THE BLOG

Still Some Way to Go, But Progress Is Being Made in Burma

05/06/2013 15:51 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 10:12 BST

A little over two years ago, Burma was a repressive military-ruled country, closed to the outside world. Remarkable reforms have opened it up. By-elections just over a year ago gave Aung San Suu Kyi and her party 43 seats in Burma's parliament. Ceasefires with ten of eleven armed groups have been signed, halting some of the world's longest running conflicts.

Daily newspapers are now sold on the streets of Rangoon, free from pre-censorship. Many hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Workers can form labour organisations and join trade unions. The UK has welcomed these changes. The decision on 22 April by EU Foreign Ministers to lift sanctions, except the arms embargo, recognises this significant progress. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself said, "it is time we let these sanctions go... we can't go on relying on sanctions forever to aid the democracy movement".

But, despite these changes, significant human rights and ethnic reconciliation challenges remain.

Particularly concerning is the plight of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. They are a people who have lived in western Burma for many centuries, who have suffered with the rest of the population during the worst excesses of the military regime, when thousands were driven from their homes into refuge in Bangladesh. Now those who remain face attack from their neighbours. They face daily humiliation, with many denied Burmese citizenship, even some whose forefathers have held full citizenship for years. Many are subject to restrictions on marriage, travel and trade on the basis of their ethnicity alone.

During serious outbreaks of violence in 2012 thousands were displaced from their homes, forced to live in limbo in refugee camps within their own country. In December 2012 I was the first EU Minister to visit Rakhine following the violence, and was appalled to see the conditions for people living in camps and to hear their personal stories of loss and abuses.

In discussions with the Burmese authorities at all levels I called for a coordinated and robust response. Over 140,000 internally displaced people, the vast majority Rohingya, are now living in flimsy shelters in camps vulnerable to flooding during the monsoon rains, with the risk of high winds and tropical storms.

This is unacceptable. Our immediate priority has been to urge the Burmese government to ensure security for these communities, and alleviate the suffering of those displaced. On 15 May, the British government announced a £4.4million package of humanitarian support for food, water and medicine, including treatment for malnourished children. The UK, through our Department for International Development, has consistently led the way in providing aid to Rakhine State. We call on the Burmese government and others in the international community to ensure that the urgent needs of these vulnerable communities are met, and met quickly.

There must be full accountability for those responsible for attacking and driving thousands from their homes. Human Rights Watch published a report last month detailing many horrific accounts of violence and intimidation, including disturbing allegations that local political groups and security forces helped orchestrate the violence.There can be no impunity for those guilty of these acts, including those responsible for inciting or ordering the violence.

But the situation of the Rohingya cannot ultimately be resolved until the issue of their citizenship is addressed. They have been called the world's least wanted people: stateless and desperate. They have a right to a nationality and to freedom of movement - without which they are denied access to even the most basic of health care services, to education for their children, or to a livelihood to enable them to regain their self-sufficiency. The Burmese government is looking at these issues: action must be taken in a way that is consistent with international standards and which has human rights as a driving force. The further denial of these rights will only increase the sense of injustice for a population which has suffered discrimination for generations.

Some are wondering whether the new freedom of expression in Burma has catalysed new expressions of hate towards the Muslim community. Outbreaks of violence in other parts of Burma in recent months point to a worrying new trend. Many dozens of Muslims have been attacked and killed; scores more have had their homes, businesses and mosques burned down. President Thein Sein has spoken out, reminding the Burmese people that all citizens have the right to worship any religion of their choice, and warning those planting hatred that their actions will not be tolerated. The UK is supporting interfaith dialogue to help build trust between communities, and is looking at what support we can provide to improve the behaviour and accountability of Burma's security forces.

After almost half a century of repression, the last two years have seen Burma make rapid progress towards the goal of becoming a freer and more democratic nation. But there is still much to do. Burma must deal with the ethnic conflict it faces, and tackle discrimination against minority groups. This is just the beginning of a process which could transform the lives of millions of people.