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Critics claim UK government puts Myanmar trade over human rights

The British government has been accused by NGOs and opposition MPs of putting trade in Myanmar ahead of human rights. British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire is pictured during his trip to visit Rakhine State in December 2012. Photo:Foreign Office news on Burma via Facebook

January 16, 2015

Critics have slammed Mr Hugo Swire MP, a junior minister in the UK’s Foreign Office, on January 15, for his failure to provide a robust response to a litany of Myanmar human rights abuses during a debate held in the British Parliament.

The UK-based NGOs Burma Campaign UK and Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK suggested the British government is more interested in doing business than raising the issue of rights abuse.

The debate, held in the House of Commons on January 14 was secured by opposition party Labour MP Mr Jonathan Ashworth and focused largely on the controversy over how the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State are treated.

However, the NGOs said they believe Mr Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office failed to accept that his approach has failed to influence the Myanmar government, and failed to announce any new initiatives.

“As a government minister he is in a position to make a real difference, to help end some of the violations which are taking place, help free political prisoners, even save lives,” wrote Mr Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK on January 15. “But instead of this, he prioritises trade deals. He must know deep down inside that what he is doing is devoid of any moral principle and justification. Does he have private moments when his conscience makes him question what he does?”

The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said in a statement January 15 that the response of Mr Swire was very disappointing, noting the UK government’s approach was not working.

The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said it has asked the British government to support UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon taking the lead in negotiating humanitarian access in Rakhine State, but Mr Swire had failed to support this, the organisation said.

During the UK parliamentary debate, MPs highlighted the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the exclusion of the Rohingya from the census, the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, violations of international law against the Rohingya, refugees in Bangladesh, restrictions on marriage, and many other forms of abuse and repression they claimed were faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Mr Ashworth, speaking during the debate, said: “The Burmese Government will often deny responsibility and claim that much of the anti-Rohingya sentiment exists at a local level. But of course we all know, as has been discussed in great detail in previous debates, that the flames of anti-Rohingya sentiment are very much fanned by the denial of Burmese citizenship to them. A nasty, bigoted piece of legislation—the 1982 Citizenship Law—stripped Rohingya Muslims of their legitimacy in the country and officially declared them foreigners. In effect, they ceased to exist legally and were denied any form of citizenship.”

He said that even though there is debate about how long the Rohingya people have been part of Myanmar, “everyone can accept that they have been there for some generations; they have certainly been there since Burma gained independence. Indeed, it was the first President of Burma who said that. Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as an indigenous race.”

Mr Ashworth said he understood why Britain would want to pursue trade with Myanmar but said it should not be at the expense of human rights.

Mr Swire said he shared the MP’s concerns for the Rohingya. “I use that term now and I shall continue to use it as I always have done. Their plight remains one of the greatest challenges Burma faces. I have raised this issue during my visits to Burma.”

He said the many challenges faced by all communities in Rakhine are deep-rooted, complex and interrelated.

“We acknowledge that the Burmese government has begun to take steps to address those issues, including the appointment of the new Rakhine Chief Minister last year,” he said.

Mr Swire visited Myanmar and Rakhine State in 2012, in the wake of the communal riots, and travelled to Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon and Kachin State in 2014.

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