Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response Contents

6The UK’s future relationship with Burma

The UK’s past approach and failure to prevent

35.It was striking how much of our evidence agreed that problems with the Rohingya were evident and foreseeable and that the warnings about atrocity crimes were clear.110 Many submissions said the UK and others did not do enough, and instead engaged with Burma’s leadership and focused on what one witness called “the so-called democratic transition in the country at the expense of other issues.”.111 Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK argued that everyone knew the crisis would happen and that the international community had consistently ignored discrimination and continued to engage with the Government: “Consistently, we sent a signal to the military and the Government in Burma that we were prepared to compromise when it came to the human rights of the Rohingyas, as long as the general direction of travel was considered to be good.”112 Protection Approaches, an organisation that works on prevention of identity-based violence, told us that the UK was particularly poor in recognising and tackling the issue, and that:

the absence of a policy mechanism charged with predicting and responding to threats of mass atrocities had led to an incoherent and ineffectual UK policy on Myanmar. Concern expressed by the UK office at the UN was not matched in the UK’s trade policy, in its international development focus, or in its wider diplomatic efforts. This hindered earlier, more effective protective interventions.113

36.Mr Field was admirably candid about the need for the FCO to reflect on these points, stating: “Consistently [ … ]we have sent a signal to the military in Burma, particularly in relation to the relationship with the Rohingya, that somehow the Rohingya were, at very best, second-class citizens. That is something that we will need to reflect on”.114 He also stated:

I think all of us bear responsibility. The international community as a whole wanted to see Burma coming away from the decades of military dictatorship, with Aung San Suu Kyi regarded as a leader rather like, as I say, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King: someone, in the international community’s view, of unimpeachable ethics who alone would be able to lead this. [ … ] We do need to look back at precisely the way in which, in the midst of that move towards any sort of democracy, a blind eye was turned to the ongoing plight of the Rohingya, of which we were aware some time before.115

The UK was not alone in this approach. We note in this context ongoing criticism of the UN’s recent policy on the Rohingya and its engagement with the Burmese government.116

37.The Minister was commendably candid about the need for reflection over the widespread failure to challenge long-standing discrimination against the Rohingya. This process should include the FCO as a whole as there is a clear need for the institution to learn lessons from the recent events in Burma about responding to signs and prioritising atrocity prevention in political and diplomatic conversations. In its response, the FCO should set out what lessons it has learned regarding atrocity prevention from these events and how these lessons will be applied in Burma and elsewhere in future. In particular, it should provide details of what, if any, policies it is putting in place to change, over the longer term, the poisonous narrative about the Rohingya in Burmese press and online sources.

The UK-Burma relationship in future

38.The reputation and good faith invested in both Burma’s young democracy and its civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been dealt a heavy blow by these events. Burma’s democratic transition has been demonstrably shown to be incomplete: its military have shown both their continued power and their disinclination to abide by international standards; and its civilian government has not responded to the crisis with the speed and leadership required. There appears to be a worrying gulf between the scale of transformation now required in Burma (and Rakhine State in particular) and the domestic political capacity and willingness to achieve it.

39.The reputation of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been particularly damaged. As the de-facto leader of the civilian government, she was slow to speak about the crisis in public, and her subsequent statements were considered by many to be too supportive of the military line.117 The initiatives she has announced are currently unclear.118 All of the Committee’s witnesses expressed disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s role during the crisis. Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK was strongly critical, claiming that she had lied while “actively defending and acting as a human shield for the military”, and added:

Aung San Suu Kyi is the one person in the country who could start to change hearts and minds on this issue. She has the love and support of people in a way that no one else does, but instead of supporting the issue and trying to challenge prejudice, she is playing to it, encouraging it, and whipping it up.119

40.The Minister provided us with insights into his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on 27 September. He was concerned that “her room for manoeuvre is very, very limited.”120 He said she did not easily show emotion, but he understood that she was “appalled by what is happening”.121 However, he said that in September she had been “pretty dismissive of the whole idea that there was any ethnic cleansing happening”, but “My own view, from diplomatic telegrams from our ambassador there, and from conversations the Foreign Secretary has had with Aung San Suu Kyi, is that she has [since] moved away from that hard-line position”.122 In November, the Foreign Secretary took a firmer line in the House, stating that “We still salute her struggle for democracy in the face of the generals, but it is vital now that she stands up to condemn what is happening and brings the nation together. I am sorry to say that so far the Burmese Government have failed to do that.”123 We recognise that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is constrained by the autonomy of the military and the strength of domestic public opinion against the Rohingya. We are also clear that the Commander in Chief of the Burmese Army, General Min Aung Hlaing, bears ultimate responsibility for the violence. We are nonetheless disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure of leadership. The UK Government is right to focus on what is best for Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi may remain its best hope, but admiration for her should be tempered by a more hard-headed approach based on a new understanding of the political trajectory of the country, and an increased willingness to deliver tough messages and take a firm stand on principles even when the messages are unpopular and unwelcome.

41.This recommendation has obvious implications for the UK-Burma relationship, which has in recent years been one of increasing support and engagement. The FCO was not unaware of problems: Burma has long featured as one of the FCO’s countries of concern in its human rights report.124 However, the UK Government has now admitted that it needs to reflect on its previous work on the Rohingya. This is welcome, but the events of the last two months are serious enough to put in question the nature and scale of the UK’s overall bilateral relationship with Burma, and its diplomatic approach. The UK Government should conduct an internal review of its overall Burma policy in light of the recent events, including:

a)its assessment of Burma’s political trajectory and the state of its democratic transition and leadership;

b)the UK’s place and influence in Burma; and

c)the UK’s scope to encourage regional states with an interest in Burma to assist in its response to the crisis.

In its response to this Report, the FCO should provide a summary of its conclusions and planned actions.


110 Q14; Protection Approaches (BUR0023) para 18; International State Crime Initiative School of Law Queen Mary University of London (BUR0010); Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) paras 32-34; Q33 [Dr Champa Patel]; Q34 [Dr Lee Jones]. See also: International Crisis Group, Watch List 2017: Crisis Group Special Report Nº3, 24 February 2017

111 Q64 [Dr Lee Jones]. See also: Middlesex University (Prof Brad Blitz), (BUR0021) paras 26-32; Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) paras 17-31

112 Q14 [Mark Farmaner]

113 Protection Approaches (BUR0023) para 24. See also: Middlesex University (BUR0021) paras 29–30

114 Q79

115 Q87

116 See, for example: United Nations Association UK (BUR0013) para 4-6; Middlesex University (Prof Brad Blitz), (BUR0021) paras 20-25; “Rohingya crisis: UN ‘suppressed’ report predicting its shortcomings in Myanmar” Guardian, 5 October 2017; “For Years, U.N. Was Warned of Threat to Rohingya in Myanmar”, Foreign Policy, 16 October 2017. . For criticism of other states’ approach, see Q25.

117 See, for example: Q12 & Q 20-21; Human Rights Watch (BUR0024); Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) para 16. See also “Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi “burying her head in the sand” about Rakhine horrors“ Amnesty International press release, 19 September 2017; “Aung San Suu Kyi says Myanmar does not fear scrutiny over Rohingya crisis”, Guardian, 19 September 2017

118 Though some details can be found in Correspondence from the Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 6 October 2017 and Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (BUR0006)

119 Q17 [Mark Farmaner]

120 Q81

121 Q82

122 Q88

123 HC Deb, 21 November 2017, col 839

124 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy (2016 Report), (July 2017), p33–4; Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy (2015 Report), (April 2016), p36–7; Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy (2014 Report), (March 2015), p115–8




8 December 2017