Burma: Thein Sein visits UK and promises to release all political prisoners

July 19th, 2013

Burma: Thein Sein visits UK and promises to release all political prisoners

This week marked a historic visit by Thein Sein, President of Burma, to the UK, the first visit by a Burmese leader in more than 25 years.

In November 2010, Burma (also known as Myanmar) held elections, replacing the military regime with a military-backed civil government. The election was the first in 20 years and was seen by many as an important step forward, but opposition groups made allegations of fraud and boycotted the election.

There have been substantial improvements since 2010, such as relaxed censorship, and the release of many, albeit not all, political prisoners. The famous democracy fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi, released from years of house arrest, has returned to politics and in 2012 her National League for Democracy won a presence in parliament.

The EU has permanently lifted its sanctions against Burma to reward the country for its reforms and to encourage future improvements. However, the move has been criticised as “premature and regrettable” by Human Rights Watch’s Asia Head Phil Robertson, mainly due to the horrific situation of many of Burma’s minorities. There is evidence of continuing violence against minorities, such as the Rohingya and Kachin people, and a Human Rights Watch Report has found the government to be complicit in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Just last week, for example, the Shan Human Rights Organisation accused the Burmese military of violating a ceasefire with the Shan State Army-North, shelling a Buddhist temple and turning it into their military base, forcing dozens of monks to flee their home.

Now that the sanctions have been permanently lifted the EU has arguably less leverage with the Government in Burma. And indeed, hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, ceasefires have been broken, civilians are displaced and repressive laws remain in place. Incidents of sexual violence have increased and President Thein Sein does not seem willing to address the culture of impunity.

According to Hugo Swire, Minister of State for the Foreign Office, Britain wants to take a leading role in helping Burma to become more democratic and resolve its ethnic tensions. One hopeful outcome of this week’s meetings is President Thein Sein’s promise that Burma will release all political prisoners “by the end of the year” stating that a special committee is reviewing every case. Whilst Mr Cameron was keen to discuss trade, he has also expressed his concern about the human rights abuses in Burma. He said he was “particularly concerned” about the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya people in the Buddhist-dominated country.

Many activists from Burma’s ethnic national groups are voicing their surprise at the talks between David Cameron and Thein Sein, especially given the focus on trade, and a perceived lack of pressure over ongoing human rights abuses. “Promoting trade before securing major advances on human rights encourages Thein Sein to believe that his government can continue to act with impunity”, Baroness Kinnock of Hollyhead told Parliament on Wednesday. And Jamal Ahamed, general secretary of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, says inviting Sein over is sending the wrong signals and that the Prime Minister “has to put peoples’ lives ahead of trade talks”.

The British military are to revive a relationship with the former colony, training the Burmese military in Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law. This announcement has provoked harsh criticism from some activists, with Avaaz, a global civic organisation, collecting more than 1 million signatures and organising a protest during the meeting on Monday, where campaigners lined Whitehall with black tombstones. Hkun Htoi Layang, secretary of the Kachin Relief Fund, told HART he is very surprised that the UK is offering to train the Burmese army, as they are responsible for so many atrocities in the country.

It has to be acknowledged that Thein Sein has changed the political atmosphere in Burma to some degree, with greater media freedom and more political space for activists and opposition groups. Ceasefires have been signed with many ethnic groups (although there is no sign yet of a genuine peace process in those areas) and hundreds of political prisoners have been released. However, for many of Burma’s ethnic nationals, the lifting of sanctions and friendly talks with Thein Sein has come too fast and they fear being forgotten.

HART has been working with Burma’s ethnic national groups since 2003.  We are encouraging all our supporters to write to their MP, asking that they use their position to press for unhindered humanitarian access into the areas affected by conflict and the support of human rights and responsible investment into ethnic national areas. We will continue lobbying in Parliament to see greater pressure on the Government in Burma to pursue genuine peace.

To learn more about HART’s work in Burma click here.

To learn more about the Rohingya people click here.

To write to your MP click here.


Gesa is presently interning at HART during her break, having finished two years of law at Aberysthwyth University. Her particular interests include women's rights and human rights abuses more generally.

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