UK Trip to Burma: A Success?
The New Year marks an important point in time for UK relations with Burma as William Hague becomes the first UK Foreign Secretary to visit the country in over 50 years. The historic visit, which took place January 5th – 6th 2012, was dominated by discussion with political leaders such as President Thein Sein, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic minorities. Hague stated that the aim of the trip was to encourage the Burmese government to continue on its path to reform and to gauge what Britain can do to continue to support the reform process.
William Hague emphasized that the visit was only made possible because of the positive changes Burma has recently made. For example, the 2010 release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition politician and the General Secretary for the National League for Democracy, is regarded as a sign that Burma is, to echo Hague, ‘changing for the better.’ However, other signs including the release of other political prisoners and greater lenience and relaxation of the media and censorship also demonstrate that Burma is trying to better its reputation on both the domestic and international level.
Yet, despite positive recent changes, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Burma has a lot of work to do. Namely, not only do up to 2,000 political prisoners remain in prison, but censorship still remains quite high, the ruling regime continues to have a stronghold on the majority of political and economic activity, and there are continuing hostilities by the Burmese government towards ethnic minorities. In his recent reflection on the visit, William Hague mentioned minorities such as the Rohingya that are still deprived of most political and civil rights.
Therefore, although it is important to praise Burma’s recent reforms, let us not forget that reforms need to continue. This is particularly important because of the by-elections that are set to occur this upcoming April.
So – was Hague’s recent ‘historical’ trip to Burma a success? Did Hague accomplish what he set out to accomplish? Well, the UK certainly stepped up its approach to aid. Hague announced the following: increased funding for microfinance initiatives to help up to 55,000 people and increased support in food, nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation to 13,000 people affected by the current conflict in the Kachin State. Alongside this, Hague spent some seemingly inspiring moments with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her home in which he gave her a letter from Prime Minister David Cameron, a copy of his biography of William Wilberforce and a photograph of her father that was taken in London.
Although the visit included some discussion about continuing aid and was characterised by memorable moments with an undoubtedly inspiring woman, whether Hague’s trip has made any impact on the likelihood of needed concrete reform is still in question. Even though this trip was important and came at the right time, if Burma actually makes the immediate changes it needs to make, particularly ensuring freeness and fairness of the upcoming elections and the release of further political prisoners, then we can hail Hague’s trip as a true success.