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Burma: daring to hope

If Aung San Suu Kyi dares to hope that Burma’s future can be better, then we have a duty to support her with every means at our disposal.

I have just returned from a thought provoking, fascinating week long visit to Burma courtesy of the globally respected Burma Campaign UK.  I was able to witness for myself a country emerging from the darkness of tyranny, daring to hope that unlike the many false starts in her history this time the journey to freedom and democracy will be irreversible. I arrived a cautious optimist and departed the same but learned along the way the complexities of this beautiful country.

Based on my meetings and observations, it is important that the international community, civil society campaigners and political activists retain a sense of balance and objectivity as they strive to support sustainable reform.  Politicians and diplomats must supplement their embrace of progress thus far with clear expectations of the regime. Building on temporary ceasefires in most parts of the country these expectations should include an end to violence in every region and a transparent framework for political dialogue and negotiations, rather than a series of ad hoc reform announcements.  NGOs and campaigners are right to highlight ongoing challenges and injustices but should be careful not to fan the flames of cynicism which can deny progress and snuff out hope.

During my visit I had the privilege of meeting activists and political prisoners whose courage and conviction have kept the flame of freedom burning despite unspeakable personal pain and sacrifices. Senior members of the 88 Generation Students shared with me their hopes and fears. They were remarkably free of bitterness despite years of imprisonment and in some cases torture. Anxious to highlight the many political and economic issues which will have to be addressed if there is to be reconciliation and their full participation in the democratic process.

One of the main issues is the rights of the diverse ethnic groups which make up approximately 40% of the population.  Post-independence they have suffered discrimination, violence and a concerted attempt by successive Burmese regimes to undermine their distinct cultures, faiths and fight for self determination. In response they have developed their own army militias to protect their territory and civilian populations. Even in recent times as the world has celebrated progress in Burma the situation in some ethnic areas has deteriorated.

In June of last year a long standing ceasefire in Kachin state between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) was broken.  As part of their offensive the army targeted civilians with violence against women commonplace and around 100,000 people displaced. The regime continues to prevent humanitarian aid getting through to areas controlled by the KIO leading to malnutrition and chronic illness. During my visit I attended a court committal hearing in Rangoon of two Kachin peace activists. Their “crime” was to arrange a peaceful protest in Rangoon to highlight the abuses which are taking place in their home state without gaining permission under the Government’s heralded 'right to protest' law. This law requires organisers to apply for permission from the Government before any demonstration can take place. The Kachin activists I met expressed serious concern at the humanitarian situation, systematic human rights abuses and the plight of those who have been internally displaced. They want a ceasefire but this is dependent on the Government’s commitment to meaningful political negotiations.

I also met representatives of the Rohingya Muslim community who since June of this year have experienced extreme violence in some cases having to flee their homes as a result of the conflict in Rakhine state. The Government acted slowly to deploy the army on a peacekeeping basis and at the latest count more than 100, 000 civilians have been displaced. The Rohingyas have suffered hostility for decades and been denied Burmese citizenship. Government and opposition alike have been too slow to condemn the violence being perpetrated against the Rohingyas. The question of their citizenship status has to be resolved in a transparent way taking account of both the law and humanitarian considerations. There is no doubt that some may be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh but others clearly were born in Burma and have family links spanning generations. 

A main purpose of my trip was to visit the Mae La refugee camp and meet with the large network of civil society organisations active on the Thai Burma border. I also visited the world-renowned Mae Tao health clinic run by the inspirational Dr. Cynthia. The camp is home to 50,000 refugees and has a Thai security presence controlling access to and from the camp. Although there is humanitarian input from some UN agencies and local cross-border NGOs, it is organised and overseen by an elected committee of the refugees themselves. Their efforts to ensure order, decent sanitation and access to basic service were humbling. Amidst the trauma and poverty the quest for dignity was self evident and uplifting. The camp was a hive of economic activity with a diverse range of food and goods being traded. Education was provided for all children from nursery to the conclusion of secondary school. We met an impressive young teacher who was responsible for the education of over 100 special needs children. She and her team were doing their best but had no access to specialist support such as psychology and physiotherapy.

