There aren’t many countries where meeting the leader of the opposition
would rank above meeting the head of government — certainly this country isn’t one of them. But Burma is, because the leader of the opposition is pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace
Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and November 2010.
And Suu Kyi’s stature is now higher than ever, with her National League of Democracy party having won 43 of the 44 seats they contested in the by-elections a fortnight ago. As Clarissa reported then, there’s even speculation that she may be offered a position in President Thein Sein’s new Cabinet.
David Cameron met Sein this morning, and a Downing Street spokesman says he’s ‘cautiously
optimistic’ for Burma’s future and believes the Burmese President is ‘sincere’ in the democratic reforms he’s instituted so far. But the PM was also firm on the need for further progress, saying:
‘We should be under no illusions about what a long way there is to go and how much more the [Burmese] government has to do to show this reform is real and it is irreversible. We should
be very cautious and very sceptical about that. We need to see progress on political reform. We need to see prisoners freed and changes that show the reform is irreversible.’
Despite this note of caution, Cameron has said that the UK will press the EU to suspend its sanctions against the country. Speaking at a press conference with Suu Kyi, he said:
‘I think it is right to suspend the sanctions that there are against Burma — to suspend them, not lift them, and obviously not to include the arms embargo — because I do
think it is important to send a signal that we want to help see the changes that can bring the growth of freedom, human rights and democracy in your country.’
Suu Kyi welcomed the move, which she said ‘would strengthen the hand of the reformers’. She also thanked ‘Britain and other very close friends’ who ‘have always understood our need for
democracy, our desire to take our place in the world and the aspirations of our people’. Cameron returned the warm words, calling Suu Kyi an ‘inspiration’ and inviting her to visit the UK in June
— something she couldn’t do until recently for fear of not being allowed to return to Burma.