Britain balancing hope and scepticism in Burma

A few years ago journalists and diplomats were seriously speculating about the political significance of Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to make repairs to the roof of her house. Was this a sign of new openness and potential change in Burma? Such ridiculous speculation was a sign of just how difficult it was to understand the thinking and actions of the dictatorship.

In this context, perhaps it is not surprising how carried away many journalists and diplomats have got with the events of the past year.  Cool and cautious diplomats and cynical journalists alike have been swept away on the wave of hope and optimism in response to political changes which began last summer. Incredibly, a Norwegian Minister even expressed concern about the fast pace of change.

On his visit to Burma, William Hague has been far more level-headed. He was upbeat and positive about the changes so far, and about the potential for more. He offered a positive response to more fundamental reforms. But at the same time he cautioned that much more needs to be done, and that it is not yet time to lift sanctions.

While many European governments are organising trade delegations to Burma, even before sanctions have been lifted, the UK has so far maintained a more principled and human rights focused approach to Burma, and deserves credit for doing so.

There is no doubt that the British government is under pressure to change its approach. British companies will be lobbying the government, afraid they will be left behind in the rush to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources. Countries like Germany and Italy shamelessly put potential business opportunities ahead of human rights.

Discussions on the renewal of the European Union sanctions on Burma have already begun, even though they do not need to be renewed until the end of April. William Hague cannot now be accused of being hardline and inflexible. He has made the first trip to Burma by a British Foreign Secretary in 56 years. He has met the military-backed government and offered to lift sanctions in response to more fundamental reform, and the British government has put its money where its mouth is, becoming the biggest bi-lateral aid donor to the country.

By stating much more needs to be done before sanctions are lifted, William Hague has set the UK on a potential collision course with some EU members. EU officials in the External Action Service, who have long tried to pursue their own foreign policy which is much softer than members states have agreed, seemed unhappy with his firm stance. They chose the time of his visit to announce that they were opening an office in Burma, even though discussions on this office have been going on for years, and they still don’t actually have a full agreement to push ahead with it.

In the long-term though, if the British government continues to stand on principle, they seem likely to be vindicated. The pace of change has slowed dramatically: promises to release political prisoners have not been kept and the Burmese army continues its attacks in Kachin state, despite promises to end them. The military government has talked reform but human rights abuses have increased.

As William Hague has said, the government must be judged on its actions, not its words. This is a lesson the international community should have learnt many years ago.

The premature lifting of economic sanctions could remove incentives for further change, and also make the EU look very foolish if further change doesn’t materialise, and serious human rights abuses continue. Only a few months ago the EU was discussing whether or not to support a UN inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Like Thein Sein’s announcement on the Myitsone dam, that proposal has been temporarily halted, not abandoned.  Things can change fast, in either direction.

As prime minister during Than Shwe’s dictatorship, Thein Sein became a master at fooling the international community with promises of change coming soon, and then delaying again and again, finally throwing a few crumbs when patience seemed about to run out. Last year as president he surprised almost everyone by delivering some small changes, but the fear is that things could return to the old way of operating. Promises are not being kept. William Hague is right to insist that Burma really must turn the corner before sanctions are lifted.

One more thing may play on William Hague’s mind in the wake of his trip. He is just the latest in a flurry of ministers and diplomats, including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, to visit Burma following the political changes last year.  Almost all, regardless of whether or not they have imposed sanctions, have called for the release of all political prisoners and further reforms. To date, none seem to have had any discernible impact. Indeed, since they started visiting the pace of change has slowed.

Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK

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