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Serious ethical questions surround the west’s deepening of ties with Burma. It is time to adjust policy.

The government's image might have improved, it's human rights record has not

The visit of Burmese President Thein Sein to the White House earlier this week was an historic event; widely seen as representing a ‘high watermark’ for the country in terms of its standing in the international community, it did much for the image of the former pariah state.

However, the Government of Burma does not deserve to be regarded as legitimate quite yet. Instead, now more than ever, the political elite in Naypyidaw should be subjected to intense scrutiny, their reformist credentials critically reviewed and their public statements received with due scepticism.

There are many reasons why this is necessary. For one thing, to regain perspective: the creeping narrative from certain quarters of the press has been that recent reforms in the country somehow mean that the old establishment is willing to cede power. This is demonstrably not the case. President Thein Sein, himself an ex-general once described as a ‘consummate insider’ of the former Junta, indicated recently that he has no intention of letting the most self-serving institution of all, the military, take an ancillary role in government.

The dominance of the armed forces over Burmese political life was enshrined in the nation’s latest constitution, developed under the auspices of the old regime and rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi when it was wheeled out in 2008. The charter ensures that ultimate power in the country remains with the ‘Tatmadaw’ as they are known in Burmese, who are guaranteed a substantial share of seats in parliament (enough to effectively veto any attempts at constitutional reform), sweeping emergency powers and the right to dismiss its appointed civilian government. The status quo is also enforced by a highly politicised judiciary lacking in genuine independence.

Until such a state of affairs changes- or the constitution is publicly ratified in a referendum that is free and fair, unlike the sham of five years ago- the country’s political status cannot be regarded as anything other than quasi-democratic.  

Another reason why Burma’s government should not yet be given an easy ride is that it is, in the view of rights groups, implicated in extremely serious crimes committed against minorities. According to Human Rights Watch, abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya ethnic group last year which allegedly involved state agencies, amounted to offences against humanity and ethnic cleansing. A miserably inadequate and tendentious government-ordered report into the violence recommended  “family planning” for the victims in order to reduce tensions- but failed to meaningfully advance accountability.

The 130,000 plus Rohingya displaced in Rakhine state by last year’s violence are now on course to suffer a preventable humanitarian crisis as the rainy season approaches, bringing with it the risk of thousands of deaths from water-borne diseases and poor sanitation. It is instructive to note that the government has so far refrained from doing anything substantial to stop this from happening.

Ethnic cleansing, impunity for atrocities, crimes against humanity, an undemocratic constitution and inaction in the face of an imminent humanitarian disaster- these are hardly minor failings associated with Thein Sein’s administration. Regardless, the west has proceeded to expeditiously deepen ties with his government, whose mandate to rule, based on the highly controversial 2010 election, is in itself questionable.

Having just returned from the latest of two trips to Burma in recent weeks, and having had the opportunity to speak to many people with insights into the situation there- including ethnic minority representatives, foreign diplomats and aid workers- it seems clear that an alteration of present western policy could do much good.

This would not mean disengagement from the country, but a willingness to get tough with the government on the crucial issues mentioned above- particularly with regard to the plight of the Rohingya. As I have argued before, the latter are in an extremely precarious position, effectively stateless in their homeland, forced to exist without access to many of the rights afforded them under international conventions. The minority continue to be ghettoised, systematically denied aid along with the right to travel or marry freely and may be edging toward what some commentators are openly beginning to call genocide.

The only long-term solution to this pattern of abuse is to grant the Rohingya the citizenship rights they should automatically be entitled to as a resident race in Burma, but are denied as the result of a discriminatory Junta-era law.

Thein Sein opposes this. Shortly after the first outbreak of violence last year he stated that the 'only solution' to the ethnic tensions in Rakhine state was to expel the minority, presumably by force, to another country or to surrender them to the care of the UN.

This appears to remain his position- one that ensures that Rohingya suffering will continue indefinitely. It is extremely hard to see how such a situation could be remotely tolerable to governments like ours that claim to have ‘the promotion of human rights… at the heart of [its] foreign policy objectives.’

Enough is enough. Without considerable external pressure, recent internal reforms- which represent a first step in the right direction but not an end in itself- would never have taken place; it would be beyond delusional to expect human rights abuses to halt without more of the same.

The Foreign Office and The US State Department realise this, of course. The question is whether or not they are willing to overstep expediency and adjust policy.