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Is Britain’s Honeymoon With Burma’s President Over?

By Mark Farmaner
Huffington Post
Director at Burma Campaign UK.

It’s a scenario used in endless Hollywood romantic comedies, and many of us will have had a friend in the same situation. Girl meets boy, or boy meets girl, falls hopelessly in love‎, but the friends say he/she isn’t what they pretend to be, and don’t approve. The friends get ignored, but their new love can’t keep up the charade for ever, and their true nature starts to reveal itself. The girl/boy tries to convince themselves nothing is wrong, and put on a brave face to their friends, but deep inside, the doubts creep in.

‎This is pretty much the stage the British government has reached with President Thein Sein of Burma. Make no mistake, they are still doe-eyed, but deep inside, there are doubts, especially following events of the past four months.

Political prisoners were not released by the end of 2013, as Thein Sein had promised. This was a particular embarrassment for the British government, as Thein Sein made the promise during a controversial visit to the UK, and the government had seized on this promise to defend their invitation to him.

A reported massacre of ethnic Rohingya took place in mid-January. Exact details are still unknown, but the Burmese government expelled MSF from Rakhine State for reporting that it had treated people with injuries. MSF were the main provider of healthcare to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire MP visited Burma in late January, and received a double snub from the Burmese government. He was banned from making a planned speech at Rangoon University, and within hours of his visiting Kachin State and calling for peace, the Burmese Army attacked two civilian villages.

The government of Burma then allowed those inciting anti-Rohingya hatred to hold a new wave of protests, and took no effective action to protect aid agencies in Rakhine State when they were attacked by anti-Rohingya protesters, leaving 300,000 Rohingya without live-saving aid.

At the same time journalists, including Zaw Pe from the Democratic Voice of Burma, were being arrested and jailed again, despite promises to respect media freedom.

Thein Sein then went back on his promise to allow ethnic Rohingya to register as Rohingya in the census being held during April. Again this caused particular embarrassment to the British government, as they provided £10 million in funding for the census, and had been defending the census against criticism in the British Parliament.

It seems this combination of events has finally caused the first hairline cracks in the rose-tinted glasses foreign secretary William Hague has been wearing when he looks at Burma.

The UK is a very long way from accepting the reality of ‎what is happening in Burma, let alone admitting it, but in the past month the first signs of unhappiness appeared in what has otherwise been a dramatic story of blind, yet unrequited, love.

The British government issues a quarterly update of the human rights situation in Burma. Burma Campaign UK was so concerned about how the update published on 31st December 2013 talked up the situation in Burma, and ignored many serious violations of human rights, that it published a briefing paper –Downplaying Human Rights – containing a line by line analysis of how the report was deliberately misleading and even inaccurate. The latest quarterly report, covering January to March 2014, is completely different in tone and content. So much so that it was welcomed by Burma Campaign UK. The update directly addressed many of the serious setbacks in human rights in Burma that have happened in recent months, rather than trying to gloss over and downplay problems.

In early April Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire MP also summoned Burma’s ambassador to London to express concern about aid agencies helping the Rohingya being forced out of Rakhine State, and the Rohingya being excluded from the census. This was the strongest diplomatic step he has ever taken, and didn’t happen even when evidence of state involvement in ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya was published.

The British government also issued a statement of concern regarding the conduct of the census, with a stronger tone than recent, and rare, expressions of concern.

Britain then requested a briefing on Burma at the United Nations Security Council, the first such discussion in a year.

None of these steps individually amount to very much, but together, they signify a small but important shift. It is not enough to influence to government of Burma yet, but it is an improvement on the obsequious approach taken in the past two years.

The British government’s honeymoon with Thein Sein isn’t over. It believes in him, and has staked its reputation on him. Trade and investment, rather than human rights, remain the top priority. But at last, there are signs of doubts. We can only hope they grow, but divorce is still a long way off.