Tomorrow, Burma’s President Thein Sein will arrive in London. Until a year ago, the idea of a Burmese General with blood on his hands making an official visit to the United Kingdom would have been inconceivable. His visit is a sign of how much and how fast not only Burma, but British Government attitudes towards Burma’s regime, have changed.
In the past two years, President Thein Sein’s Government has certainly introduced reforms that have changed the atmosphere and landscape significantly. A key turning-point came when he met Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw for the first time in 2011. That paved the way for a series of reforms, including the release of many political prisoners; increased space for political activists, civil society and the media; improvements in freedom of expression; and preliminary ceasefires with most of the ethnic armed resistance groups. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her colleagues from the National League for Democracy (NLD) were elected to Parliament. As Lord Alton and I wrote following our visit to Burma in March, we should be quick to welcome and encourage these changes.
Nevertheless, there is a risk of premature euphoria. Indeed, Burma Campaign UK accuses Foreign Secretary William Hague of viewing Burma through rose-tinted glasses. Thein Sein’s visit, therefore, must be used as an opportunity to deliver some very clear messages, rather than an occasion to fête a dictator, albeit one more subtle, mild-mannered and seemingly more reforming than his predecessors.
If Burma’s transition to democracy is to be genuine, Thein Sein needs to move from piecemeal changes of atmosphere to substantive reforms of the system that lead to respect for human rights and a genuine peace in the country. So far, what is described as a reform ‘process’ is arguably more of a collection of ad hoc headline-grabbing measures, designed to create little more than an impression and atmosphere of change. For it to become a real ‘process’, Thein Sein needs to put more meat on the bone.
All remaining political prisoners should be released, for a start. Thein Sein has developed a worrying habit of freeing political prisoners just before a key overseas visit or a major UN debate, effectively holding those remaining in jail hostages to fortune. If he is sincere as a reformer, he should immediately and unconditionally release all remaining political detainees.
Repressive laws still used to lock dissidents up should be reformed or repealed. While there certainly is more space for freedom of expression in the cities, the brutal crackdown on protestors at Letpadaung copper mine last year shows old habits die hard, and just last month, many activists were charged and jailed under section 505 of Burma’s Penal Code and Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law. Latest reports on political prisoners do not make good reading for the rose-tinted spectacle wearers.
Then there is the question of the constitution. Imposed by the previous military regime in a sham process in 2008, it guarantees the Burma Army 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats, guarantees the military immunity from prosecution, and bars anyone married to a foreigner or having children who are foreign citizens from being a candidate for President. The obstacles to amending what Aung San Suu Kyi has described as one of the "most difficult" constitutions in the world are huge, but the establishment of a genuine democracy cannot occur without constitutional reform. A process that has brought Aung San Suu Kyi into the fold will not succeed if it ultimately excludes her from contesting the presidency.
Press freedom is another area of concern. While there have been significant improvements, a new Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law Bill passed by the legislature contains some concerning clauses, as the organisation Article 19 has detailed. For example, the bill fails to recognise the right to freedom of expression, provides for strict controls of the press by Government and has prompted the new Press Council to threaten to resign in protest. Without press freedom guaranteed, the transition to real democracy will fail.
The gravest concerns, however, are in regard to Burma’s ethnic and religious tensions. Since Thein Sein became President, war has increased, religious intolerance risen and the human rights and humanitarian crisis worsened. Two years ago, Thein Sein’s Government broke a 17-year ceasefire with the ethnic Kachin people in the north of the country, launching a major military offensive which resulted in more than 100,000 people fleeing their homes. More than 200 villages have been burned down, 66 churches destroyed, and there have been reports of the widespread use of rape, forced labour, torture and killing of civilians. Even in recent weeks, despite signing a seven-point agreement with the Kachin’s armed resistance to de-escalate the fighting and move towards a ceasefire, further gross violations of human rights have been perpetrated.
In other ethnic areas, where ceasefires have been reached, a new challenge has arisen: land confiscation. And in Shan State, the Burma Army has frequently violated the ceasefire. To secure a genuine peace in Burma, there must be a peace process, involving a political dialogue. Ceasefires alone are not enough, for they are – as Zoya Phan, a Karen activist who addressed the Conservative Party Conference in 2006 and 2007, describes – "just pressing the pause button" on decades of conflict. Only a political solution will enable the people of Burma to press the stop button on war, and the political solution must involve a federal system, guaranteeing the ethnic nationalities autonomy and equal rights.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya people is dire, after two waves of horrific violence in June and October last year. At least 130,000 are displaced, living in desperate conditions in temporary camps. Thousands have been killed. While the violence was largely perpetrated by Rakhine Buddhists, security forces have been complicit. Human Rights Watch claims ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are taking place.
And then there is the wider anti-Muslim violence, which has spread across the country this year. As with the slaughter of Rohingyas, the security forces largely stood by and watched as pogroms swept Meikhtila in central Burma, to Oakkan near Rangoon, to Lashio in the north. I visited a Muslim area near Naypyidaw three days after an attack had taken place, and saw the burned-out madrassah and the terror in peoples’ eyes.
In their discussions with Thein Sein, David Cameron and William Hague must make these concerns the priority. There is a perception that the British Government’s priority now is trade, and that trade trumps human rights, humanitarian concerns and democracy. A few months ago I was at a conference where two current British ministers and one former minister spoke, alongside a senior Burmese minister. Ironically, I heard quite a lot from the Burmese minister about democracy and human rights, yet those terms did not pass the lips of the British ministers.
David Cameron and William Hague must press Thein Sein on the need to release all remaining political prisoners, repeal repressive laws, establish a nationwide peace process and political dialogue and ensure that security forces act to prevent further religiously-motivated violence and protect vulnerable communities. They must urge him to take steps to stop the growing religious intolerance, curb the activities of the militant Buddhist movement ‘969’, and promote religious freedom and harmony.
They must secure Thein Sein’s co-operation with an international investigation into the violence against the Rohingyas, reform of the 1982 citizenship law which currently renders the Rohingyas stateless, and unconditional, unhindered, immediate access for aid organisations to all internally displaced people in Arakan State. They must also insist on aid access to all areas of Kachin State. Finally, they must set out clear timelines by which these benchmarks must be met.
If these steps are achieved, Thein Sein’s visit will have been worthwhile. I believe that when a dictator unclenches their fist, they must be met with an outstretched palm. Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK a year ago, and given the changes Thein Sein has made, it is right to engage with him, and encourage him further. But our engagement must be robust and critical, learning from past experience that the language the Burmese Generals understand best is that of concrete expectations and related consequences, not premature accolades.
Thein Sein has begun to change the atmosphere in Burma in many respects for the better, but under his presidency 250,000 people have been displaced, a new war has started and a new campaign of religious intolerance has emerged. The Economist Intelligence Unit still ranks Burma as one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world. Rape, forced labour and killing of civilians could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is a very, very long way still to go, and Thein Sein should be left under no illusions about that.
Britain has been one of the leading voices for democracy and human rights in Burma. William Hague has been robust on Burma in the past. He made his first speech on human rights and foreign policy alongside a Burmese activist, in 2006. Conservatives have a good track record on Burma. It is in all our interests to ensure that a stable, peaceful democracy which respects human rights is established in Burma.