Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand
Last week the eighteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre passed, prompting a chorus of sombre statements from European leaders.
‘Never again’ was the familiar refrain from the representatives of nations whose leaders did little to prevent the slaughter when it mattered. Speaking for Britain, David Cameron rehearsed the truism that Srbrenica-style atrocities occur when “hatred, discrimination and evil are allowed to go unchecked”.
Just days later, on Monday, the prime minister posed for photographs outside of 10 Downing Street with President Thein Sein of Burma, a man whose government has been credibly accused of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of minorities and crimes against humanity.
Undoubtedly aware of the PR capital to be gleaned from such an occasion, the office of the Burmese President made two headline-grabbing announcements: that a controversial border guard unit would be disbanded and that all political prisoners in the country will be freed by the end of the year.
Perhaps looking to aid the image of the UK government, who were after all hosting a man considered by many to be an unindicted war criminal, William Hague declared that he would be holding discussions with the Burmese President on the issue of persecuted minorities.
It was also announced that the British and Burmese militaries would deepen ties in order to “end ethnic conflict” in the nation.
On the face of it, these seem like positive moves from all sides. However actions speak louder than words.
Having made many apparently token gestures about human rights and reform since his ascension to power in 2011, Thein Sein still has far to go in order to substantially alter the political landscape in his country. On human rights in particular, he has made many impressive promises by which his leadership could be assessed- and kept few of them so far.
With regard to the Rohingya, a group described by some as facing the prospect of a Rwanda-style genocide without the intervention of the international community, Thein Sein’s record has been exceptionally disappointing. He refuses to recognise the imperilled and stateless group as citizens, and has in practice done nothing to assist their return from ghettos throughout Rakhine state in the west of the country where they live in appalling conditions, after having had their homes destroyed by mob violence last year.
They continue to be systematically denied aid and impunity has largely reigned in the aftermath of violence last year that left over 130,000 displaced and possibly hundreds dead.
Despite the discovery of mass graves and a compelling body of evidence strongly indicating that pogroms occurred with the backing of state agencies, his government have done next to nothing to advance accountability. Thein Sein has himself bluntly dismissed allegations of military involvement in the violence as “pure fabrication.”
As for the Burmese President’s promises on detained activists and others, these may be welcome, but in recent weeks alone the government has arrested dozens of people for negligible crimes associated with criticising the government.
One of them, Wai Phyo, was placed in custody- with something like supreme black irony- for calling for the release of political prisoners. The Burmese lower house recently passed a press censorship law that effectively bans criticism of the 2008 constitution; the drafting of the controversial charter, which ensures military dominance over political life, was overseen by ex-general Thein Sein.
Thus, while old political prisoners, unjustly jailed in the first instance, may be due to be freed- new ones look set to be incarcerated. In addition to this, a host of extremely repressive junta-era laws that criminalise dissent remain in place, despite pressure from rights groups.
Genuine political reform, which would involve a devolution of powers from the military- the custodians of power and the main perpetrators of war crimes for decades- still remains elusive.
Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK recently met with the Foreign Office to discuss the urgent human rights crises still troubling the country. He described the meeting on twitter as being “thoroughly depressing” and like “talking to an impenetrable wall of jelly.”
In conversation with me, he opined that Cameron’s government have been “downgrading human rights as a priority and talking up trade” with the Asian nation, widely regarded as being a major growth prospect for the coming decades.
It seems instructive that Britain, along with much of the west, has acted decisively to chase up investment opportunities in Burma while offering only fine-sounding statements in response to the urgent human crises taking place in the country.
Enough with words. To paraphrase that eminent Conservative Edmund Burke, hypocrisy can afford to say what it wishes, as it never intends to live up to its promises.
It is up to the British government to decide whether they want their actions to conform to the official line on Srebrenica or to fulfill Burke’s cutting observation. Either way, time is running out.