THE BLOG
12/07/2013 07:11 BST | Updated 10/09/2013 06:12 BST

President Thein Sein's Visit: An Opportunity the Prime Minister Must Seize

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In the next few days, President Thein Sein of Burma will be arriving on an historic visit to the UK; a visit that some have argued is premature, given Burma's turbulent journey towards peace and democracy. Certainly, this is no time for complacency from either the Burmese Government or the international community, so the onus is on the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to seize the opportunity of this visit to seek further commitments from President Sein.

It is easy to forget just how far Burma has come over the last couple of years, epitomised by the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her National League for Democracy colleagues last April. Nor, though, can we underestimate how far Burma still has to go to secure lasting peace, as has sadly been demonstrated by the violent conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states over the past year.

As a leading aid donor to Burma, it is right that we acknowledge and encourage the progress to date, but the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will be failing in their responsibilities if they are not frank about the clear shortcomings. As they prepare to welcome President Sein, high on the agenda for both David Cameron and William Hague must be:

The safety of the Rohingya and stability in Rakhine

The UK Government has an opportunity to press President Sein in person on the Burmese Government's and security forces' failings in Rakhine and the human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya community in particular. The UK must seek answers, accountability and justice for the over 200 people who have lost their lives and the estimated 140 000 who have been internally displaced. The priority must be urgent humanitarian access, which has so far been impeded, but the Government also has a responsibility to ask the President directly about the Human Rights Watch report, "All You Can Do is Pray" - Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma's Arakan State. The UK Government must make clear that it supports an independent investigation into the conflict and into the impunity for the key perpetrators.

The Prime Minister must also seek commitments from the President on positive action to address the long-standing prejudice and discrimination suffered by the Rohingya community, not least through a review of Burma's citizenship laws and by supporting Aung San Suu Kyi's assertion that the reported two child policy imposed locally in Rakhine is an unacceptable breach of human rights.

Peace and stability in Kachin State

The violence and deaths since the end of the ceasefire in Kachin state also warrant the world's attention. As with Rakhine state, the Prime Minister must press the President on humanitarian needs of Kachin civilians fleeing the conflict, and support an investigation into the violence. David Cameron should also discuss what further assistance the UK can provide for the dialogue with the Kachin Independence Organisation.

Preventing sexual violence

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Kachin and Rakhine conflicts is the shocking use of sexual violence and the reported involvement of the Burmese security forces. To his credit, the Foreign Secretary has raised sexual violence in conflict on the international agenda, but his own Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative has so far not included Burma and the Foreign Office has only advised that the British Embassy will be scoping options in Burma this summer. This not only risks delaying urgent action to end the horror of sexual violence and the culture of impunity in Burma, but also risks understating the severity of the situation. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary need to ask President Thein Sein about the action he plans to take, and the assistance the UK can offer.

The release of all remaining political prisoners

The release of hundreds of political prisoners has been a sign of democratic progress in Burma and has been taken as a signal of intent from President Thein Sein. Undoubtedly, the releases have been a positive development, but we cannot forget those who continue to be arbitrarily detained. The Prime Minister should ask the President for the most recent estimate of the number of political prisoners still waiting for release, and for a timetable for their unconditional release.

Legal and constitutional reforms

While there has been some relaxation, Burma retains many legal restrictions affecting fundamental political rights. The Burmese Parliament's review of their legislation is welcome, and the Prime Minister should request an update on this and the President's domestic reform strategy. Internationally, the President must ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

2015 General Election

The Prime Minister should also ask about the position of the military within the national Parliament and seek assurances that the necessary constitutional reforms are instigated to guarantee a free and fair general election in 2015; an election that could see Aung San Suu Kyi become President. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is on course to with the election, but she cannot be President unless the constitution is amended to remove a controversial clause prohibiting anyone married to, or the parent of, a non-Burmese citizen from being President. President Thein Sein must act now to ensure that the 2015 election proves to the Burmese people and the international community that Burma is steadfastly on the road to peace and democracy.

Kerry McCarthy MP

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs