Photo: UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire meets with his Japanese counterparts in January 2013 (photo: UK in Japan FCO\flickr)
A public address by visiting British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire, scheduled to be held at Rangoon University on Thursday, was moved to a last-minute closed-door session at the British Council in Rangoon “for reasons beyond our control.”
The British Embassy received word late Wednesday evening that the university’s Diamond Jubilee Hall was no longer being made available for the address, forcing the organisers to find another venue and denying students the ability to hear the minister’s speech in person.
“I hope that one day people like me will be able to give speeches there, at the university, that provoke and give cause for debate,” Swire said. “This is, after all, the first duty… of any university.”
Rangoon University has historically been a hotbed for activism and anti-government agitation, playing a crucial role in the country’s struggle for independence and the ill-fated 1988 anti-government uprising. Despite recent reforms, students still face significant restrictions on their ability to engage in political activities.
Swire concluded a three-day visit to Burma on Thursday afternoon, his second to the country in fourteen months. On Tuesday, he met with Aung San Suu Kyi and “senior Burmese government figures” in Naypyidaw, before traveling to Myitkina the following day, where he visited a camp for internally displaced persons and met with NGOs, UN agencies, and the KIO’s technical advisory team. He subsequently flew to Cambodia.
Burma’s reform process faces many challenges, Swire noted, but he identified two areas as being of particular concern: democratic reforms and the future of Burma’s fragile peace process.
Constitutional reform will be prerequisite to any further democratic reform, Swire said. He singled out section 59(f) of the constitution, which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the Presidency owing to the British citizenship of her two sons, as being a “very simple and very important” amendment that needs to be made.
“The 2008 Constitution is perhaps unique. I can think of no other constitution that makes an individual citizen’s eligibility to become President conditional on the nationality of their adult children,” he said. “As Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear, it is time for this restriction to be removed. It is a hangover from a very different era. It is fundamentally undemocratic. And it is fundamentally wrong.”
The UK government has brought a cross-section of Burmese political and civil society leaders to Belfast over the past year – “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister U Aung Min, the United Nationalities Federation Council, the Karen National Union, and the 88 Generation” – to learn from the successes and failures of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Swire was himself Minister for Northern Ireland before joining the Foreign Office.
“The international community today fully recognises the importance of the peace process, and its centrality to this country’s future,” he said. “Without a fair and equitable peace settlement that reflects the aspirations of its diverse communities, the potential to become a prosperous, stable and democratic country will never be realised.”
On his first official visit to the country in December 2013, Swire became the first European minister to visit Arakan State. He stated today that “there has been little progress in addressing either the humanitarian situation or underlying intercommunal relations” since his first visit. In recent weeks, credible reports that dozens of Rohingya Muslims were killed in northern Arakan have surfaced. The government disputes the accuracy of these claims.
The UK controversially revived military links with the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) last year, appointing a defence attaché after a 20-year absence. “We made these moves after consultation with opposition, ethnic and civil society leaders, the vast majority of whom firmly supported cautious and calibrated engagement,” said Swire.
A training course for Burmese officers, provided by lecturers from the UK Defence Academy “covering topics including the role of the military in a democracy, security sector reform, governance, accountability, and the rule of law,” recently concluded in Naypyidaw. The UK and the United States have both established limited military ties with Burma over the past year; the Tatmadaw observed the US-led Cobra Gold exercises, held annually in Thailand, for the first time last year.
But the prospect of revived links with the Tatmadaw has provoked criticism of Britain’s engagement with Naypyidaw, despite the training program’s ostensible focus on promoting more democratic and accountable practices. In a report released this month, Burma Campaign UK, a London-based activist group, claims the British government “has been unable to explain how the training will achieve these goals. It has admitted in Parliament it is not possible to monitor whether the training actually leads to any improvements.”
The organization accuses Swire and other ministers of dodging tough questions in Parliament, claiming “the [UK] government is increasingly resorting to avoiding giving a straight and clear answer to questions, probably in order to avoid proper scrutiny of its policies.”
Swire dismissed concerns that the UK’s engagement with the Tatmadaw will make it any less critical of the abuses perpetrated by it. “The fact that we are engaging with the Tatmadaw does not mean we will shy away from raising very real and continued concerns,” he said. “I am convinced that cautious engagement with the Tatmadaw is the right thing to be doing, and that now is the right time to be doing it.”