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Benedict Rogers: What Cameron and Hague should tell Burma’s President tomorrow

Benedict Rogers
July 13, 2013

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 forstrict
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 beenreports 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.
Benedict Rogers is a
human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman
of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.