Cameron should take civil society, not businessmen to Burma

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Oliver Spencer

13 Apr 2012

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It’s undeniable that Burma is changing. But having just got visas at the invitation of the Minister of Information and having finally visited the country officially for the first time in 25 years, in reality, Burma has just jumped out of the fire and back in the pan.

Today’s visit by David Cameron will be historic, but why is he taking a group of phantom businessmen to a country against which the British Foreign Office still has clear sanctions?

If David Cameron wanted to prove his commitment to supporting the democratic changes in Burma, and demonstrate British leadership, political and economic, he should have filled our nation’s plane with civil society: human rights defenders, journalists, academics, doctors, nutritionists, bloggers, political activists, lawyers, social workers, and yes, business people.

Burma needs them right now. Despite the changes seen, Burma still lacks major democratic mechanisms. The media is far from free – 25% of all articles are still deleted by the Censorship Board before a newspaper can go to print. And that is 25% of the articles that an editor commissioned thinking that he could get them passed.

We met many groups of extremely engaging and dynamic people just grasping at new opportunities and taking massive risks. But even though they can now rent rooms to get together, they have many difficulties to register officially – complicating their access to funds amongst other things.

Almost none of the laws have been changed either – the government is just turning a blind eye – and so all those people beginning to speak more freely, could be arrested and slammed into prison for decades under a judicial system that permits almost no rule of law.

This is not to say that the government is not trying. Like any bureaucracy, there are officials that are progressive and those that are not. Aung San Suu Kyi believes that President Thein Sein is honestly working for reform, and who would know better than a politician that has been locked up for much of the last two decades?

David Cameron should be happy that the progressive officials are currently winning, our worry is that by moving in big business straight away, they could lose at any moment. David Cameron should not just be seduced by the preliminary results and progresses but he must continue focusing on the end game, and that must be a human rights protection regime clearly enshrined in the country’s legal and political system. 

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OliverSpencer says

16 April 2012 15:19

This was supposed to be published in the Guardian's Comment is Free. It is co-published here.