Theresa May has cut off UK aid for the Myanmar military until the campaign of violence against the Muslim Rohingya has ended.
In the most significant sign of pressure on the regime yet, the Prime Minister has voiced alarm at the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives across the border to Bangladesh.
There has been international outcry at frequent reports of Rohingya persecution by soldiers, including villages being burned and landmines planted at the border.
It comes in the wake of an extraordinary fall from grace by the country’s de-facto leader, the Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Once lauded for her campaign for democracy in the country, Suu Kyi drew widespread condemnation for defending the military after the UN reported a string of human rights abuses.
Speaking in a TV interview, May said: “We are very concerned about what’s happening to the Rohingya people in Burma. The military action against them must stop.
“We’ve seen too many vulnerable people having to flee for their lives.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese government need to make it very clear that the military action should stop.
“The British Government is announcing today that we are going to stop all defence engagement and training of the Burmese military by the Ministry of Defence until this issue is resolved.”
The move came after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson joined representatives of the US, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Denmark to raise the issue with Burma’s national security adviser on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The UK does not provide combat training, but instead seeks to educate soldiers in democracy, leadership and the English language.
May added: “There has been very clear international concern about the issue of the Rohingya people and what is happening to them.
“I was discussing this yesterday in Canada with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The British Government believes we must show our concern, and that’s why we are going to stop all defence engagement and training of the Burmese military by the Ministry of Defence until this issue is satisfactorily resolved.”
Boris Johnson said the “terrible human rights abuses and violence” in Rakhine province “are a stain on the country’s reputation”.
“No one wants to see a return to military rule, so it is vital that Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian government make clear these abuses must stop,” he said.
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has also accused the Myanmar authorities of “ethnic cleansing”.
Liz McInnes MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Office Minister, called for the Government to apply more pressure on Myanmar authorities, adding: “For now, the Government’s most immediate priority must be to build on this announcement by putting pressure on the civilian and military authorities in Myanmar, in co-ordination with our allies, in order to bring the horrific violence in Rakhine state to an end once and for all.”
Suu Kyi has stayed away from the UN gathering but used a domestic speech to respond to the outcry over the situation.
She claimed to foreign diplomats in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw that “more than half” of the Rohingya villages were not affected by the violence.
She invited diplomats to visit the settlements to learn, along with the government, “why are they not at each other’s throats in these particular areas”.
Suu Kyi said: “I understand that many of our friends throughout the world are concerned by reports of villages being burned and of hordes of refugees fleeing.
“There have been no conflicts since September 5 and no clearance operations. We too are concerned, we want to find out what the real problems are.”
Suu Kyi faces being stripped of the freedom of Oxford, the city where she studied and lived, as the council leader and Lord Mayor said she has “failed to live up to the reputation and beliefs we associated with you”.
She read philosophy, politics and economics at St Hugh’s College between 1964 and 1967, and spent much of the 1980s living in the city with her husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, and their two sons, Kim and Alexander.