x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

William Hague calls for reform on key visit to Myanmar

Britain's foreign secretary arrived in Myanmar yesterday, bolstering the country's drive to shed its status as a repressive international pariah.

The Myanmar democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, meets the British foreign secretary, William Hague, in Yangon yesterday.
The Myanmar democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, meets the British foreign secretary, William Hague, in Yangon yesterday.

NEW DELHI // Britain's foreign secretary arrived in Myanmar yesterday, bolstering the country's drive to shed its status as a repressive international pariah.

William Hague met the president, Thein Sein, and the foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwi, in the capital, Naypyidaw, yesterday, before heading to Yangon to meet the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Following the visit by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, last month, Mr Hague's arrival is seen as another endorsement of the changes in Myanmar since it held its first elections in 20 years in 2010, bringing a nominally civilian government to power after years of military rule.

Although the elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging, the government surprised international observers by releasing Ms Suu Kyi from house detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is due to stand in by-elections for 48 seats in April.

The government has also released about 200 political prisoners and eased its strict censorship laws, allowing increased access to the internet and the publication of articles critical of the government that would previously have resulted in long prison terms.

Western countries are keen to use this opening to increase their leverage in Myanmar after years of sanctions against the military regime failed to produce results and allowed China to gain significant influence in the country.

"The foreign minister has reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners," Mr Hague said after his meeting with Mr Lwin. "He said the changes are irreversible and I welcome that way of thinking. I stressed that the world will judge the government by its actions."

But for all the diplomatic optimism, many remain deeply sceptical about the government's motives and its willingness to reform.

"I have a lot of reservations about these changes," said Dr Tint Swe, who was elected to parliament in 1990 as a member of the NLD but was forced to flee the country during the military coup. He now lives in New Delhi. "There has been military rule for nearly half a century and only a year of limited reforms. However positive the changes have been, the people don't trust the military regime."

Many fear that hardliners within the military, which continues to hold real power, will restart the repression if their grip on power is genuinely threatened.

For Dr Swe, even this analysis is too optimistic.

"People talk about hardliners and softliners in the military, but the entire mindset among the generals is more or less the same," he said. "It is taught to them in the Defence Academy and officer training. Their understanding of history has been manipulated.

"Their views on democracy and federalism, on minorities and foreigners, are very negative."

Real change, say critics, would require amendments to the constitution, which enshrines the leading role of the military and gives the president the right to hand power back to the army in case of a loosely defined "national emergency". But amending the constitution is severely hindered by a clause that says any important changes must be put to a popular referendum, leaving the process open to manipulation.

The last referendum - used to legitimise the constitution in 2008 - was described as a "sham" by opposition groups and international observers. The military junta was heavily criticised for going ahead with the vote just days after Cyclone Nargis killed at least 140,000 people in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

"Nothing has changed in Burma's power structure, which gives the military a leading role, and the right to seize power," said Bertil Lintner, the author of several books about the country.

Meanwhile, the army continues to suppress ethnic minorities in the frontier provinces, which is rarely mentioned by visiting diplomats.

More than 30,000 people have been displaced since the military renewed its fight against rebels in Kachin state last June - a conflict that has been running for more than 50 years.

"The army has employed a brutally commonplace menu of abuses against civilians in conflict areas, including sexual violence, forced labour, torture and summary executions," wrote David Scott Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, in an article for Canada's The Mark last month.

Calls for a UN commission of inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, backed by 16 countries, has been put on hold by what Mr Mathieson called the "near-pandemic of optimism" within the international community over the promises of reform by the Myanmar government.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae