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Burma Elections: Transition to Democracy and the Future of the Rohingya

(Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

By Hugo Swire
August 28, 2015

2015 could be the most important year in Burma's recent history. The November general elections are the litmus test for the reform process which began in 2011. Successful elections would consolidate a remarkable, peaceful transition from dictatorship. They would bring an enormous amount of enthusiasm and goodwill from the international community, and potentially unlock an exciting time for Burma's economy. This would be a true legacy achievement for all those whose efforts have taken the country this far. 

I visited Burma for the third time a few weeks ago, as monsoon rains were threatening the floods that have since devastated parts of the country. I met senior figures from within the government, the election commission and the opposition. I stressed to all the need for the elections to be credible and inclusive. The world will be watching intently. 

Kerry McCarthy, speaking for the Labour party, argued on these pages last month that the British Government should reconsider its engagement with Burma in the light of human rights violations there. Quite obviously, with the elections a few months away, it would be the precisely the wrong time to do so. And while she was right in some of her diagnosis of the considerable human rights problems that remain in Burma, I was not at all convinced that she had serious answers as to how these problems, not least the situation of the Rohingya, should best be tackled. 

First of all, the diagnosis. I agree that there have been major setbacks in Burma's transition over the last year. We have seen a shrinking of the democratic space, numbers of political prisoners again on the rise, ongoing instances of sexual violence in conflict affected areas, and the introduction of potentially discriminatory legislation on race and religion. In advance of the elections, we have seen no progress on a deeply flawed constitution that guarantees the Burmese military a quarter of parliamentary seats yet denies National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi the opportunity to stand for President. 

Of all the human rights concerns in Burma, the appalling treatment of the Rohingya community remains the most worrying. During my visit I was determined to go to Rakhine State to see for myself the current situation, and to raise our deep concerns with the government. I was struck by how little things had changed since my previous visit in 2012, not least in the camps for the internally displaced. Indeed, I saw and heard first-hand that for many housed in these 'temporary' camps for the last three years, living conditions have appreciably worsened. For a community already struggling with a lack of basic human rights, the removal of 'white card' identity documents this year - and the prospect of disenfranchisement - has clearly been a moment of great distress. This is now having regional consequences, as we saw with the increasing numbers of Rohingya trying to make the perilous journey across the Andaman Sea in May and June. 

If we want to tackle these problems effectively and in the round, we need to think carefully. We have pressed the Burmese authorities repeatedly on the Rohingya's urgent needs - security, freedom of movement and a pathway to citizenship. We should be vocal and persistent in setting out both the moral imperative for these and the potential economic and social benefits of a better integrated community. We should maintain our efforts to get the rest of the international community and the UN engaged on this. But we must of course remain conscious that the Rohingya issue raises very strong feelings right across Burma. Broader reconciliation is likely to be a longer-term goal that will need patient encouragement and sensitive handling. We need to listen to the concerns of the Rakhine community, and where there are genuine issues we should offer our support. We already provide significant practical assistance to all people in Rakhine State - over £18m of aid since the violence of 2012. 

More broadly, I remain a firm believer that engagement is the best way to encourage forces of moderation and reform. We should not forget, after all, where Burma has come from. Since 2011, thousands of political prisoners have been released, a vibrant media has emerged from decades of absolute press control and a flourishing civil society scene has developed. You can see and feel this on the streets of Rangoon. The peace process, while not at all straight-forward, is closer to bringing a nationwide ceasefire than at any time since Burma's independence, and hundreds of child soldiers have been released. Millions voted in the 2012 by-elections, sending representatives to a parliament which has started to grow in authority - even if the ousting of Shwe Mann as USDP party chairman last week felt more like a reminder of times past. 

The UK is playing its full part in this. We have been involved in supporting preparations for the elections and the peace process. We have led the way on issues like the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, and I was proud to launch the International Protocol in Rangoon during my recent visit. We have a continuous dialogue with the Burmese authorities on the full range of human rights issues and play an active role in raising them up the agenda of the UN. Our aid has made a positive difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them among the very poorest. Along the way we have also promoted responsible investment. It is very reductive to imply there is some sort of binary choice between trade and human rights. Burma's politics will only succeed if its economy succeeds. Responsible trade can lead to much needed jobs, improve education and skills and give people a future. 

Some have questioned, in particular, our engagement with the military. I cannot see how Burma can make genuine political progress without the buy-in of the military, who remain a powerful force in Burma. Of course, our focus is to encourage them to take their rightful place in a democratic system; of course, we are not providing any combat support; and yes, of course, we use our engagement to raise what are real concerns around issues like sexual violence and child soldiers - I have personally discussed both of these with the Commander-in-Chief. But if we want the military to play their part in the reform process, it would be a mistake to think we could achieve this simply by isolating and criticising them. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has visited some of the courses we have run, is of the same mind. 

Around the UK, there is tremendous interest in Burma, and tremendous affection for it. I am continually amazed and impressed by the many stories I hear of individual links being forged between our two countries - from collaboration on a project to restore heritage buildings in downtown Rangoon, to the success of the UK-backed Literary Festival, to Paul Scully being elected as the first MP with Burmese heritage into the British House of Commons this year. I know there will be huge interest here in the elections in November. The international community must do everything it can to support the next milestone in Burma's remarkable journey.

Hugo Swire is Minister of State for the Foreign Office, Conservative MP for East Devon. 

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