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Burmese authorities must now deliver real change

THE joint press conference by David Cameron and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's internationally revered opposition leader, was a historic occasion.

After 60 years of military repression, it may herald a new dawn but, despite the smiles, the keynote was rightly one of note caution.

The Prime Minister's call for the suspension rather than complete lifting of all sanctions, except the embargo on weapons, simultaneously signalled encouragement to further progress towards democracy by the Burmese Governmen and a warning that wholesale removal of sanctions would be premature. That is the balance that must be struck by the EU this month when current sanctions expire.

The "spiritual awakening of the people" described by Aung San Suu Kyi has been triggered by the transfer of power two years ago to President Thein Sein and her own release from house arrest in November 2010.

It is Aung San Suu Kyi's extraordinary fortitude, unfaltering dignity and grace over decades as a political prisoner that have made her an international icon for human rights and democracy and kept the international spotlight on the junta's repressive tactics. In speaking out in support of the suspension of EU sanctions she made a typically bold and brave gesture, showing the Burmese government she is willing to compromise and take positive steps.

While Thein Sein has embraced liberal reform, he leads a military-backed regime that, despite recent peace treaties with a number of ethnic groups, is still at war with its own people in the border region with Thailand. Yet the unexpectedly fast pace of change over the last two years, albeit prompted by the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, anxiety about China's economic influence and a fear of uprising inspired by the Arab Spring, offers an opportunity that must be seized.

International companies are keen to exploit Burma's considerable natural resources: oil, gas, gemstones and tropical hardwoods. Nevertheless, the West should proceed with caution. Britain, as the former colonial power, has a particular responsibility to ensure the economic benefits to be gained from international business reach all the people and do not devastate the environment of a land classified by the UN as a "least developed country".

If suspending sanctions is to have the desired effect of underpinning and accelerating transition from military to democratic rule, it should be accompanied by targets and timescales for political solutions with rebel ethnic groups, constitutional changes and a fair and free election in 2015.

After years of debate about sanctions, it is evident that they have been important in encouraging reform. The ball is now in the Burmese authorities' court; they must be under no illusion that they are required to deliver real change.

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