‘The government policy on Burma is soft,’ says Zoya Phan with a hint of anger in her voice. ‘They are promoting their own trade and business interests. I want to see a more robust policy from [British Prime Minister] David Cameron that challenges the government in Burma and tackles their impunity.’
A member of Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, Zoya was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a Russian partisan who died fighting against the Nazis at the age of 18. Unlike her namesake, Zoya, now 33 and living in England, managed to escape the clutches of a despotic invasion and has become the global voice for the Karen community. While she was able to escape a cycle of suffering, hundreds of thousands of her people are still trapped and at the mercy of the military junta.
Four years after its reform process began, Burma still has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In fact, human rights violations which break international law have actually increased, with evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and even precursors of genocide all happening under President Thein Sein’s rule.
These violations don’t fit easily into the ‘transition to democracy’ narrative which the British government is trying to present about Burma.
So when Foreign office Minister Hugo Swire MP is confronted with the inconsistency of claims of reform, and ongoing human rights violations on the ground, he faces a problem. The solution British diplomats, and diplomats in the USA and the rest of Europe seem to have agreed upon, is to dismiss these abuses as ‘bumps in the road’. ‘No transition is going to be easy’, they say. ‘Of course there will be occasional setbacks’, they say. ‘Just being cynical isn’t going to change anything’, they say. ‘The overall direction of travel is good’, they say.
This last phrase is perhaps the most telling. What they are effectively saying is that as long as government-led reforms continue, they won’t allow what is happening to the Rohingya to influence their policy of building closer relations with the Burmese government. Think about how the Burmese government will interpret this messaging. It is literally handing them a get out of jail free card to do what they like regarding the Rohingya. And as we have seen since 2012, they are playing that card at every opportunity.
In assessing the reform process in Burma, which is an entirely top-down process, examining the man leading the reforms is essential.
Article in The Irrawaddy:
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled on the case of ethnic Kachin farmer Brawn Yung, who is serving a 21-year sentence in Myitkyina Prison, and called on the Burmese government to immediately release him and offer reparations because his detention is illegal.
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK, said in a statement, “By keeping Brang Yung in jail it is President Thein Sein who is the one breaking the law, not Brang Yung.
“The failure to release political prisoners, even when the UN rules their detention is illegal, is yet another example of the backsliding of the reform process.” The campaign group is calling for a new independent review mechanism for political prisoners to be established in Burma.
An article in the Myanmar Times today:
On July 15, 2013 – one year ago this week – President U Thein Sein stood next to David Cameron in London and told reporters, “By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”
“The UK, US and rest of the international community made a tactical mistake by treating President Thein Sein’s promise as meaning the problem was solved, and relaxed pressure, rather than applying pressure to make sure he kept his promise,” said Ma Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, a London-based campaigns officer for Burma Campaign UK. “It is now clear that the issue of political prisoners will remain in Burma for years to come.”
A short video about the situation of the Rohingyas in Burma.
Burma Campaign UK is quoted in an article in The Diplomat:
“As long as the foundations of military rule remain in place, the large EU funds flowing into Myanmar carry the heavy risk of supporting authoritarianism, instead of democracy. “The process of closer partnership should be frozen, along with all programs building government capacity except for health and education,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK. ‘EU aid should not be used to help build a more modern and efficient authoritarian government.'”
The British government is spending more than £60m a year on aid to Burma, but not all that aid is reaching the people who need it, and a lot is going on programmes which help the military-backed government. Here are nine ways to make improvements.