Ten years ago a few months before the general election a constituent told me about the appalling human rights abuse in Burma. I pledged that if elected, I would speak out. After nine years in Parliament I have done so, and last month I had the privilege of visiting Burma for the first time, courtesy of the human rights advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
During our visit, everyone – without exception – expressed concerns that the reforms, which began three years ago and have been widely heralded in the international community, have ground to a halt. In some respects, there have been steps backwards, particularly with recent arrests of activists and protestors, a rise in religious intolerance and continuing ethnic conflict.
Two weeks ago, Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi echoed these concerns, claiming reforms have stalled. President Obama, in Burma last week, said the same. Britain needs to join the chorus of disapproval.
It is, of course, right to remind ourselves how far Burma has come. Many political prisoners have been released, ceasefires have been agreed with almost all the ethnic nationalities, and space for civil society and media has relaxed. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party is now in Parliament and not in prison. On my visit, I delivered three public lectures about parliamentary democracy, human rights and civil society which would have been inconceivable three years ago.
Yet we should view such positive changes as merely a beginning, not a conclusion. We need to be careful they are not a false dawn.
In tonight’s debate, I will highlight the plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim people, among the most persecuted in the world. A new Rakhine State Action Plan, which according to leaked drafts involves forcing Rohingyas into temporary camps while their claims to citizenship are assessed, has been described by Human Rights Watch as “a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness”. Britain must make it clear that such a plan is unacceptable.
Wider religious intolerance against Muslims in Burma is also a continuing serious concern, in particular proposed legislation that will restrict inter-religious marriage and religious conversion.
Torture and rape continue. I met the wives of Kachin men who have been arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. Justice has been delayed and denied. I met Brang Shawng, who after reporting the rape and murder of his own daughter Ja Seng Ing by Burma Army soldiers found he was the one on trial, charged with defamation.
Burma’s peace process with ethnic nationalities has been hindered by continuing attacks by the Burma Army. I visited a camp for internally displaced Kachin people, surviving in very basic conditions in a church compound in Myitkyina having fled their villages following attacks by the Burma Army. “We want to go back to our villages,” one man told me. “But the army are still there and we do not feel secure. Our request is for genuine peace.”
The litmus test of Burma’s reforms will, of course, be the elections in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi’s clear message to me when we met was that those elections must be “free, fair and on time”. Without amendments to the Constitution to enable her to be eligible for the presidency; without international monitors some months ahead of election day to assess the conditions and climate in which the election campaign is held; and without further legislative reform to bring an end to the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of activists and protesters, and the release of all remaining political prisoners, it is difficult to see the elections being free and fair.