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Britain surely knows how bad things are for Burma's minorities. So why do we maintain diplomatic relations?

The freeing of political prisoners by Thein Sein is more PR than a sign of change

As expected, the visit of Burma’s President Thein Sein to Britain last week was hailed by both nations as a highly symbolic event, a landmark reaffirming the new status that the former pariah state, now courted by the West, enjoys.  Accordingly, new promises unveiled by David Cameron’s recent guest around the time of his stay were presented by partial pundits as a sure sign of the Asian nation’s steady movement toward deep and lasting reform.

Two key announcements were made: that all remaining political prisoners would be released by the end of the year and that a notorious border force accused of appalling abuses against minorities would be disbanded.

While these moves are to be welcomed, they are sadly unlikely to portend any serious change in state policy on civil and human rights, regardless of their PR value. This is because Burma remains a gehenna for dissidents and many minorities.

This is demonstrated well by the poor state of civil freedoms in the South East Asian nation. Even though prisoners of conscience may soon be released, many of the junta-era laws intended to criminalise dissent remain firmly in place - meaning that while the government gains plaudits for freeing dissidents wrongly imprisoned in the first place, others will continue to be detained unjustly.

In recent weeks alone, dozens have been arrested for offences linked to criticism of the government under these laws; one of them, Wai Phyo, was arrested - ironically enough- for calling for the release of political prisoners.

It should also be noted that freeing imprisoned critics of the government does not in itself mean that they will be allowed to resume peaceful political activity.

Many of those emancipated in the celebrated mass pardons of recent years have been monitored and arbitrarily re-arrested after their discharge from prison. One of them, whom I met in Rangoon, told me how he was forced to sign a document prior to leaving jail, which made him liable for future imprisonment if he publicly denounced the government again. While in incarceration he was brutally tortured, and still suffers from severe post-traumatic stress, a condition made worse by the ongoing harassment he says he experiences at the hands of law enforcement.

Human rights

Besides the above, many other touchstone freedoms in Burma associated with democracy remain truncated - earlier this month a law that effectively bans press criticism of the military-drafted constitution, which ensures the latter’s stranglehold on power, passed the Lower House.

Thus, regardless of appearances, Burma still has far to go. And whether or not Thein Sein delivers on his latest batch of promises, the President and his government are still neglecting to positively engage with much more urgent rights issues. These include the continuing vulnerability and persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of the country, who, according to authoritative assessments face the prospect of genocide if little is done to increase their security. Government policy on this front remains utterly abysmal - and possibly criminal.

Britain surely knows how bad things are for the Rohingya. A damning and highly credible body of evidence contained in a report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in April indicates that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against the minority with the complicity of state agencies.

Instructively, Naypyidaw refuses to meaningfully address the allegations made by Human Rights Watch. Thein Sein himself dismissed claims of military involvement in the violence as “pure fabrication”, even though very real mass graves have been found. On Friday he referred to claims of ethnic cleansing as falsehoods spread in a “smear campaign” against his country.

It has also emerged, perhaps most revealingly of all, that the Na Sa Ka border force closed by the government just before the visit to Britain may have been done so in order to side-step sanctions, and not as an act of goodwill. A very well-informed source I spoke to confirmed these claims. The group whose record on human rights is truly abominable, continue to enjoy impunity for a host of past crimes, alleged to include rape, torture and murder.

Despite all this, London has seen fit to pursue lucrative trade deals with Burma and revealed last week that it will develop ties with its military, within which are units implicated in the atrocities documented by HRW. Arms sales have also been announced.

Instead of insisting on accountability and clear action on the Rohingya situation from Burma prior to deepening relations, the UK seems content to hop into bed with a government that has consistently failed to live up to its pledges on human rights.

Get tough

As a consequence of policies such as this, life continues to be miserable for the latter minority. Matthew Smith, author of the latter HRW report, expressed the view that, with regard to the Rohingya, in Burma “human rights violations continue with impunity... There has been no accountability and no justice.”

“The lack of humanitarian aid to displaced Rohingya a full year after initial displacement is indefensible and amounts to the international crime of persecution. Tens of thousands are going without basic aid”, he added.

In my view, the alleged abuses mentioned above could be halted, at least in large part, if Thein Sein and Burma’s ruling party acted decisively to protect the minority, something they seem blatantly unwilling to do.

In lieu of domestic action, sustained international pressure on Naypyidaw - something that an influential country such as the UK could help to instigate - is surely required to prevent a future catastrophe from taking place.

As things stand nothing of this kind seems to be on the cards - instead Britain is helping to fund programmes linked to government efforts to deny the Rohingya’s ethnic identity.

All of which is worse than shameful: as the recent anniversary of Srebrenica reminds us, inaction in the face of ethnic cleansing is a betrayal of the victims, pure and simple.