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Stop Treating Burma with Kid Gloves

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From the moment of his first trip to Burma in April 2012, David Cameron and his government have been too eager to praise the reforming achievements of the country's president, Thein Sein, and too reluctant to pressure him to end grave and systematic human rights abuses and hold those responsible to account. This approach is mistaken and David Cameron should seriously recalibrate UK policy at today's historic meeting with Burma's president in Downing Street.

This is not to deny that important changes have occurred in Burma under the government of Thein Sein. More than a thousand political prisoners have now been released. Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party were elected to Burma's Parliament in by-elections in 2012, conducted without intimidation and violence. In major urban areas like Rangoon and Mandalay, there is more space today for discussion and dissent, through the print media but also in meetings and workshops, and international journalists and NGOs are able to visit the country. After decades of rigid autocracy, these developments are clearly welcome and open up possibilities for further progress.

But they are not proof that Burma is moving inexorably towards rights-respecting democracy, still less that it has become one. Nor should these reforms obscure massive ongoing rights violations or the continuing harsh reality of life for so many in Burma. Human Rights Watch and others have documented many of these abuses, including extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, torture, forced labour, and deliberate attacks on civilians in places like Kachin and Shan states, as well as Thein Sein's failure to tackle cronyism and vested interests, especially the military's nefarious control over large parts of the economy.

Nowhere, perhaps, have these abuses been more egregious over the last year than in Arakan State. In April, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report documenting crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims there. These are not claims we make lightly.

In June 2012, horrific sectarian violence broke out between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya, resulting in four days of bloodshed in four townships. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya, were forcibly displaced. The state security forces failed to intervene to stop the violence or protect civilians and, in some cases, directly participated in it. This was a moment when President Thein Sein could have exercised real leadership. But far from defusing the situation, his remarks in July to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were highly inflammatory, calling for "illegal" Rohingya to be sent to "third countries". Since most Rohingya, even those whose families have lived in Burma for generations, lack formal legal status, his statement was widely interpreted to mean that the Rohingya should be expelled from the country.

The violence that resumed in October in Arakan State was a coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing in nine further townships, that appeared aimed at removing or relocating the state's Muslim population. Attacks were organised and carried out by local Arakanese political party officials, Buddhist monks and ordinary Arakanese, supported in many cases by state security forces. Rohingya and other Muslim men, women and children were brutally killed, some hacked to pieces, bodies were buried in mass graves, and villages and neighbourhoods were razed.

In the months since the violence, Thein Sein has done far too little to investigate the killings and abuses and, to his shame, no-one has been held accountable for these crimes. The government's own commission, set up to investigate the violence in Arakan State, published its findings at the end of April, but many of its recommendations were feeble, ill-judged or outright dangerous. It refused to use the appellation "Rohingya", instead calling the group "Bengalis". It failed to properly address the systematic discrimination against the Rohingya through the 1982 citizenship law, and it recommended birth control to limit the Rohingya population. A repugnant policy that began several years ago limiting Rohingya families to two children has subsequently been endorsed by the Minister of Immigration and Population. The report further suggested doubling the number of security forces deployed to Arakan State, without any investigation or action to hold accountable those security force members responsible for the terrible killings and abuses in June and October.

Thein Sein and his government have also contributed to the severe humanitarian crisis facing displaced Rohingya and other Muslim communities. More than 140,000 people are now living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Arakan State, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, yet the Burmese government and the state authorities have for months obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to them, compounding the plight of those living in already squalid conditions.

The situation in Arakan is a critical test of the Burmese President's commitment to reform, and one that he is failing. It is these realities on the ground, not over-hyped reform rhetoric, which should inform David Cameron's meeting and future UK policy. Cameron should exert serious pressure on his visitor for decisive action to halt grave rights abuses and violence, hold the perpetrators of rights crimes accountable, release remaining political prisoners, permit the UN and others to better document the rights situation, and accelerate legal and political reform. Now, that would be a reform process worth praising.