A Historic Visit to Burma by Britain’s PM Validates the Country’s Recent Reforms

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Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) meets with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on April 13, 2012 in Rangoon, Burma.

Burma proved a particularly unwilling member of the British Empire. It took three Anglo-Burmese wars to bring the colony into the fold and rebellions against the colonial overlords erupted with regularity—not to mention resistance from ethnic groups who crowded the so-called Frontier Areas around the Burmese colony proper. Aung San, the father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi—whose political party won a landslide in by-elections earlier this month—was a military hero who led Burma on the road to independence from the British before his assassination in 1947, months before the new country came into being.

A complicated historical relationship with Britain notwithstanding, it was with a mixture of excitement and relief that the Burmese greeted U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday, April 13. As the first leader of a Western power to visit Burma (also known as Myanmar) in decades, Cameron must know that his landmark one-day tour will be seen as a validation of the rapid reforms that have turned Burma from an international pariah ruled for nearly half-a-century by a repressive junta, to an intriguing economic frontier that is helmed by a hybrid civilian-military regime. Already, the U.S. and the European Union have indicated willingness to lift some sanctions placed on the country because of its leaders’ scant commitment to human rights; more discussions on removing further financial restrictions will occur in coming weeks. (According to diplomatic sources in Burma, the British Foreign Office was irked that they had been scooped last November when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her historic visit.)

Cameron arrived in Naypyidaw, the country’s surreal new capital built by the junta, where he met in gilded splendor with President Thein Sein, the retired general who has overseen Burma’s surprising reforms. These liberalizing steps have included the release of political prisoners, dialogue with ethnic groups that have been battling the Burmese army, greater freedom of the press and the relatively unfettered by-election on April 1 that saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win all but two of 45 seats on offer. During a press conference on the airport tarmac in Naypyidaw, Cameron hailed “a government now that says it is committed to reform, that has started to take steps.”

(PHOTOSAung San Suu Kyi’s Path to Victory by James Nachtwey)

Later on Friday in the country’s commercial capital, Rangoon, the British P.M. met with Suu Kyi, Burma’s moral compass and undisputed top attraction. Star-struck foreign dignitaries have flooded Burma in recent months to pose with the Nobel laureate, who spent much of two decades under house arrest. Despite having lived much of her early life abroad, where she married a British academic, she has not left Burma in decades because of fears that if she were to depart she would not be allowed to return. President Barack Obama has called Suu Kyi a “hero of mine,” and during the tarmac press conference in Naypyidaw, Cameron hailed her as “a shining example for people who yearn for freedom, for democracy, for progress.”

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

At a press conference outside Suu Kyi’s Rangoon lakeside villa, Cameron called for most economic sanctions against Burma to be suspended because of the changes unfolding in Burma. The British P.M.’s verb choice was interesting; suspending financial restrictions instead of lifting them presumably means that sanctions could be re-applied if reforms stall. Standing side by side with Cameron, Suu Kyi articulated her evolving position on sanctions, which she had for years strongly supported, saying that a suspension of economic punishments at this point in time would “strengthen the hand of the reformers.” She also reiterated her belief that President Thein Sein, with whom she has met twice since her release from house arrest (most recently this month), is genuinely committed to a reformist path. The press conference also delved into aspects both festive and spiritual: “I am very, very happy to welcome all of you, not just the Prime Minister, to Burma, and as this is the time of the water festival, it is a good opportunity to wash away all your sins, if you have any,” she said.

Indeed, as Cameron himself acknowledged in Naypyidaw when he noted that the world should be “under no illusion about what a long way there is to go,” Burma is still a place in need of deep cleansing. The country’s natural-resource bounty is firmly in the hands of a small elite with military connections. Roughly one-third of the nation lives below the poverty line. Corruption is rampant, as is ethnic dissatisfaction with treatment of minority groups by the largely ethnically Burman (or Bamar) leadership. In Rangoon, just a day after the election, the power cuts that often plague Burma’s largest city, returned after a campaign period of relatively stable electricity. Not even the star power of Suu Kyi or the prospect of her high-level British admirer, it seemed, could keep the lights fully on.

MORE: Burma’s T-Shirt Trade: Suddenly, Aung San Suu Kyi Is Everywhere