What is going on in Burma?

Published 24/10/2017

I’ve been guilty of over optimism, partly influenced by respect for a remarkable woman, and have taken time to believe the full ghastliness – which is still emerging – about what is going on the Muslim areas of the Burmese state of Rakhine, close to their border with Bangladesh.

But after last week none of us can be in any doubt about what has happened. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) journalists published their rapid response mission report, and fellow MPs reported back from their visit on the plight of the Rohingya muslims.

The story is horrific, almost in the same league as the genocide in Rwanda at the turn of the millennium, or even in Cambodia during their civil war.

Fellow Trade Envoy Rushanara Ali highlighted there are now up to a million Rohingya muslim refugees from Burma in Bangladesh. She quoted from the UNHCR report of atrocious sexual violence, torture and executions of the Rohingya Muslims – mostly by the Burmese military, alongside the destruction of religious and cultural buildings. The UNHCR claimed this amounts to a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Three of my Conservative colleagues who have been out there, and others in last week’s debate, highlighted that the responsibility for these atrocities is with the Burmese military, and that the new democratic government cannot avoid some responsibility for not visibly doing much to prevent this.

And therein lies the intellectual difficulty. For the government is now run by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Oxford educated heroine whose voice and integrity, while under solitary arrest, held the military dictatorship to account – eventually obliging them to allow elections which led to her forming a civilian government under a military President.

Many of us supported and cheered Aung San Suu Kyi all the way. William Hague led the way on getting EU sanctions lifted. She addressed the joint Houses of Parliament: opened New Labour’s new offices; and of course was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But right now Aung San Suu Kyi stands guilty of not speaking up at all for the Rohingya Muslims of Burma, a community which FCO documents confirm have been there for centuries, and of acting at least as an apologist for the military regime.

This is not the way the story was supposed to go. All of us are shocked and all of our eyes are being opened.

Foreign Ministers’ responses are now robust. They’ve suspended our defence education programme and banned military visits, called for a civilian body to oversee the return of the Rohingya: given an extra £30 million of aid and helped secure a six month extension to the UNHCR mission. We’ve led on galvanising the international community around a five point plan. As Minister Mark Field said, genocide ‘looks like an increasingly accurate description of what has happened.’

But the government is also realistic that Aung San Suu Kyi ‘treads a very fine line between international condemnation and Burmese public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports what the security forces are doing’.

It is hard to avoid concluding that the relations between different communities in Burma – Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus – are riddled with mutual fear, mistrust and, sadly, hatred. It may take years before this improves significantly, with even greater bitterness passing down generations: and the risk is – as Rushanara put it – that there will be more atrocities because the military want them.

It is no good pretending that the UK has much control over what happens in Burma, but we can show leadership on encouraging her democratic leaders and hold a candle to what the military has done, and we’re now doing so.

For those of us who sort of hoped that everything would be resolved by the elections and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role this is a sharp wake up call. It is also a reminder, in the year of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, that violence and major domestic atrocities are not yet a thing of the past within all of South East Asia.

It calls into question too the role of China, the major foreign player in Burma, very close to the military and with a record of brutality towards Muslims in Xinjiang.

But this is not the moment to walk away from engagement with Burma, leaving China and Russia to be the only foreign influences. It is even more important that the UK works with ASEAN members to help Burma forward.