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UK ‘watching the mood on the streets’ of Burma

Rangoon (Mizzima) – British Foreign Secretary William Hague says his government will watch the mood on the streets in Burma before considering removing sanctions on the Burmese government. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague answers questions from the media at the British Council in Rangoon on Friday, January 6, 2012. Photo: MizzimaHague was speaking at a press conference in Rangoon at the end of a two-day trip to Naypyitaw to gauge the changes taking place in Burma and encourage the move to meaningful democracy. Speaking to a packed crowd of local and foreign journalists at the British Council in Rangoon, the foreign secretary said he could see positive changes taking place in Burma but was worried about the word on the street that indicated not much had changed on the ground level.

Press conference at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Residence

The British government would watch what is happening and would reconsider the issue of sanctions in the next few months. 

Hague said he was in line with the position of countries in the European Union who want more proof of democratic changes and the release of all political prisoners.

“First, many hundreds of men and women still remain in jail here for their beliefs. This has no place in any democracy, and it has no place in the future of this country,” he said at his final press conference. “There is an urgent need for the U.N. to be allowed to deliver humanitarian assistance independently and with access to all areas, for an end to offensive operations in Kachin State, and for meaningful political dialogue with ethnic armed groups.”

Hague said he also raised concerns about the Rohingya community that lacks basic civil and human rights. The British government would send humanitarian assistance to the displaced people in Kachin State, Hague said.

Hague's visit is the first time in over half a century that a British foreign minister has visited Burma, a country it once ruled. 

In response to a question on direct British investment in Burma, he said this would depend on the political situation.

During his two-days of non-stop meetings, Hague met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin on Thursday followed by a meeting with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the sprawling new capital city.

After the meetings, he told reporters that Britain wanted to see progress on the release of political prisoners, fair by-elections, resolution of conflicts with armed ethnic groups and humanitarian access to the war zones. 

Hague said the foreign minister assured him the recent changes are irreversible. “I stressed that the world will judge the government by its actions,” he said.

However, the BBC later reported that in an interview Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwi said Burma did not acknowledge there were political prisoners.

"Prisoners are the ones who violated the law", he said, and it was up to the president to decide when prisoners were released. Burmese officials refuse to use the words “political prisoners.” 

The Financial Times quoted Hague saying, “I have assured him that if they do [release political prisoners], there will be a strongly positive response from the UK and, I believe, the rest of the European Union.”

The EU’s annual review of Burma policy comes in early April. Some European diplomats have suggested that if reforms continue and the elections are deemed fair, the EU could lift sanctions this year.

In a press conference on Friday, Hague said, “We must not relax our pressure. That is something we will guard against.”

The big tests, say diplomats, is whether the upcoming elections will be fair and whether all political prisoners will be released. 

Estimates vary on the exact number of political detainees in Burmese jails, ranging from around 600 to up to 1,500. Getting accurate numbers is impossible due to the government’s failure to acknowledge it has political prisoners, and a lack of information and transparency. Burma is notorious for protecting information held by various ministries, and for not allowing reporters access to information. Only recently have government ministers consented to talk to non-government affiliated reporters.

On Thursday evening, Hague travelled to Rangoon for talks with leaders of the country's ethnic minorities and with Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom he had a private dinner, according to reports.

Hague's visit follows Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in December and Suu Kyi's recent decision to run for a seat in Parliament in the April 1 parliamentary by-election.

Assessing the stance of the British government, Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK, said: “The British government knows that there has not been significant deep reform in Burma, and that the pace of changes that were taking place has slowed. By visiting Burma, William Hague is demonstrating that the UK is willing to engage and lift sanctions, but only if there are genuine political reforms, and an end to human rights abuses.” 

On the sincerity of the new civilian government, he said, “The fact that most political prisoners remain in jail and that attacks against ethnic civilians continue are reasons to doubt the commitment of the military-backed government to genuine reforms. 

“The British government has prioritized human rights over business interests and deserves credit for that. We have urged William Hague to push for the release of all political prisoners, and to make the point that while cease-fires talks are welcome, they need to go beyond cease-fires and start talking about a political solution to ethnic issues. The British government must veto moves by other EU members to relax economic sanctions before genuine reforms take place,” he said.

While many are optimistic that Burma’s road to the future will reach true democracy, others who have long experience in the country aren’t quite so sure. A founder of the National League for Democracy, Win Tin, holds fast to his experience of Burma over the past 50 years.

Win Tin told The Guardian newspaper: “Hague should keep in mind that, yes, we have found a light in the tunnel here in Burma. But we are still in the tunnel. Maybe we can reach the light, maybe we can make it brighter, and maybe we can even leave the tunnel. But we don't know yet. And meanwhile, we are still in the dark.”

Credit : Mizzima -Burma VJ

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