to tell – they see Ms Suu Kyi's release as an act of clemency by an all-powerful government, the legitimacy of which was reinforced in their eyes by last Sunday's elections.
For the junta, the international beatification of Ms Suu Kyi carries no more weight than condemnation of those elections as patently unfree and unfair. And it is doubtful whether either the internal or the external pressures on the regime will change simply as the result of Ms Suu Kyi's being granted permission to travel. Internally, much depends on Ms Suu Kyi's skill in mobilising her people and dividing the regime. The most important external power is China. There is an ancient Burmese proverb: "When China spits, Burma swims." And it is true that the last time Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, the Chinese government sent her a basket of flowers. But China's leaders have no interest in advancing democracy in their sphere of influence.
No doubt we will continue to discuss a combination of "smart sanctions" (aimed at the generals) with the incentive of consumer capitalism (aimed at the people). But we should not expect too much, too soon. Sanctions have had a poor record as an instrument of enlightened foreign policy, in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, and worked in South Africa only when the apartheid regime was ready to face up to the end game.
David Cameron has said many of the right things. In the House of Commons after his visit to India, he said he had raised the issue of Burma with the government there, "because I think it is important that we talk to the neighbouring states of those countries.... We should be absolutely clear that the situation in Burma is an affront to humanity." He described Aung San Suu Kyi's example as "deeply inspiring" and added: "All of us like to think that we give up something for democracy and politics; we do not. Compared with those people, we do nothing. They are an inspiration right across the world, and we should stand with them."
The Prime Minister repeated those sentiments yesterday, and no doubt he mentioned Burma when he was in Beijing last week. They are the right sentiments, but we should be under no illusion that they will have any more than a marginal influence on the hard power structures that sustain repressive regimes in countries such as Burma. The Independent on Sunday supports liberal interventionism – the use of military force in cases of humanitarian emergency or in pursuit of an unambiguous UN mandate. But Burma is not, as Iraq was not, a suitable case for such a policy.
If neither economic sanctions nor military force are viable options, we should remember that information and communication is power. It is important that we express our solidarity with the people of Burma, with Ms Suu Kyi, and with the principle of democracy, and hope that, as in so many countries in the two decades since the fall of Soviet communism, people will continue to seize the prize of freedom for themselves.