Leading article: Unscrupulous investments

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The Independent Online

Rumours were circulating earlier this year that the grip of the Burmese generals was finally slipping. In May, the country's military rulers allowed a UN representative to visit the imprisoned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Talk of change was in the air. But now the shutters have come down anew. One of the most repressive regimes in the world appears to be firmly back in control.

To understand why, we must examine how the international climate has changed. To the West, Burma remains a pariah. But Asian nations are increasingly willing to do business with the generals. A race is on for access to Burma's abundant oil and gas resources. A pipeline to carry oil to China from the Middle East through Burma was agreed in April. India, also thirsty for energy, is making friendly overtures to the generals, too. Meanwhile, Thailand is paying $1.2bn a year in cash to the regime for natural gas.

All this investment is propping up the regime, allowing it to continue its vicious repression of the Burmese population and funding its ethnic war against the Karen people. There are echoes here of the way Chinese energy contracts with Sudan are freeing Khartoum to pursue its murderous campaign in Darfur, in spite of international condemnation.

Among Burma's rulers there is evidence of new confidence. The most senior general, Than Shwe, recently put on an opulent wedding reception for his daughter. And the pressure on Ms Suu Kyi has resumed. Her access to healthcare has been sharply restricted in recent months. The prospects of a democratic handover of power have rarely looked more distant. It is tempting to conclude from all this that the strategy of isolating the regime is failing and to wonder whether, in light of the apparent unscrupulousness of other Asian economies, it can ever work. Could it be time for the West to join the likes of China and India by engaging economically with Burma? Absolutely not. All the evidence suggests that Burma is not at a stage where engagement will be productive. There are no moderate generals poised to take over. Western engagement will only shore up the regime further.

The moral duty of the West is to attempt to persuade China and others that ignoring the brutalisation of the Burmese people for the sake of a few energy contracts will ultimately prove a very bad investment.