By Ivan Lewis, Minister of State, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The message could not have been clearer. On Armed Forces day, as soldiers marched through Naypyidaw, Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe set out his vision for “disciplined democracy”. A moment that could have been cause for celebration, is instead a cause for concern and regret.
The Generals seem determined to squander a once in a generation opportunity to put Burma on a path to a better future. Recently announced laws mean there is no prospect of forthcoming elections being free, fair or inclusive. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party are forced to either expel her, or accept that they will be disbanded. Prospective voters have already been warned to vote the ‘right way’.
Instead of a general election, there will be an election of Generals.
This is why the UK secured an urgent UN Security Council meeting to discuss these developments, and why we supported the adoption of a strong resolution in the UN Human Rights Council on 26 March. We remain determined to keep Burma high on the international agenda. The human consequences of military dictatorship in the country demand nothing less: the sheer scale of the suffering, the monstrous human rights abuses, the tragic waste of human life and economic potential.
We also have a duty to respond to the courage and determination of Burma’s people. I have met young activists ready to risk their lives to help persecuted communities, who drew their boundless energy not from bitterness, but from a shared vision of a better future for their country. It is remarkable that in the face of such brutality, so many Burmese remain committed to a peaceful process of national reconciliation.
But I firmly believe they are right to pursue that goal: an inclusive transition to democracy would release the true potential of the country.
For Burma’s people there is the prospect of a government that acts in the people’s interests rather than its own. Economic mismanagement and endemic corruption have seen Burma go from being the ‘rice bowl of Asia’ to a country where much of the population lives in abject poverty. Spending on health and education is amongst the lowest in the world. In a newly-united, outward-looking Burma, people could begin to benefit from global trade, and the government could invest wealth generated by the country’s natural resources into public services and educating the next generation.
There is a choice for Myanmar’s military leaders too. Currently synonymous with brutal dictatorship and the worst abuses of power, they could instead find a place in history for bringing about a transition to lasting stability and security that restored Burma’s international standing. Or they can continue to live in fear and opprobrium.
For Burma’s neighbours, a genuinely inclusive political settlement would allow refugees to return home and end border instability. The Rohingya, Karen and other persecuted groups have fled in large numbers across Burma’s borders. The problems will continue while the factors that drive people away from their homelands remain unchanged. This worrying trend, as well as the growing flow of drugs and human trafficking, could be tackled and eventually reversed.
For these reasons, the UK remains determined to stand up for the people of Burma. I am convinced of three things.
First, that no-one should be selling arms to a country where the military’s primary purpose is to oppress and persecute its own people. A global arms embargo is long overdue, and the UK is urging others to follow the EU’s lead and stop the sale of arms to the Generals.
Second, that we must make clear to Burma’s leaders that without the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and full participation of opposition and ethnic groups, elections planned for later this year will not be credible, nor help to solve Burma’s many problems.
Finally, that we should resist the temptation to accept the status quo out of frustration at the lack of progress. If Burma’s people can retain their optimism for the future, we have no right to turn away or give up hope.