Fri 6 Jan 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma
William Hague offered British expertise and aid funding to launch peace talks between Burma’s military-backed government and separatist rebels during a groundbreaking visit to the reformist dictatorship.
The Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Burma’s President Thein Sein shortly after he arrived in the capital Naypyitaw yesterday before outlining proposals to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy movement leader, at a private dinner in Rangoon.
Mr Hague emerged from meetings with President Thein Sein and his foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwi optimistic that recent reforms introducing democracy were genuine. He described the changes as “irreversible.” As Burma’s largest aid donor, Britain is keen to hasten the pace of change. Mr Hague wants to direct some of the £60 million per year it gives to provide relief and rehabilitation for the thousands of displaced residents of rebel areas.
It is an area of common cause with Miss Suu Kyi, who has made peace and reconcilation talks to end long-running conflicts in Burma’s borderlands a priority of political rehabilitation following decades of oppression. “She would like to take a role as a negotiator,” said one foreign diplomat. “There are a lot of things we need to see happening [including] aid and a serious political
Particular urgency has been placed on the escalating conflict between the Burmese government and the Kachin Christian minority rebels in the north of the country where up to 60,000 people have been displaced.
Mr Hague yesterday pressed President Thein Sein to implement ceasefire orders issued last month on the frontline with fighters of Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
British officials believe their experience in bringing peace in Northern Ireland could help Burma to resolve a series of armed ethnic conflicts which have blighted its border areas since its independence in 1948.
Any involvement of Britain, as a former colonial power, is however highly sensitive for a former military government, which depicts its role as the guardian of national independence.
Miss Suu Kyi gave her strongest endorsement of President Thein Sein’s reform programme, however, saying she believed she would see democracy in Burma “in my lifetime”.
“I think there will be a full democratic election in my lifetime, but then of course I don’t know how long I’m going to live,” she said.
Since she met President Thein Sein in August last year, curbs on media freedom and trade union activities have been lifted, some key political prisoners have been released, and last month the National League for Democracy registered as a party to contest a series of by-elections later this Spring.
Mr Hague endorsed her upbeat remarks. “The foreign minister has reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners He said the changes are irreversible and I welcome that way of thinking,” Mr Hague said. “My message is, if you want those sanctions – those restrictive measures as we call them – lifted, then it is very important to show that you are completing this process of reform.
“We believe now that you are sincere about it, so now get ahead quickly and complete it by releasing the remaining political prisoners and by showing that the upcoming elections are free and fair.”