David Burrowes is Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate and a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma.
The Prime Minister is right that 2015 will be a “make or break” election, but not just for Britain. This time next year Burma, ruled for over 50 years by military-backed regimes, will go to the polls and cast judgement on the country’s three-year reform programme. If the elections are fair we should see the election of Burma’s beacon of peace and democracy – Aung San Suu Kyi. However this looks increasingly unlikely as each day passes with an unreformed constitution excluding Aung San Suu Kyi from standing as a Presidential candidate.
During the Conservative Party Conference, courtesy of the human rights advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, I spent a week in Burma rather than Birmingham to see for myself what progress has been made in democratic reform. I travelled with Benedict Rogers, CSW’s Burma expert, author of several books on the country, who is also a parliamentary candidate and serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I had the privilege of delivering three public lectures, focused on the relationship between parliamentary democracy, human rights and civil society, to three distinct audiences: civil society and religious leaders in Kachin State, northern Burma, organised by a remarkable organisation, the Humanity Institute; the British Council in Rangoon; and at least 150 people from a range of political, ethnic and religious backgrounds, organised by young activists from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a restaurant which was once the office of her father, Burma’s independence leader General Aung San.
Three years ago the idea of a British Member of Parliament, with a decade-long track-record of speaking out about Burma’s horrific human rights record, addressing public gatherings on democracy and human rights in Burma would have been inconceivable. And so it is absolutely right to recognise that in the past three years in Burma some things have changed for the better. However, almost everyone I spoke to expressed concern that progress has stalled, that there are signs of back-tracking, and that human rights continue to be widely and severely violated. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, in her most recent report last month expresses the same concern, and earlier this month Aung San Suu Kyi herself said the same.
I met internally displaced Kachin people, surviving in basic conditions in a temporary camp in a church compound, having fled their villages following attacks by the Burma Army. “We want to go back to our villages,” one man told me. “But the army are still there and we do not feel secure. Our request is for genuine peace”.
I met the wives of Kachin men who have been arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned and tortured. One told me how her husband’s torturers heated a knife in a fire and then sliced his skin, rubbed bamboo poles up and down his shins, subjected him to water torture and stamped on him. Another man described being forced to kneel on very sharp stones with his arms outstretched as if on a cross, a physically painful position to be in for a long time but also a deliberate mockery of his Christian faith. A hand grenade was placed in his mouth. Others claimed that male prisoners were forced to engage in sex, and to beat each other with sticks. I met another man, Brang Shawng, who after reporting the rape and murder of his own daughter, Ja Seng Ing, by Burmese Army soldiers found he was the one on trial, charged with defamation.
I met a representative of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the most persecuted and marginalised people groups in the world. The Rohingyas, despite living in Burma for generations, have been stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless. Following appalling violence two years ago, thousands are now held in dire conditions in camps and thousands more have fled the country. Those who remain face segregation and further dehumanisation.
I left Burma feeling a mix of hope, scepticism and fear.
Hope inspired by some remarkable people of all generations who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for democracy. Men such as 87 year-old U Tin Oo, co-founder and Patron of the NLD, who still works in his party’s office every day. Young activists who until three years ago spent their youth on the run from the police, in hiding, leading an underground movement. Leaders of the 1988 student movement, now middle-aged, who spoke of reconciliation with their former captors and told me that they had spent so long fighting for democracy they could afford to be “patient” a little longer. Such dignity, fortitude and forbearance is inspiring, and chastening when in our country we can be so complacent about democracy.
Scepticism, because the question now on most people’s minds is not so much whether there is a transition, but rather what is it a transition to? A genuine democracy and a real peace, or simply a more subtle, less brutal, authoritarian regime that has done just enough to shed its pariah status and win the garb of international acceptability, while maintaining its grip on power?
The government’s refusal to amend the constitution is just one of many signs that call into question the sincerity and credibility of the so-called “reform” process. As U Tin Oo told me, “as the election draws nearer, the government is thinking how to win at any cost”. Aung San Suu Kyi herself told me that she is “thoroughly sceptical about the goodwill of the government” and has “no faith” in President Thein Sein’s regime.
And fear, because there are real risks that a widespread campaign of anti-Muslim hatred and extremist Burman Buddhist nationalism may result in further violence; that the peace process with the ethnic nationalities may unravel and the country could return to war; and that recent arrests of journalists and activists may signal new-found freedoms being scaled back. U Tin Oo said that at the heart of all Burma’s challenges is trust. “We need to restore rights, establish peace and build trust.”
For all these reasons, Britain and the international community need to be vigilant. Britain has turned the tap on to trade with Burma recognising progress but it has an historic and immediate responsibility to ensure democratic and human rights are enjoyed by all the people of Burma. The United Nations General Assembly must pass a strong annual resolution on Burma, welcoming the positive changes but making it clear that Burma’s acceptance into the international community cannot be complete for as long as grave human rights concerns remain. We must further invest in strengthening civil society, supporting initiatives that counter religious hatred and promote peace, and help Burma’s democrats build the institutions and capacity with which to transition to genuine democracy, regardless of the government’s intentions. And we must send a clear, unambiguous message to the government that, as Aung San Suu Kyi put it to me, the elections in 2015 must be “free, fair and on time”. Burma has changed in the past three years in some ways, on the surface, but it has not changed nearly enough. There is a very, very long way to go.