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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker