01/10/2012 02:28 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Beware of Becoming Burma's Useful Idiots

When I made my first trip to Burma in 1989, the blood on the streets from a harsh crackdown on student protesters had hardly dried. The climate of fear was so acute that I'd meet with terrified young activists in secret, and evaded government agents pretty much at every turn.

I'd slipped in as a journalist masquerading as a children's book writer. At that time, journalists were banned from the country and the climate of fear and repression was palpable.

Now, as the country appears to be entering a new phase in its relationship with the West, a parade of foreign secretaries -- led by Hillary Clinton and the UK's William Hague -- are assessing whether the Burmese generals have genuine intentions towards long-awaited reform, including allowing the persecuted opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to stand as a bona fide candidate in elections.

The West's sudden rapprochement with Burma (also known as Myanmar) wouldn't be happening without a nod from Suu Kyi, who for many months has been signalling that she welcomed reforms that allows her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to stand for re-elections.

Suu Kyi reminded Clinton -- and no doubt Hague -- that hundreds of political prisoners still remain behind bars. Of the estimated 180,000 inmates in Burmese jails and labour camps, as many as 1,700 are political prisoners.

History shows us that the Burmese generals can be astonishingly brutal and vengeful, not to mention unpredictable and manipulative. Just ask Suu Kyi, who, despite winning a landslide election victory in 1990, was denied official recognition. The Nobel Peace Prize winner's party was never allowed to take power.

Suu Kyi has spent much of the past 20 years in detention. During that time, she has retained a stoic, inspirational composure that has inspired freedom fighters the world over.

To say that the Burmese generals who have been meeting with diplomatic A-list visitors such as Clinton and Hague have blood on their hands is almost an understatement. Aside from the 1988 crackdown, which killed thousands of young activists, many shot at point-blank range, their record of repression includes the crackdown on monks and other peaceful protesters in September 2007 -- which resulted in the death of at least 20 people, probably much more according to Human Rights Watch.

More than five decades of military rule -- marked by corruption, mismanagement and repression -- has brought a country that was once the jewel of South-East Asia to its knees. Burma was once described as a nation that would never know hunger: These days, reports of malnutrition are increasingly common and many families can afford just one meal a day.

According to Refugees International, an estimated 500,000 people are displaced by conflict in eastern Burma and another 800,000 Muslims in western part of the country are stateless and "lack the most basic of human rights." Heavy confrontation with ethnic armed groups in border areas persist. Approximately three million Burmese have been forced to flee to neighboring countries.

During my 1989 visit -- and again in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 -- I encountered beautiful, intelligent Burmese whose resolve and ability to voice their feelings had been pummeled. "We have reached the point," said a wealthy Yangon businessman with close ties to the National League for Democracy (NLD) during my 1989 visit, "that the words 'home' and 'safe' no longer mean the same thing."

That very same sentiment can be heard today. No conversations touching on politics, the regime, or Suu Kyi can take place outside the safety of homes, for fear of reprisals.

It was during Cyclone Nargis that reports surfaced of the regime denying life-saving food, water, and shelter to the tens of thousands of victims in the remote Irrawaddy Delta. Some aid workers were told at the time that the worst-hit areas were home to opposition supporters -- trouble-makers in the regime's distorted eyes -- and that help would not be forthcoming. The documented frustrations of aid ships not being to dock in Burmese ports are now legendary.

Even to this day, access for aid workers, NGOs, and others is difficult. Journalist visas are handed out only sparingly and outsiders who overstep boundaries are subject to expulsion.

The release of Suu Kyi from house arrest, the release of some political prisoners, and easing of information restrictions are all welcome moves. But as foreign ministers and secretaries of states jet their way to Myanmar, they must be reminded that they are dealing with a brutal regime that has little understanding of honouring human rights commitments, not to mention protecting its own people during natural disasters.

Dr. Tint Swe, who was elected to parliament in 1990 as a member of the NLD but was forced to flee the country during the military coup, said: "There has been military rule for nearly half a century and only a year of limited reforms. However positive the changes have been, the people don't trust the military regime."

While crippling sanctions are still in place by the United States and others, a balanced, well-calibrated stick-and-carrot approach should be maintained until the generals in Burma show they are truly committed to reform, justice, social good, and peace. And helping ordinary Burmese to emerge from decades of grinding poverty needs to be made a top priority of Western leaders.

Mr.Hague said it right after he concluded a meeting with Suu Kyi:

It is important that we don't relax the pressure prematurely and are clear on what we want the government here to do for us to change our policies...Much more needs to be done and it is vital that the remaining political prisoners be released. It's not possible to say a country is fair and democratic while people are still in prison on the grounds of their political beliefs.