As Parliament prepares to welcome 'The Lady' Aung San Suu Kyi to the UK next week, a shadow has been cast over preparations due to escalating violence in the West Burmese state Rakhine between the stateless Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine, leading to the loss of 29 lives, the displacement of thousands of people and the declaration of a state of emergency by President Thein Sein to try to quell the violence. Following a seeming avalanche of reforms in recent months, these events serve as a stark reminder that the reform process in Myanmar remains fragile.
Suu Kyi is due to give a speech to both houses on Wednesday to a room full of enthralled politicians who will no doubt clamber over one another to have their smiling photograph taken with the woman of the moment. The reforms that have taken place are remarkable and laudable, but they are not yet irreversible and our politicians must make concrete promises to Suu Kyi and reformists within the Thein Sein government, as well as Myanmar's people, that they will support the country's path to progress.
As the events of the past few days have shown, the problems experienced by ethnic groups in Myanmar remains a persistent and extremely volatile issue and one of the main obstacles in implementing lasting reforms. Unlike many other ethnic clashes in the country which have been between the government and ethnic groups, the violence in Rakhine state is between two ethnic groups. What this situation highlights is the divisions within Burmese society and what the potential consequences could be if there is no reconciliation in the country. It is widely believes that the Rohingya are not legitimate members of Burmese society and suffer some of the severest human rights restrictions in the country. For example, a "two child policy" is placed on Rohingya, and as they are stateless, Rohingya children have limited access to food and healthcare. A reform process which ignores the right of certain groups of citizens cannot be said to be truly progressive. A further concern is the speed at which the military was called in, given its previous record of human rights abuses against minorities. Myanmar must be supported in developing an effective and democratically accountable police force to effectively implement the rule of law, not an unaccountable army with a history of brutal violence.
Democracy cannot exist in a country where every citizen does not enjoy equal rights and the resolution of ethnic conflicts is vital in moving towards reconciliation. In recent months, the government has signed a number of peace deals with ethnic groups. Ceasefires are not unbreakable however, and all groups have asserted that ceasefires must be followed by political dialogue and concrete results. Many groups have had past experience of signing ceasefires which have failed to be followed up by political action on the part of the government. Fighting in Kachin state continues, following the breakdown of a seventeen-year ceasefire in June 2011, with accusations of widespread human rights abuses on both sides and thousands displaced from their homes. Members of ethnic groups are often the most disadvantaged in Burmese society and there is little evidence that reforms have had a positive impact on the lives of members of this group. Important though the imminent influx of economic investment will be in aiding economic development in Myanmar, what will have an immediate impact upon the lives of these people, many of whom have been displaced due to conflict, will be to be able to return to their homes and tend to their land. In their renewed diplomatic engagement, our government must continue to exert pressure on the Burmese government to work towards the cessation of violence in ethnic areas and to ensure people there are also able to benefit from the reform process.
There is much to be celebrated in Myanmar: Suu Kyi leaving Myanmar, not only as a free woman confident she will be permitted to return for the first time since 1988, but actually as a Member of Parliament would have been unthinkable only a year ago. The release of hundreds of political prisoners; the transparency of April's by-elections; and the signing of ceasefires to end seemingly intractable conflicts with ethic groups are all positive signs which point to the Burmese government's commitment to reform. However, as a country that has been under a military dictatorship and closed off from the world for a generation, Myanmar faces an uphill struggle in implementing reforms in areas as diverse as the creation of a properly functioning banking system to human rights and cultural expression. Now is not the time for complacency and the eruption of violence in the West of Myanmar reminds us of this. When our politicians meet with Suu Kyi, I hope that they will pledge to do everything to support Myanmar to stabilise the current situation and promise to assist the country on its path of reform; now is the time for action, not photo opportunities.