Teo Cheng Wee – Straits Times
Putrajaya. British Prime Minister David Cameron has hinted that he might push for a relaxation of European Union sanctions against Burma, if he is able to see “real change” when he visits the country today.
Such a move would mark an about-turn for Britain, which has for years been one of the strongest proponents of maintaining sanctions on Burma.
“Just as Britain played a leading role in Europe in placing tough sanctions on that regime to encourage it to reform, so we should be the ones — if we are satisfied that real change is taking place — not to be backwards in response,’ he said during a joint press conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak here yesterday.
At a dialogue with undergraduates at the Malaysian campus of Nottingham University later, he said he hoped that after his visit to Burma, he would be able to return and tell his country and others in the EU that the change in the South-east Asian country is “irreversible.”
“In a world of difficulty and darkness and all sorts of problems, here is one bright light that we should encourage, and we should respond in a way that makes that regime feel that it is moving in the right direction and that the world is on its side,” he said.
Cameron is on a week-long visit to Asia and has met leaders from Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Today, he will hold talks with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore. He will then fly to Burma, making him the first Western head of government to visit the country in almost 50 years, and also the first since it held successful landmark by-elections last week.
In Burma, Cameron is scheduled to call on President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, both of whom he praised yesterday — Mr Thein Sein for his ‘courage’ in moving the country towards reform and Suu Kyi for her “dignified struggle” for democracy.
Businesses across Europe are watching the situation in Burma closely, concerned that they are missing out on huge business opportunities there because of the head start their Asian counterparts have made. A formal European decision is expected on April 23.
But Cameron also stressed yesterday the importance of strengthening diplomatic and business ties elsewhere in the region. He called South-east Asia’s countries ‘some of the strongest motors of the world economy’ today.
A business delegation is accompanying Cameron on his trip to Asia. In Indonesia, national carrier Garuda signed a contract worth US$2.5 billion (S$3.2 billion) to purchase 11 Airbus planes, while in Japan, carmaker Nissan announced plans to build a new hatchback at its plant in Sunderland in 2014.
With Malaysia, he admitted that Britain has “neglected” bilateral ties despite the fact that there are 13,000 Malaysians studying in British universities every year and 150,000 working for British companies. Malaysians own some of Britain’s major football clubs, including Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff, yet the last time a British prime minister visited Malaysia was almost 20 years ago, he said.
“I’m determined to put that right,” he said. “Britain is back, back to do business with Malaysia, back to build our partnership on vital global issues.” The two countries pledged to double bilateral trade to £8 billion (S$16 billion) by 2016.
Noting that keeping citizens safe from the threats of terrorism and extremism was a big challenge to Britain, Cameron paid tribute to Malaysia and Indonesia — two of the biggest Muslim-majority countries in the world— for fostering both democracy and moderation.
He praised Datuk Seri Najib for starting a Global Movement of Moderates, saying it was the “right response to the extremism and violence that has blighted so many lives around the world.”
Earlier in the day, he hailed Indonesia in a speech at Jakarta’s Al Azhar Islamic university. “If Indonesia can succeed, it can lead the world in showing how democracy can offer an alternative to the dead-end choice of dictatorship or extremism,” he said.