12/01/2014 17:38 GMT | Updated 14/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Military Reform Is Crucial for Lasting Change in Burma

Over the last three years, tentative but welcome reforms have begun in Burma... But much as we welcome this progress, there is still a huge amount to be done if we are to maintain the momentum towards democracy and to tackle the continuing human rights concerns.

The UK is one of the very strongest supporters of democracy and human rights in Burma. This is a cause which has energised the many people in our country who have personal links to Burma, as well as those who have been moved by stories of the Burmese people's suffering over almost half a century of dictatorship and repression.

But over the last three years, tentative but welcome reforms have begun. Over a thousand political prisoners have been released. Some civil and political rights have been restored. Ceasefires have been agreed. We have used our deep and historical links to encourage progress in the peace talks with ethnic groups, in the government's dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, and in the establishment of an embryonic parliamentary system.

But much as we welcome this progress, there is still a huge amount to be done if we are to maintain the momentum towards democracy and to tackle the continuing human rights concerns. This was recognised by November's UN resolution, which we co-sponsored and to which, importantly, the Burmese themselves subscribed.

A critical piece of the puzzle is military reform. The Burmese military ruled the country outright for almost fifty years, and retain considerable power today. Whilst there are very legitimate and serious concerns about their human rights record, their position is vital for the prospects of broader progress. The current debate over constitutional reform is a case in point. As it stands, the army's unelected 25% bloc of seats in parliament enables them to veto any changes to the constitution. Without their support, then, the clause which prevents any person with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president cannot be reversed, and Aung San Suu Kyi would be prevented from standing for election for the presidency in the forthcoming 2015 elections.

We therefore strongly believe that we need to be proactive in encouraging Burma's army to play its part in the transition: to step back from politics, to accept proper civilian control, and to uphold international human rights and humanitarian law.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself has asked for Britain's help in this area. Like us, she believes that the military has a decisive role to play in the reform process, and would like to see them evolving into a respected, non-political institution. She believes that with our historic links and world-class armed forces, we have an important role to play, and it was she who personally urged our appointment of a Defence Attaché. In turn, we invited Daw Suu to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last October to see the UK's excellent training facilities.

With this in mind, this week we started an educational course in Burma for civilian and military students, focussing on the role of the military in a democracy. It will be the first course of its kind to be provided by the British in Burma in over 50 years.

Let me be absolutely clear: before we took this decision our diplomats consulted many different people across Burmese society, including from the range of ethnic groups, as well Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

The course we are running will not provide battlefield training or instruction on how to fight. It is devoted to the strategic and political aspects of conflict: civilian oversight of military activities and control of the use of force; the subordination of the military to civilian control; military reform; leadership and governance; accountability and the rule of law.

The course is specifically tailored for countries that are making the difficult transition to democracy, and are considering how best to ensure that the military serves the state and society. Hundreds of students from fledgling democracies and fragile states have already benefited from this training.

Our work with the Burmese military is not, and will never be, unconditional. We will proceed with caution. The EU arms embargo should remain in place. The military must demonstrate their genuine commitment to reform. And we will continue to use our discussions with them to tackle issues such as the use of child soldiers, and to bring an end once and for all to the horrifying sexual violence in conflict areas, particularly against women - part of the Foreign Secretary's excellent global initiative to address this problem. I will be raising these very issues during my second official visit to Burma later this month.

We are committed to supporting long-term change in Burma. Military engagement is a small but important part of our efforts to promote the values that we hold dear in the UK. In these values lie the foundations of human rights, lasting stability and democracy - and the government that the Burmese people have long deserved.