Basic food rations of fish paste, cooking oil and less frequently meat were inadequate but it was hard to tell how many people had other sources of income to supplement their rations through support from families who have been resettled to other countries or earnings as cheap labour outside the camp. The EU has reduced funding to the camp in recent years apparently as part of a strategy to encourage people to begin to go home. Denying the refugees basic food seems a crass–some would say immoral—way of achieving that goal.

On the question of returning home it is clear that guarantees are required that the Burmese army will pull back from villages and provide assurances this will be permanent. There is also concern that the Burmese Government has plans to resettle refugees in population centres near to industrial projects so they can be used as cheap labour rather than have the chance to return to their original homes. To allay suspicions and fears it is essential the international community, Burmese and Thai Governments urgently engage with the refugees and relevant community organisations to agree a way forward.  Equally, some who claim to speak for the refugees must not seek to slow or prevent an orderly resettlement programme as part of a political agenda where refugees are used to illustrate a lack of progress. "Nothing about us without us" should be a principle applied by all the "actors" who have a stake in the future of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs.)  It was interesting to hear that in recent months contrary to some reports we had heard the majority of IDPs  were  choosing to go home. Although some were retaining shelter in the places they had fled to in the event of the Burmese army resuming their activities. 

I also had a unique opportunity to attend the Karen National Unity (KNU) Congress where I met the leadership of the KNU and key civil society organisations. The KNU leadership were cautiously optimistic about the reform process having agreed an initial ceasefire with the Burmese Government. They were awaiting a response to their code of conduct proposal which would make the ceasefire permanent but also stressed the importance of an immediate political process to address the demands of the Burmese ethnic communities for self determination. They and civil society representatives expressed serious concern at the nature and pace of economic development—concerns echoed by Kachin representatives I met. Land was being confiscated by the Government, handed over to companies often controlled by regime cronies and deals were being struck with some local leaders in an attempt to cause division in both the Karen and Kachin communities. They expressed concern that rather than creating quality jobs foreign and Burmese companies planned to exploit cheap labour.

During my visit it became clear that one person was accepted as the torchbearer for democracy and a better future by all groups irrespective of their individual causes or nuanced differences. That's why having the chance to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for a lengthy and relaxed meeting was not only an honour but an essential means of understanding the challenges she faces and the most effective way the international community can assist her.

I was heartened by her praise for the important role the British Embassy and DfID are playing at this crucial time. I was struck not only by her dignity but also hard-headed pragmatism and single minded determination. Buoyed by recent by election victories for her party she is on a mission to secure real democracy. To be the "mother of the nation" who can reach out to all parts of Burma in a spirit of reconciliation, offering an equal stake to all ethnic groups while restoring Burma’s strong sense of national pride.  Her relationship with President Thein Sein is complex and less certain than in the euphoric early days following her release. But she is developing new cross-party relationships to strengthen the authority and effectiveness of parliament.

Many have described Burma as being at a crossroads. They are right. It is essential a political framework is established to work towards a new constitution in advance of the 2015 elections. This constitution must ensure the makeup of parliament and the election of the President is expressed by the will of the people in a free and fair vote. It must also define a new federal system which enshrines power sharing with the major ethnic groups.

Consideration should be given to a short moratorium on large scale economic development projects while rules relating to transparency, land ownership and taxation are adopted and implemented. Ahead of the British trade delegation to Burma next week which Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire is to lead it is essential the UK Government and private sector stress their commitment to transparency and ethical business practices at every opportunity. 

Donors and international NGOs flocking to Burma on the "coat tails “of reform should beware of trampling over existing civil society networks which are well established, effective and are trusted by their communities. It is urgent that all sections of Burmese society begin to feel the positive benefits of reform as an essential part of the confidence building which is an essential part of believing this change is real. One option would be an all party commitment to free universal healthcare which could then be supported by donors.

As I was leaving Burma the fragility of the reform process was graphically illustrated as the Burmese army committed serious acts of violence to break up a peaceful protest at a copper mine in North Western Burma. Activists and Monks had occupied the mine to demonstrate their concern at the environmental and social impact of the project. Once again, the narrow dividing line between scepticism and hope was tested to the limit. But the only real antidote to despair is hope and if someone of the courage and wisdom of Aung San Suu Kyi dares to hope that Burma’s future can be better, then we have a duty to support her with every means at our disposal.