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Alok Sharma

Minister for Asia and the Pacific

Part of FCDO Human Rights

23rd September 2016 UK, London

Celebrating success with Aung San Suu Kyi, and looking to the future for Burma

Prime Minister Theresa May & Burmese State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

This week in New York, Burma reached another significant milestone, in what has already been a momentous year for the country. Among the throngs of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held a meeting to celebrate the conclusion of his partnership group on Burma – their work is complete.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also addressed UNGA as a leader for the first time as a de-facto head of state. I had had the honour of meeting her with the Prime Minister in Downing Street when she visited London last week.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the United Nations (UN Photo) Address by Her Excellency Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the United Nations (UN Photo)

Burma’s journey from dictatorship to democracy has been remarkable. Over the last five years, thousands of political prisoners have been released.  Censorship of the media has been lifted, and of course last year saw democratic  elections, in which Daw Suu’s National League for Democracy Party won a landslide victory.  The Government in Burma is now more democratic, more accountable and has less military influence than has been the case in the last six decades.

Much has been achieved since Daw Suu’s party swept to power, but of course there is more still to be done.

Daw Suu has her work cut out. Her most urgent priority has been to find a resolution to Burma’s long-running internal conflict. A Commission headed by Kofi Annan has been set up to advise on how to resolve communal tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists in Rakhine State. She is also looking to jump-start the economy with a new investment law, following decades of mismanagement.

In recent years, Britain has done much to support the democratic transition in Burma. We supported the elections by providing technical assistance to the Union Election Commission. We also pushed for an EU election observation mission to help prevent fraud, and we funded the training of local observers.

As the new administration in Burma seeks to consolidate democracy, I will ensure that Britain uses our historic ties with the country to continue to play our part in supporting reforms. A big focus for us will be the UK’s ongoing commitment to supporting the peace process and promoting inter-communal harmony – last year alone we spent around £9m doing this.

Overall, the UK has committed to spending £118m in Burma this financial year on projects supporting development, health, culture and security.

Prime Minister Theresa May & Burmese State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Prime Minister Theresa May & Burmese State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

I also hope that we can increase trade between our countries. Burma needs investment, not least to create jobs, and Britain has some of the highest standards of socially responsible investment in the world.

After decades of isolation, Burma is looking to open up and normalise its relations with the international community.  We should welcome this, and take the opportunity to engage Burma’s military. For all of its wrongs, it remains a powerful force in the country. We should acknowledge the part it has played in the democratic transition, by enabling reforms to happen. While we will continue to hold the military to account for human rights abuses, we cannot forever criticise them without also helping them to reform. So we will continue with a programme of constructive engagement that includes educational courses with a focus on the role of the military in a democracy. Daw Suu supports this.

Burma has changed a great deal in a short time. I am proud of what the UK has done to support that transformation. It is in our interests that there is democracy and stability in the country.  As Burma’s democracy matures I believe that the UK can be an effective partner in helping Burma fulfil its potential, and take its rightful place among the community of democracies.