President Thein Sein of Burma is meeting the wrong Hague as he makes his historic first visit to London this week. Instead of visiting Foreign Secretary William Hague, Thein Sein should be visiting the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The visit marks a dramatic U-turn in British policy towards Burma. Only two years ago William Hague supported an international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Eighteen months ago he said Thein Sein should be judged on his actions not his words.Where once David Cameron and William Hague spoke of ending impunity in Burma, now there are just token platitudes on human rights.
Human rights won’t be at the top of the agenda in meetings with Thein Sein. Instead economic issues and trade will dominate. This is despite appalling human rights abuses that have continued since Thein Sein began his “reform” process more than two years ago.
The British government’s particular obsequiousness towards Thein Sein may be due in part to the fact that they are not simply trying to increase trade and investment, but also win contracts from the Burmese government to rebuild infrastructure.
Ongoing human rights abuses are not simply a legacy left over from the past dictatorship, in which it is worth noting Thein Sein was the third most senior general. Many of the most serious abuses, such as rape, torture, executions, forced labour, use of child soldiers, and deliberate targeting of civilians by the Burmese army since the government broke the ceasefire in Kachin State, began after Thein Sein became president.
[pullquote] “Many of the abuses that have taken place in the past two years violate international law” [/pullquote]
Others, such as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Arakan state, also began on Thein Sein’s watch. Hundreds of people are being arrested under a new law that was supposed to give the right to protest, and hundreds more remain in jail more than two years after Thein Sein became president.
Many of the abuses that have taken place in the past two years violate international law.
They could be classified as war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The British government has not denied this. Yet they no longer support an international inquiry into these abuses, and instead ask Thein Sein to hold investigations. In the UK, the British government does not ask murderers to investigate their own crimes.
The British government knows full well no such investigation will happen. For the past two decades the UN General Assembly resolutions have made more than 20 such requests, every one of which was ignored. Why is the British government’s only response to multiple violations of international law simply to ask Thein Sein to do something which they know he never will?
Facing growing domestic criticism over their Burma policy, the British government is clutching at straws to try to demonstrate their commitment to human rights, albeit without upsetting Thein Sein. Platitudes have descended into farce with the announcement that the British government will provide human rights training to the Burmese military. They might as well try to teach sharks not to eat fish. A few sessions in a classroom are not going to address human rights abuses by the Burmese army.
The most obvious way to address human rights abuses by the military is to put an end to impunity. Abuses are much more likely to be reduced if there is justice and accountability, and soldiers who commit abuses are put on trial and sent to jail. Not only is Thein Sein not doing this, he refuses to admit human rights abuses are even taking place.
The refusal of Thein Sein to acknowledge abuses, including the multiple cases of rape against ethnic Kachin women by the Burmese Army in the past two years, is another reason why human rights training won’t work.
The political and military masters leading the country today were also in charge during the previous military dictatorship. As a new briefing published by Burma Campaign UK details, Thein Sein has been personally involved in human rights abuses for decades.
He has even been named personally by the UN for ordering human rights abuses. Thein Sein was in charge of drafting Burma’s current constitution, which grants immunity for past crimes.
As a Karen person still living in a camp for the internally displaced told Burma Campaign UK: “There must be justice, but it will only happen if the international community do it.”
The British government says it has changed policy because of the dramatic changes taking place in Burma. But it has given 100 percent endorsement to a process which has given people just 10 percent freedom. When people try to expand the political space in Burma they get arrested and jailed. Cameron and Hague would not accept this in the UK, so why do they think its good enough for people from Burma?
-Mark Farmaner is the director of Burma Campaign UK. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkFarmaner