4 Burma |
38. 2013 was another significant year in Burma's
democratic transition, according to the British Government. The
FCO believes that the human rights situation in Burma has improved
in a number of areas, although challenges remain, especially with
regard to political freedoms and the situation in Rakhine State.
39. President Thein Sein made 11 commitments to deepen
democracy and protect human rights when President Obama visited
Burma in November 2012. The Executive Director of Human Rights
Watch, Kenneth Roth, praised President Thein Sein's commitment
to reform following a 75-strong delegation visit to Burma by Human
Rights Watch in February 2014. Mr Roth observed that enormous
changes had taken place over the past two and half years.
40. In the 2013 Report, the FCO noted specific areas
of progress. The availability of privately-owned newspapers for
the first time in 50 years was described as "another positive
step in the evolution of media freedom".
Burma had risen 18 places to 151 out of 179 states in the World
Press Freedom Index. There has been progress in opening up political
debate with legislators across the political spectrum playing
a wider role, and according to the FCO, the working environment
of human rights defenders improved in 2013.
Room for improvement
41. A number of written submissions to the Committee
indicated a range of on-going human rights violations in Burma.
Women's League of Burma and the Kachin National Organisation raised
concerns about the systematic use of rape by the Burmese military.
PEN International called for the review of all legislation that
constrained the freedom of expression and the release of all political
Campaign UK said that the approach of the British Government was
"based on a false assumption that Burma is currently in a
period of transition away from dictatorship and towards democracy".
It said that the FCO's 2013 Report did not present an "accurate
reflection of the human rights situation in Burma".
CENSUS IN BURMA
42. In preparation for the general election in 2015,
Burma conducted its first census in over 30 years between 30 March
and 10 April 2014. The FCO provided around £10 million in
financial support to the census and held regular discussions with
the Government of Burma in an effort to ensure that it was conducted
in a credible manner. Shortly before the start of the census,
the UN Population Fund Agency, which monitored the enumeration
process, was informed by Burmese officials that anyone who identified
themselves as Rohingya would not be counted in the census. The
International Crisis Group has said that this decision had a significant
political and humanitarian impact on the Rakhine State.
It claimed that Rakhine extremists might use the results of the
census as an opportunity to create additional hurdles to the provision
of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, and that hard-line
political actors in Rakhine State would be more confident in their
ability to marginalise politically the Rohingya.
The Rt Hon Hugo Swire, the FCO Minister with responsibility for
policy on the region, said that he was "deeply disappointed"
that the Government of Burma had gone against its assurances on
census conduct, in particular the right to self-identify ethnicity.
He stated that he had made it clear to the Government of Burma
that this decision was in contravention of international norms
and standards. Burma Campaign UK argued that the actions by the
Burmese authorities demonstrated that the UK's support for the
Census had been "an alarming misjudgement", and that
it showed that the UK had failed to understand the real political
context in Burma at that time.
UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON BURMA REPORTS
ON RAKHINE STATE
43. In March 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on the
human rights situation in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned
that the human rights situation in Rakhine State had further deteriorated.
He said that "recent developments in Rakhine State are the
latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against
the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity."
He warned that the evacuation of aid workers, following the recent
attacks on UN and NGO premises in Sittwe, "would only increase
the vulnerability of this community".
44. During President Thein Sein's visit to the UK
in 2013, he made a commitment to release all political prisoners
by the end of 2013 but PEN International, in its written submission,
said that the Government of Burma might still be holding as many
as 630 political prisoners. PEN International also stated that
almost all of the political prisoners released since 2011 have
"only had their sentences suspended under Burma penal code
401" and had not received full pardons.
It said that any hope for a democratic government in Burma depended
on the release of prisoners associated with the country's ethnic
groups. Several ethnic-based political parties have stated that
they will not participate in parliamentary elections until their
members are released from custody. In April 2014, Mr Swire issued
a statement that welcomed the previous release of hundreds of
political prisoners, but said that the Government was "very
concerned" about those who remained in jail, including recognised
prisoners of conscience such as Dr Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung.
He has since noted that there has been a rise in the number of
politically motivated arrests and has said that the Government
would continue to lobby for the unconditional release of all political
Overall UK policy on Burma
45. Baroness Warsi told us that she had been disappointed
by the interview given by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013 in which she
did not voice support for the Rohinyga community.
Baroness Warsi acknowledged that the British Government needed
to be more robust in its engagement with Opposition figures, including
Aung San Suu Kyi. Nonetheless, she believed that "Burma is
on the right journey" and felt that the UK had to "keep
supporting" the country.
There have been serious failures in human rights in Burma over
the past 18 months, and we note that the Government has not held
back from criticism. On balance, we accept its argument that there
has been progress towards forming democracy in Burma, and we agree
that a diplomatic approach towards securing improvement in human
rights in Burma is the best one. However, we recommend that
the Government reiterate to the Government of Burma that the current
situation is still highly unsatisfactory, and that the UK will
strongly advocate the re-imposition of sanctions by the EU if
there is no progress over the next 12 months in improving the
conditions of the Rohingya community, and in securing the unconditional
release of all political prisoners. We also recommend that the
UK Government closely monitors whether former political prisoners
who wish to stand for elections in 2015 are able to do so.
71 "HRW lauds Thein Sein's commitment to reform,
but says govt is divided", 6 February 2014, www.dvb.no/news/hrw-lauds-thein-seins-commitment-to-reform-but-says-govt-is-divided-burma-myanmar/36858 Back
FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870,
April 2014, page 163 Back
Memoranda from Women's League of Burma and Kachin National Organisation Back
Memorandum from PEN International Back
Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 2 Back
Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 8 Back
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit,
non-governmental organisation, which provides a source of information,
analysis and policy advice on preventing and resolving deadly
"Counting the Costs: Myanmar's Problematic Census",
International Crisis Group, 15 May 2014, www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/burma-myanmar/b144-counting-the-costs-myanmar-s-problematic-census.pdf
HC Deb, 28 April, col 585W [Commons Written Answer] Back
Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 17 Back
"Myanmar: UN expert raises alarm on Rakhine State",
OHCHR press release, 7 April 2014, www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14476& Back
Memorandum from PEN International, Burma penal code 401, according
to PEN International, means that if the released political prisoner
is convicted again, he or she would serve the new prison term,
and the remainder of their former prison term. For more detail,
"Hugo Swire responds to letters on political prisoners in
Burma" FCO news article, 16 April 2014, www.gov.uk/government/world-location-news/hugo-swire-responds-to-letters-on-political-prisoners-in-burma Back
HC Deb, 28 October 2014, col 168 [Commons Chamber] Back
Q 99 Back
Q 98 Back