RANGOON — British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire has defended his government’s decision to re-engage with the Burma Army amid continuing concerns about human rights abuses committed by troops and the retained political “veto” held by Burma’s military.
The UK has been quick embrace the reformist government of President Thein Sein, and was the first Western nation to re-establish military-to-military ties in the form of a training program for Burmese officers, which took place earlier this month.
During a speech Thursday in Rangoon, Swire referred to the “intense interest” in the UK in the re-engagement. Rights groups have criticized the UK government for assisting the country’s notorious military, which is still fighting ethnic armed groups in border areas and is regularly accused of rights abuses.
About 40 officers in the Burma Army, known as the Tatmadaw, attended the classroom-based course in Burma this month entitled “Managing Defense in the Wider Security Context.”
The training covered “the role of the military in democracy, security sector reform, governance, accountability and the rule of law,” the minister said. “It did not enhance the Tatmadaw’s military capacity or capabilities.”
But Swire said he shared concerns over sexual violence committed by troops, humanitarian access to war-torn areas, and the use of child soldiers. A women’s group said this month that more than 100 women and girls had been raped by soldiers since 2010; aid agencies have been unable to reach many of the estimated 100,000 people displaced since fighting broke out in Kachin State in 2011; and the army is still thought to use underage troops, despite recent discharges of child soldiers.
“The fact that we are engaging with the Tatmadaw does not mean we will shy away from raising very real and continued concerns,” Swire said, insisting, however, that “cautious engagement with the Tatmadaw is the right thing to be doing, and that now is the right time to be doing it.”
Swire arrived in Burma on Tuesday. He has met with armed forces Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and visited Kachin State, where fighting is ongoing between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army.
Thursday’s speech was scheduled to be delivered to students at Rangoon University, but the venue became unavailable “at the last minute, for reasons beyond our control,” Swire told a small audience, made up mostly of media, at the fall-back venue, the British Council in downtown Rangoon.
No reason has been given, but the minister suggested that the speech was canceled to avoid controversy. “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, it seems to me, of any university.”
During the speech, he said that Burma was at a “critical juncture” in two areas—democratic reform and the process to bring peace to Burma after more than half a century of ethnic conflicts.
On the peace process, he reiterated Britain’s support for efforts to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement, with the next round of talks between the government and ethnic groups set to take place in Karen State on Feb. 20.
“[The nationwide ceasefire] is of course, only a first step. But it is an essential first step towards building trust and creating conditions for the political dialogue that must follow,” said Swire, a former officer in the British Army.
He said he backed efforts by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to have Burma’s military-drafted Constitution amended in order to ensure elections in 2015 are fair.
“Speaking to people throughout my visit, it has been absolutely clear to me that there is overwhelming support amongst ordinary people for constitutional change,” Swire said. “Change that brings the Constitution in line with international democratic standards. Change that delivers greater devolution of powers to states and divisions through a strengthened federal system. Change that cements the independence of the judiciary. Change that removes the military’s veto over democratic reform and gives citizens greater control over their own destinies.”
Swire highlighted the importance of the Burma Army coming under the control of a civilian government rather than wielding power, as it currently does with a constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent of seats in Parliament. He challenged Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing “to secure a unique legacy—to be the commander-in-chief whose courage enabled his army to break free of the shackles of the past.”
He also highlighted the “very simple, and very important” amendment of clause 59(f), which blocks Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s chairperson, from becoming president because she has two adult sons who are British citizens.
“I can only assume that the restriction was written into the 2008 Constitution in order to prevent one particular individual from ever becoming president. This is surely no way to write a Constitution,” he said.
He also addressed communal violence in Arakan State, which has seen scores killed and more than 140,000 people displaced—the majority of them stateless Rohingya Muslims—since mid-2012. He said that in more than a year since he visited Arakan State, also known as Rakhine State, “there has been little progress in addressing either the humanitarian situation or underlying inter-communal relations.”
“I have been appalled to hear of further tragic deaths this month in northern Rakhine and we have called for an investigation into this,” he added, referring to allegations that more than 48 Rohingyas were killed by police and Arakanese Buddhists in Maungdaw Township two weeks ago.
The government has denied the deaths, saying only that a police officer was abducted and probably murdered by a Rohingya mob. The government this week said Burma’s human rights commission would investigate the incident, but has rejected calls for an international presence in a probe into the incident to ensure its independence.
“In order for it to be a credible investigation, we must have credible people, respected by all parts of the community here involved in that investigation. We need to get to the bottom of these facts,” Swire said. “Clearly the international community watches the situation in Rakhine extremely closely, so it is incumbent, I believe, on the government to answer fully any accusations of this kind.”