Speech

Burma making significant strides towards reform but challenges still remain

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire spoke to Human Rights and Burma campaigners at the Foreign Office about progress being made in Burma.

Welcome to the Foreign Office and thank you for coming. A lot of people in Britain care deeply about Burma and it’s good to see so many of you here today.

Burma remains a central foreign policy priority for this Government, and for me personally.

I visited Burma for the first time in December. I spent time in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, but I was also able to visit Rakhine State. My visit left a lasting impression and made me more determined than ever to work for the good of the Burmese people.

Burma continues to make significant strides towards reform. Over the last 18 months, we have seen releases of political prisoners; credible by-elections; initial ceasefire agreements; and steps towards increasing humanitarian access to conflict areas.

We very much welcome these developments. But it is still early days and we want to ensure that progress is sustained and irreversible.

And at the same time, it is clear that significant challenges remain. Political prisoners are still in jail; Kachin State has seen serious armed conflict; UN agencies struggle to gain unhindered humanitarian access; and the Rohingya continue to be denied citizenship and basic rights.

British Government policy will continue to evolve in line with developments. We are engaging with all parties as a constructive, supportive and critical partner, committed to supporting reform moves under the President and Aung San Suu Kyi.

This approach was evident when Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin visited London on 11 February. The Foreign Secretary, DFID Minister Alan Duncan and I welcomed the positive progress that Burma has made. We stressed that our support, not least our substantial aid contributions as the largest bilateral donor, will continue.

But we were also frank in our discussions about the many challenges Burma still faces, including in Kachin and issues affecting the Rohingya. We were equally frank about the action that is needed to tackle these challenges.

Political Issues and Human Rights

Human rights remain at the heart of British policy on Burma. During my visit, I raised our concerns on numerous occasions with senior Burmese ministers. My ministerial colleagues and senior officials continue to do so whenever possible.

We make clear that progress in this area remains a key benchmark for judging the depth of the reform process. We will raise our concerns again in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the coming weeks.

I am particularly keen to see progress on the President’s commitment to open an Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights – which would allow for more constructive relations between the international community and the Burmese government on human rights.

Our action is not only limited to lobbying efforts, important as these are. The British Government is funding grants and mentoring for the Burmese people. In 2011, for example, DFID support to civil society and local community groups helped give more than 36,000 ordinary people greater choice and control over their lives – and we will aim to treble this by 2015.

The Burmese government has taken some positive steps on the release of political prisoners. Of those incarcerated purely on the basis of their political beliefs and actions, it is estimated that around two hundred remain in jail. We welcome the government’s commitment to review the remaining cases and to give the Red Cross access to prisons.

But one political prisoner is one too many, and we will continue to call for their unconditional release – as I did during my visit. We will monitor developments to ensure the government’s review mechanism is credible, transparent and implemented quickly.

It was an honour to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time during my visit. Daw Suu welcomed our efforts to date and urged further action, in particular to help build the capacity of the Burmese parliament. She was grateful that DFID and the House of Commons here put on a superb programme for three Burmese MPs in December.

Ethnic Reconciliation

Burma will not achieve sustainable reform and grow as a democracy until the government successfully reconciles with the country’s ethnic groups.

The fighting in Kachin State in recent months has been of particular concern. We were encouraged by the talks between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation on 4 February, subsequent talks on 20 February, and the reduction in violence.

Both sides must return to the negotiating table and continue to work towards lasting peace. We stand ready to support the reconciliation process in whatever way we can. In December DFID announced an additional £1.5 million in humanitarian support for people displaced by the conflict in Kachin. This takes the UK total to £3.5 million, helping around 27,000 people affected by the conflict.

In Rakhine State, the situation appears calmer following the outbreaks of inter-communal violence last year. But tensions remain.

Whilst in Burma I visited five camps and settlements for those displaced by the violence. People had basic shelter and felt more secure, but the camps were overcrowded and squalid. The £2 million we have committed to provide water, sanitation and nutrition support to 58,000 people should help, but I am extremely worried about conditions worsening in the rainy season. We continue to urge EU and other partners to raise their own levels of funding.

I discussed the situation with the Burmese government, as well as local political, religious and community leaders. I pressed the UN and government to improve aid coordination on the ground. I am pleased that, following my visit, a joint Emergency Coordination Centre has now opened in Sittwe. However the Burmese government and the UN need to resource this Centre properly so that it can play its intended role.

We are keen to hear the recommendations of the Investigative Commission set up to look into the causes of violence. We will expect this report to lead to accountability for all perpetrators.

Accountability and aid are important, but the plight of the Rohingya will not be solved until a long term solution to the issue of their citizenship is found.

As I said to those I met in Rakhine, people must be treated fairly and equally. Burma’s 1982 citizenship law does not recognise the Rohingya as one of the national ethnic groups of Burma. The law should conform with international standards. We will continue to liaise closely on this issue with the Burmese government and the UN.

The situation in Rakhine State has caused concern in communities here in the UK: the Government is listening to these concerns and we are working with the Burmese government to make progress. In return, I would urge you to update your communities on developments and inform them about the work that the UK is doing in Burma to aid progress there.

Economic Issues

Since the suspension of EU sanctions in April last year, the British Government has made a commitment to promoting responsible trade and investment in support of Burma’s democratic reform process.

We urge all companies considering investing in Burma to abide by international standards of corporate governance and social and environmental responsibility. My colleague Alan Duncan, Minister of State for DFID, is announcing today that DFID will contribute £600,000 of UK funding to establish a Responsible Investment Resource Centre in Rangoon, led by the Institute for Human Rights and Business. This is a strong signal of our support for investment that is good for the UK as well as for the people of Burma.

Responsible investment can make a real difference. One in four people in Burma live in poverty, and three out of four people have no access to electricity: power generation is vital for the lives of ordinary Burmese people as well as for the productivity of the economy.

This was why, in response to a request from the Burmese government, I was joined on my visit by representatives from 15 British businesses in power generation and vocational training. We hope that as a result of the visit, British institutes will be able to provide in-country training for local Burmese people, and a British company will provide legal advice on the government’s draft Electric Power bill.

To conclude, I would like to highlight a couple of other areas of engagement coming up.

Last week we accredited a Defence Attaché in Burma and we will establish a Defence Section in our Embassy in Rangoon later this year. The Burmese military remain a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of reform. Aung San Suu Kyi specifically recommended the appointment of a Defence Attaché as a key means of engagement with the Burmese military during her meeting with the Prime Minister last year.

Many of you will be aware that the EU Foreign Affairs Council will review sanctions on Burma in April. We have always said that the outcome of this review will depend on the progress that the Burmese government has made against the EU benchmarks set out in January 2012, including the need for meaningful progress in reconciliation with armed ethnic groups. Discussion on this will begin with other EU partners in Brussels over the coming weeks.

Please be assured that the British Government will continue to engage with the Burmese government to shape the process of reform. We want the UK to contribute with meaningful and targeted assistance, whether by reforming the economy, or supporting Burma’s nascent institutions.

We will also ensure that human rights and ethnic reconciliation remain high on the agenda.

My visit convinced me that this is the beginning of a process which could transform the lives of millions of people. This process will not be completed overnight; it will take time. The UK is well placed to continue our engagement and to help keep the reforms taking place on the right track.

Further Information

Hugo Swire recently answered questions about the UK’s policy on Burma via twitter

Read about the Minister’s visit to Burma in January

UK commits £600,000 to support responsible investment in Burma

British Embassy in Burma website