Burma's President Thein Sein arrived in London last night, the first such visit in almost thirty years. Today, he and David Cameron will meet.
Until a year ago, such a visit would have been unthinkable. Burma's regime was a pariah, facing sanctions and growing calls for an inquiry into crimes against humanity. Now sanctions are lifted, investors flock to Burma and Thein Sein travels the world, fêted as a reformer. It is a mark of how fast Burma has changed, on the surface. But it is also a sign of how far Britain, along with the rest of the world, has gone to embrace the new landscape in Burma.
Too far too fast, many would argue. There is a sense of euphoria that is unmerited and premature. While it is absolutely right to welcome and encourage reform, it is important to retain a sense of perspective. So if Thein Sein's visit is to be worthwhile, David Cameron and William Hague must deliver some clear messages - and secure some agreements for further progress.
Without doubt, Thein Sein has changed the atmosphere in Burma. I have experienced it myself. In the cities, there is greater freedom for political activists and civil society groups to gather and organise. There are significant improvements in media freedom. Many political prisoners have been released. Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi now sits in Parliament instead of under house arrest. Fragile, preliminary ceasefires have been reached with all but one of the ethnic armed resistance groups.
These changes are very welcome, and must be encouraged. But this is just the very beginning, and there is a long way to go. The changes so far represent a change of atmosphere, but not yet a change of system. Repressive laws remain in place, some political prisoners are still in jail and protestors continue to be arrested. The regime continues to use dirty tricks against opposition politicians, as in the case of NLD spokesman U Nyan Win, who could face six months in jail, accused of spreading false information. The constitution guarantees the army a quarter of the parliamentary seats and immunity from prosecution, and disqualifies Suu Kyi from the presidency. A new law governing the press appears to reintroduce censorship.
Worst of all, under Thein Sein's presidency more than 250,000 people have been displaced, driven from their homes in Kachin and Arakan states as a result of ethnic and religious conflict. A new war has raged for two years in Kachin State, where the Burma Army broke a 17-year ceasefire with the ethnic resistance and launched a major offensive against civilians. Rape, forced labour, torture and killing of civilians have been widely reported. Over 200 villages have been destroyed. The Economist Intelligence Unit still ranks Burma as one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world.
One of Aung San Suu Kyi's most famous expressions is "freedom from fear", the theme of a song released today by the band Ooberfuse to mark Thein Sein's visit and the anniversary of the assassination in 1947 of Suu Kyi's father, Burma's independence leader General Aung San. Too many people in Burma today still live in fear.
In March, I visited internally displaced people in Kachin State, and heard some of the worst stories I have ever heard. One man described how he was arrested, jailed and severely tortured. During his interrogation, he was forced to kneel on sharp stones and told that as a Christian, he must sit with his arms outstretched as if on a cross. His nose was broken, an iron bar rubbed up and down his legs, and he was forced to engage in homosexual sex with other prisoners. Another man told me he was subjected to water torture, attacked repeatedly with a knife, and a hand grenade was shoved in his mouth. Feelings of hatred for Thein Sein's government run high among the Kachin. "This civilian government is worse than the military regime," said one. Another spoke of the loss of trust. "When Thein Sein took over, we expected a better environment. People had hope. Now, civilians experience more hardship." The impact of war in Kachin State, said one person working to facilitate peace, has been "enormous". People are "hopeless, desperate, suffering".
Even in the areas where ceasefires have been established, the army has frequently violated them. Land confiscation has arisen as a new human rights challenge, as the regime talks of peace and 'development'.
The Muslim Rohingya people have faced two waves of devastating violence in the past year, leaving thousands dead and more than 130,000 displaced. The UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Baroness Amos visited the camps at the end of last year, and described conditions as "dire". Human Rights Watch has described a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Earlier this year, a wider campaign against Muslims in Burma erupted, and spread across the country. I visited one Muslim village three days after it was attacked. I saw the burned out madrassah and the terror in villagers' eyes.
Shockingly, in many instances security forces stood by and watched as Muslims were hacked to death, their homes and businesses looted and burned. So while the violence against Muslims in Arakan State and around the country may have been driven by extremist Buddhist groups, Thein Sein's government has manifestly failed to prevent it. Whether through negligence or design, his security forces have been complicit with anti-Muslim pogroms, and a culture of impunity has been perpetuated.
These grave concerns must be the priority in discussions between David Cameron and Thein Sein. Undoubtedly trade will feature on the agenda, but it must be made clear that trade and investment require stability, which is contingent on peace, the rule of law and genuine democracy. Trade must not be promoted at the expense of human rights.
Nine months ago, at a conference on Burma, two current British ministers and a former minister spoke, alongside a senior Burmese minister. In an extraordinary role reversal, the Burmese minister talked repeatedly about democracy and human rights, yet those words did not pass the lips of the British ministers. They spoke as if the Burmese minister represented a legitimate government with whom we have normal relations.
That must not be repeated during Thein Sein's visit. David Cameron and William Hague must make it clear to Thein Sein that if the thaw in his government's relations with the world is to continue, he must accelerate and deepen reforms. That means releasing all remaining political prisoners, repealing repressive laws, ending the war in Kachin State, respecting human rights, tackling the culture of impunity and establishing a nationwide peace process with the ethnic nationalities involving a political dialogue. Only a political solution will end decades of civil war, and that must include some form of federalism, guaranteeing the ethnic nationalities the autonomy and equal rights they seek.
Thein Sein must also be pressed to ensure that security forces act to prevent further religiously-motivated violence and protect vulnerable communities. The Prime Minister must urge him to take steps to stop the growing religious intolerance, curb the activities of the militant Buddhists and promote religious freedom and harmony. He must secure Thein Sein's co-operation with an international investigation into the violence against the Rohingyas, reform of the 1982 citizenship law which currently renders the Rohingyas stateless, and unconditional, unhindered, immediate access for aid organisations to all internally displaced people in Arakan State. He must also insist on aid access to all areas of Kachin State. Thein Sein must agree to clear timelines by which these benchmarks must be met.
If these issues are raised and guarantees given, Thein Sein's visit will have been worthwhile. When dictators unclench their fists, it is right that they are met with an open palm. Even the first fragile baby steps towards democratisation must be recognised and encouraged. But extending a hand of friendship should not mean turning a blind eye. Britain should make it clear that while one hand is offered in friendship, there is a stick in the other hand which we must be prepared to use. The Prime Minister must remember that while Thein Sein may be beginning to unclench his fist, the hand he is shaking is still blood-stained.
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