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Burma keeping up the pressure for change

Thursday, January 24, 2008

At a meeting that Meg arranged to be held in Parliament she gave the following speech about the current situation in Burma.


Late last September and early October the situation in Burma dominated our television screens and the front pages. Not surprisingly with the extraordinary pictures of the incredible bravery of the monks and other citizens, and the appalling violence used against them including the shooting dead on camera of a Japanese journalist.


The Burmese authorities tried to shut down the opportunities for the true story of what was happening to the Burmese people. They have had some success and coupled with the inevitable media focus moving to other more recent crises such as Kenya and Pakistan we are in danger of forgetting about Burma.


We in the UK Government believe that must not happen. The events last year provide the best opportunity for nearly 20 years to try and achieve some change and move to a more democratic society. To have any hope of doing that in what is a very entrenched, complex and difficult environment we must not lose the international interest, and the sense of outrage, that was articulated around the world a few months ago.


I want to thank the Co-operative Bank, a bank which has long promoted the importance of ethical issues, for their campaign and in particular for sponsoring this meeting. I also pay tribute to the many organisations and parliamentarians, some here and some represented in this room today, for their continued and long-standing commitment to pressing for change in Burma.


I will outline what the UK Government has done to date, and set out how we now view the situation and the work we are continuing to do.


Since the events of the autumn, the UK has been at the forefront of the international effort on Burma.  From the Prime Minister down, we have lobbied extensively for strong and co-ordinated international efforts to secure reconciliation and reform.


The role of the UN is central to international efforts. We believe that key countries need to get firmly behind the UN Secretary General’s Good Offices mission and UN-led efforts to facilitate inclusive national reconciliation. We were encouraged that the UN Secretary General’s Group of Friends on Burma convened for the first time on 19th December. This group comprised of a number of countries from the Security Council and regional neighbours is there to monitor progress.


The 11 October Presidential Statement called the Burmese Government to:

  • Create the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue,
  • Release all political prisoners and remaining detainees,
  • Co-operate fully with Mr Gambari and consider seriously his recommendations,
  • Take all necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights issues that are the concern of its people, and
  • Work towards a de-escalation of the situation and a peaceful solution. 

The Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, briefed the Security Council on 17th January.  The Security Council subsequently issued a press statement supporting Gambari’s efforts; reaffirming the Security Council’s demands of 11 October and regretting the slow rate of progress towards meeting them; and underlining the importance of a further visit to Burma by Gambari.


We continue to encourage countries in the region with influence on the Burmese regime to keep up the pressure for reconciliation and reform. To this end the Prime Minister raised Burma with Chinese President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, and with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his recent visits. We believe that ASEAN collectively, and its individual member states, have a key role to play in pursuing reform in their fellow member state, Burma. I have extensively lobbied ASEAN countries and continue to do so.


We welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s constructive statement of 8th November. It represents a real opportunity for the regime to tackle the many fundamental political and economic problems of the country.  She is willing to work with all parties to address these challenges and it is vital that the military reciprocate and act in good faith.


The UK welcomes the findings from the visit to Burma of UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.  UN Human Rights Council adopted a unanimous Resolution which urged the Burmese to implement his recommendations. We hope he will be able to make an early follow-up visit to complete his investigations. 


The EU has formally adopted extended sanctions on Burma including the prohibition of the import of timber, metals, minerals and precious and semi-precious stones, and an investment ban in these sectors.  We stand ready to elaborate further restrictive measures if we see no, or limited, progress. There is anecdotal evidence that the sanctions are dissuading foreign investors in the country.


Our three immediate priorities are:

  • Gambari’s early return to Burma and constructive Burmese engagement with him and the UN,
  • that the Gambari visit brings about substantive political progress towards national reconciliation, the release of prisoners and the establishment of an enhanced UN presence on the ground, and
  • the establishment of regular dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime liaison officer as a first step towards easing the restrictions on her and opening a substantive dialogue between the government, the civil opposition and the ethnic groups. 

The current situation is difficult. We can argue about the different strengths and weaknesses of sanctions versus engagement. So far neither has achieved the changes we’ve been seeking. Both have a role to play. Neighbouring countries India, China and Thailand are important. They can bring pressure to bear. Last year China was pushing Burma, India was more reticent. To some extent that situation is now somewhat reversed. 


The UK Government will continue to take every opportunity to lobby other countries. The Foreign Secretary is going to Davos this weekend and will raise Burma with countries there.


If the regime fails to take significant steps towards establishing a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with the opposition under UN auspices, we must consider additional steps at the UN/EU to bring pressure to bear.


Conversely, if a process of change begins, we stand ready to support an economic initiative that brings the international community and International Financial Institutions together in support of a recovery plan for Burma, strictly conditional on genuine and irreversible progress towards democracy.


In the meantime, the UK is a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. UK has doubled its aid to Burma from 9m to 18m per annum to meet Burma’s urgent humanitarian needs. This will help ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer because of the actions of the regime.


There is evidence that the Burmese regime has relaxed somewhat and believes it can continue as it did before. There is also good evidence that the situation in Burma is not the same as it was before. We must continue to do all we can to work for change and to support the brave people of Burma.  

Associated Photograph :

Meg with Simon Williams, Director of Corporate Affairs Co-operative Bank, and Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK.

Meg with Simon Williams, Director of Corporate Affairs Co-operative Bank, and Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK.

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