The British government has been sharply criticized for hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” rules relating to Burma while calling for business transparency in the Southeast Asian nation.
The London Foreign and Commonwealth Office has refused all requests for information about British companies’ activities in Burma, “using commercial interests and commercial confidentiality as an excuse,” said the human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK.
“It is hypocritical of the British government to preach the need for transparency in doing business in Burma, even spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on so-called responsible initiatives, and then refuse to reveal information it has on what British companies are doing in the country,” the organization’s director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.
“The British government frequently hides behind commercial confidentiality as a reason for not disclosing information,” he said.
But the curtain of confidentiality has been lifted slightly following legal action in London by the campaign against the British Ministry of Defence over its dealings with the Burmese military.
The campaign appealed under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act after the Ministry of Defence refused to provide details of a course in defense management in which Burmese Army officers took part earlier this year.
However, it has taken months of pushing at the ministry’s door to open it a little. Despite British legal rules requiring the ministry to reply to the campaign within one month, it took eight months to respond, Farmaner said.
“The Ministry of Defence cited commercial confidentiality because the course is run jointly with Cranfield University, and argued that releasing the materials could give competitor universities an advantage,” Farmaner said.
“Burma Campaign UK argued that as the materials are being given to hundreds of students who can pass on the materials, this risk already exists and the public interest in releasing the information outweighs the commercial interests argument. These points were accepted in the judgment on our appeal,” he told The Irrawaddy.
However, despite admitting it was flouting Britain’s Freedom of Information law, the ministry has still not fully disclosed the information sought by the NGO.
“We are pleased that the Ministry of Defence has finally agreed that they should not keep details of the training they are giving to the Burmese Army a secret, but it is very frustrating that they still haven’t released this information,” Farmaner said.
“The Ministry of Defence appears to be deliberately using excuse after excuse to try to obstruct us from obtaining any kind of information about the training they are giving to the Burmese Army.”
All the information requested by the NGO under the Britain’s own transparency law should have been made public by May 28, Farmaner said. Instead, the NGO is still waiting. The British Foreign Office separately said it needed another month to assess the situation.
“[The Foreign Office] cite the impact on international relations as the reason. This means that they are concerned that releasing the information will upset the government of Burma,” he said.
The Ministry of Defence began training programs for Burmese officers in January. Such engagement is opposed by some human rights groups, which argue that the Burmese Army continues to commit abuses against its own people.
“The training is taking place despite the Burmese Army still committing serious human rights abuses which violate international law,” Burma Campaign UK has previously stated.
“Crimes committed by the Burmese Army since the reform process began include rape and gang rape of ethnic women, including children, deliberate targeting of civilians, arbitrary execution, arbitrary detention, torture, mutilations, looting, bombing civilian areas, blocking humanitarian assistance, destruction of property, and extortion.
“The British government claims that the training will help improve human rights and governance, but has been unable to explain how the training will achieve these goals.”
The training program has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch, which alleged earlier this year that the present-day Burmese Army still has “an abusive modus operandi in its DNA.”
Burma Campaign UK has suggested that the ultimate objective of the British government’s embrace of the Burmese Army is commercial—with future weapons sales in mind. “Will the British government make a commitment that there will be no arms sales to Burma, even if the European Union arms embargo is lifted, until Burma is fully democratic, there is constitutional reform creating a federal system, genuine peace with ethnic groups, the Army has a clean human rights record, and the military is under full control of a democratic government?” the NGO asked.
The secrecy surrounding the military training of Burmese officers is happening while the British government presses the Naypyidaw government to be more open and transparent in its day-to-day business to show the outside world it has changed for the better, Farmaner said.
In its “UK Activities in Burma” report in April, the British government said it is spending US$600,000 “promoting transparent and equitable economic reform through projects on anti-money laundering, public private partnerships and strengthening the accountancy profession.”
In addition, it is paying nearly $1.9 million to “support Burma’s application to the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative [EITI] which will help improve the transparency and accountability of the revenues from Burma’s natural resources.”