The FCO's human rights work in 2013 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

4  Burma

Progress in Burma

38. 2013 was another significant year in Burma's democratic transition, according to the British Government. The FCO believes that the human rights situation in Burma has improved in a number of areas, although challenges remain, especially with regard to political freedoms and the situation in Rakhine State.

39. President Thein Sein made 11 commitments to deepen democracy and protect human rights when President Obama visited Burma in November 2012. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, praised President Thein Sein's commitment to reform following a 75-strong delegation visit to Burma by Human Rights Watch in February 2014. Mr Roth observed that enormous changes had taken place over the past two and half years.[71]

40. In the 2013 Report, the FCO noted specific areas of progress. The availability of privately-owned newspapers for the first time in 50 years was described as "another positive step in the evolution of media freedom".[72] Burma had risen 18 places to 151 out of 179 states in the World Press Freedom Index. There has been progress in opening up political debate with legislators across the political spectrum playing a wider role, and according to the FCO, the working environment of human rights defenders improved in 2013.

Room for improvement

41. A number of written submissions to the Committee indicated a range of on-going human rights violations in Burma. Women's League of Burma and the Kachin National Organisation raised concerns about the systematic use of rape by the Burmese military.[73] PEN International called for the review of all legislation that constrained the freedom of expression and the release of all political prisoners.[74] Burma Campaign UK said that the approach of the British Government was "based on a false assumption that Burma is currently in a period of transition away from dictatorship and towards democracy".[75] It said that the FCO's 2013 Report did not present an "accurate reflection of the human rights situation in Burma".[76]


42. In preparation for the general election in 2015, Burma conducted its first census in over 30 years between 30 March and 10 April 2014. The FCO provided around £10 million in financial support to the census and held regular discussions with the Government of Burma in an effort to ensure that it was conducted in a credible manner. Shortly before the start of the census, the UN Population Fund Agency, which monitored the enumeration process, was informed by Burmese officials that anyone who identified themselves as Rohingya would not be counted in the census. The International Crisis Group has said that this decision had a significant political and humanitarian impact on the Rakhine State.[77] It claimed that Rakhine extremists might use the results of the census as an opportunity to create additional hurdles to the provision of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, and that hard-line political actors in Rakhine State would be more confident in their ability to marginalise politically the Rohingya.[78] The Rt Hon Hugo Swire, the FCO Minister with responsibility for policy on the region, said that he was "deeply disappointed" that the Government of Burma had gone against its assurances on census conduct, in particular the right to self-identify ethnicity.[79] He stated that he had made it clear to the Government of Burma that this decision was in contravention of international norms and standards. Burma Campaign UK argued that the actions by the Burmese authorities demonstrated that the UK's support for the Census had been "an alarming misjudgement", and that it showed that the UK had failed to understand the real political context in Burma at that time.[80]


43. In March 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned that the human rights situation in Rakhine State had further deteriorated. He said that "recent developments in Rakhine State are the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity."[81] He warned that the evacuation of aid workers, following the recent attacks on UN and NGO premises in Sittwe, "would only increase the vulnerability of this community".[82]


44. During President Thein Sein's visit to the UK in 2013, he made a commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013 but PEN International, in its written submission, said that the Government of Burma might still be holding as many as 630 political prisoners. PEN International also stated that almost all of the political prisoners released since 2011 have "only had their sentences suspended under Burma penal code 401" and had not received full pardons.[83] It said that any hope for a democratic government in Burma depended on the release of prisoners associated with the country's ethnic groups. Several ethnic-based political parties have stated that they will not participate in parliamentary elections until their members are released from custody. In April 2014, Mr Swire issued a statement that welcomed the previous release of hundreds of political prisoners, but said that the Government was "very concerned" about those who remained in jail, including recognised prisoners of conscience such as Dr Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung.[84] He has since noted that there has been a rise in the number of politically motivated arrests and has said that the Government would continue to lobby for the unconditional release of all political prisoners.[85]

Overall UK policy on Burma

45. Baroness Warsi told us that she had been disappointed by the interview given by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013 in which she did not voice support for the Rohinyga community.[86] Baroness Warsi acknowledged that the British Government needed to be more robust in its engagement with Opposition figures, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Nonetheless, she believed that "Burma is on the right journey" and felt that the UK had to "keep supporting" the country.[87] There have been serious failures in human rights in Burma over the past 18 months, and we note that the Government has not held back from criticism. On balance, we accept its argument that there has been progress towards forming democracy in Burma, and we agree that a diplomatic approach towards securing improvement in human rights in Burma is the best one. However, we recommend that the Government reiterate to the Government of Burma that the current situation is still highly unsatisfactory, and that the UK will strongly advocate the re-imposition of sanctions by the EU if there is no progress over the next 12 months in improving the conditions of the Rohingya community, and in securing the unconditional release of all political prisoners. We also recommend that the UK Government closely monitors whether former political prisoners who wish to stand for elections in 2015 are able to do so.

71   "HRW lauds Thein Sein's commitment to reform, but says govt is divided", 6 February 2014, Back

72   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 163 Back

73   Memoranda from Women's League of Burma and Kachin National Organisation Back

74   Memorandum from PEN International Back

75   Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 2 Back

76   Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 8 Back

77   The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, which provides a source of information, analysis and policy advice on preventing and resolving deadly conflict.  Back

78   "Counting the Costs: Myanmar's Problematic Census", International Crisis Group, 15 May 2014,  Back

79   HC Deb, 28 April, col 585W [Commons Written Answer] Back

80   Memorandum from Burma Campaign UK, paragraph 17 Back

81   "Myanmar: UN expert raises alarm on Rakhine State", OHCHR press release, 7 April 2014, Back

82   Ibid. Back

83   Memorandum from PEN International, Burma penal code 401, according to PEN International, means that if the released political prisoner is convicted again, he or she would serve the new prison term, and the remainder of their former prison term. For more detail, see  Back

84   "Hugo Swire responds to letters on political prisoners in Burma" FCO news article, 16 April 2014, Back

85   HC Deb, 28 October 2014, col 168 [Commons Chamber] Back

86   Q 99 Back

87   Q 98 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 27 November 2014