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Hugo Swire, Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Isn't a 'Bump in the Road'

15/08/2014 13:46 BST | Updated 14/10/2014 10:12 BST

Four years after its reform process began, Burma still has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In fact, human rights violations which break international law have actually increased, with evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and even precursors of genocide all happening under President Thein Sein's rule.

These violations don't fit easily into the 'transition to democracy' narrative which the British government is trying to present about Burma.

So when Foreign office Minister Hugo Swire MP is confronted with the inconsistency of claims of reform, and ongoing human rights violations on the ground, he faces a problem. The solution British diplomats, and diplomats in the USA and the rest of Europe seem to have agreed upon, is to dismiss these abuses as 'bumps in the road'. 'No transition is going to be easy', they say. 'Of course there will be occasional setbacks', they say. 'Just being cynical isn't going to change anything', they say. 'The overall direction of travel is good', they say.

This last phrase is perhaps the most telling. What they are effectively saying is that as long as government-led reforms continue, they won't allow what is happening to the Rohingya to influence their policy of building closer relations with the Burmese government. Think about how the Burmese government will interpret this messaging. It is literally handing them a get out of jail free card to do what they like regarding the Rohingya. And as we have seen since 2012, they are playing that card at every opportunity.

Even before the reform process began the international community was united in the opinion that the situation of the Rohingya was unacceptable. They were stateless, and suffered the most severe repression of any ethnic group in Burma.

Since reforms began the situation of the Rohingya has deteriorated significantly. They have been subjected to two large-scale violent attacks. Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence of human rights violations which could constitute crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. They also found evidence of state involvement in these violations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma has said that government policies on the Rohingya may constitute crimes against humanity. United to End Genocide has stated that precursors of genocide against the Rohingya now exist in Burma.

These violations of international law cannot simply be dismissed as 'bumps in the road'. Ethnic cleansing isn't just a 'bump', as Hugo Swire MP calls it. The forced displacement of 140,000 Rohingya isn't just a 'bump'. Restrictions on humanitarian aid to displaced Rohingya, resulting in immense suffering and death, are not just a 'bump'.

President Thein Sein has been more vocal against the Rohingya than any Burmese ruler in a generation. He has backed those calling for all Rohingya to be expelled from Burma, asking the UN to help find third countries for Rohingya to be settled in. He has publicly defended U Wirathu, one of the leading voices against the Rohingya and Muslims generally. He has flat out rejected reforming the 1982 Citizenship Law, which is incompatible with international law and violates Burma's UN treaty obligations.

There is undoubtedly a downward spiral for the Rohingya in Burma. Already this year we have seen aid agencies in Rakhine State expelled or forced to flee attacks. Official and unofficial restrictions on humanitarian assistance have increased. Hundreds of Rohingya prisoners who did not receive fair trials after being jailed following attacks in 2012 remain in jail. President Thein Sein went back on his promise to allow Rohingya to self-identify as Rohingya in the recent census, which was funded by the British government.

This continuing downward spiral has not prompted Hugo Swire to rethink Burma policy. The focus on promoting trade remains his priority. Unconditional training of the Burmese Army will continue.

In its defence the British government claims that it does raise these issues with the Burmese government, which is true. But President Thein Sein and his ministers are excellent tacticians. They have been outmanoeuvring the international community for decades. They are fully aware of where the British government's priorities lie, and it isn't to stop violations of international law against the Rohingya. They know the same applies to the rest of the EU, the USA, and Australia. None are willing to change their policy of partnership with the Burmese government for the sake of this Muslim minority.

So the Burmese government will continue its policy of repression against the Rohingya, trying to make the situation for them so unbearable that they leave the country. Human rights violations will continue. The growing Apartheid will become entrenched. Thousands more Rohingya will drown trying to flee Burma. More Rohingya children will die because of restrictions on humanitarian aid. But for Hugo Swire those dead children and are merely inevitable bumps in the road, the overall direction of travel is good, British companies are winning electricity contracts with the Burmese government, and there is no need for a rethink on policy.