Hugo Swire – 2014 Speech at British Council in Rangoon


Below is the text of the speech made by Hugo Swire, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in Rangoon on 30th January 2014.


This is my second visit to your fascinating and beautiful country as a Foreign Office Minister. I first visited just over one year ago, shortly after I took up my current ministerial post. I am delighted to be back, and grateful to all those who have welcomed me so warmly throughout my travels this week.

Over the last three years, the world has watched with admiration and, frankly, surprise, the remarkable changes that have taken place here.

Over one thousand political prisoners released. A thriving and active new Parliament. An end to fighting across much of the country. A human rights commission established. Trades unions formed. Emerging economic liberalisation. Freedom of the press. These are just some of the most obvious examples.

I am proud that the British Government has been swift to welcome these reforms, and to recognise the courage and leadership of those who have made those changes happen.

In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron was the first western leader to visit here since the reforms began, and during his visit he paid tribute to the leadership of President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2013 the UK played a central role in moving the EU’s relationship with this country beyond sanctions. This year, we have increased our development aid to around $100m per year. We have also opened a trade and investment office, and are actively encouraging responsible investment from British companies.

It is no exaggeration to say that the relationship between our two countries is being transformed. We are re-building a friendship based on mutual respect, founded in our deep and enduring shared history and in the long-standing support of the British people for your struggle for democracy.

The two key challenges

It is therefore as a friend – a frank and constructive, but critical friend- that I speak to you today at the start of a decisive year for this country’s future.

You face many challenges on the path of reform, but there are two areas in particular where you have arrived at a critical juncture: democratic reform, and the peace process.

On both fronts, further progress will require extraordinary courage. But success will create a legacy lasting for generations, and form the bedrock for Burma’s future stability and prosperity.

Democratic reform

Let me speak first of democratic reform. Put bluntly, continued democratic reform in this country requires constitutional change. Constitutional change is important for two main reasons: to ensure that this country’s political system moves fully into line with democratic standards, and to ensure that this political system reflects the aspirations of the people.

This week, all eyes here are on the Constitutional Review Committee, which should submit its report to Parliament tomorrow.

Speaking to people throughout my visit, it has been absolutely clear to me that there is overwhelming support amongst ordinary people for constitutional change. Change that brings the constitution in line with international democratic standards. Change that delivers greater devolution of powers to states and divisions through a strengthened federal system. Change that cements the independence of the judiciary. Change that removes the military’s veto over democratic reform and gives citizens greater control over their own destinies.

Many of these reforms are complex, and will require careful consideration. For now, I would like to highlight one amendment that is very simple, and very important. I refer to ‘59f’- the Presidency clause.

Central to any modern democracy is the principle that citizens should have the right to choose who governs them. Yet under this country’s present constitution, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the main opposition party, is blocked from becoming President, even if her party wins a majority of seats in the 2015 elections. Why? Because her two adult sons have British citizenship.

The 2008 Constitution is perhaps unique. I can think of no other constitution that makes an individual citizen’s eligibility to become President conditional on the nationality of their adult children. This unreasonable restriction was not included in Burma’s previous constitutions, in 1947 and 1974. I can only assume that the restriction was written into the 2008 constitution in order to prevent one particular individual from ever becoming President. This is surely no way to write a constitution.

As Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear, it is time for this restriction to be removed. It is a hangover from a very different era. It is fundamentally undemocratic. And it is fundamentally wrong. Without amendments to allow all citizens to contest the Presidency, the 2015 general elections cannot and will not be fair elections. And without fair elections, the credibility of Burma’s democratic reforms will be cast into doubt.

I welcome President Thein Sein’s recent comment that all citizens should have the right to run for President- but I urge him to follow this up with active support to make this a reality.

The two major groups in Parliament clearly also have a central responsibility for determining whether constitutional amendments can happen. I refer to the MPs of the USDP party, and the Tatmadaw. And the moment has arrived when both of these groups must clearly set out their stance.

As leader of the USDP party, Thura U Shwe Mann has stated his personal support for amending the presidency clause. His stance is admirable, and reflects a strong sense of fair play.

But I am concerned by the recent suggestions of some USDP members that Daw Suu’s eligibility should be conditional on her adult sons renouncing their existing citizenship. As far as I am aware, there is simply no other modern constitution in the world that makes such demands of the adult children of political leaders. I urge all USDP MPs to take the honourable approach, and be prepared to compete on a level and democratic playing field in 2015, through serious amendments to 59f.

The second key group within Parliament is of course the military MPs. The 2008 Constitution can be amended only with the support of the Tatmadaw. This gives the Tatmadaw leadership a unique power, and a unique responsibility.

But it also places the Tatmadaw’s stance under heavy scrutiny, including in the UK, where our military engagement in your country is subject to intense interest. A constructive approach by the Tatmadaw to constitutional reform will send the strongest possible message of commitment to change and help to convince the sceptics that our engagement is right. It will be recognised and welcomed both inside this country and in the wider international community. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing today has the opportunity to secure a unique legacy: to be the Commander-in-Chief whose courage enabled his army to break free of the shackles of the past.

Longer term, I and many others hope that this country will follow the example of other states in the region, where the military has progressively moved out of the legislature, and taken its proper place as a professional modern institution under the control of the civilian government. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself noted when she visited Sandhurst Military Academy in the UK last year, the strongest and most respected militaries are found in the most robust democracies.

The peace process

This brings me to the second great challenge facing this country in 2014: the peace process.

For over sixty years since independence, this country has seen terrible internal conflicts. Millions of people, particularly in the ethnic minority border areas, have suffered unimaginable traumas. But in a sense, everyone here has been a victim, having lived under the shadow of a military dictatorship that justified its very existence on the grounds that the country risked breaking apart without it.

Yesterday I visited Kachin State, the first visit by an international minister since the latest outbreak of conflict three years ago. I held discussions with the State Government, representatives from the Kachin Independence Organisation, and religious leaders. I was also humbled to meet veterans of World War Two, and I was proud to recognise their magnificent contribution.

I visited camps near Myitkyina, where I spoke to families who had lost everything: their homes, their farms, and, in some cases, their friends and relatives. Most had been living in temporary shelters for almost three years. Their message was consistent: they wanted a sustainable and just peace, so that they could return in confidence to their homes, and rebuild their lives.

The international community today fully recognises the importance of the peace process, and its centrality to this country’s future. Without a fair and equitable peace settlement that reflects the aspirations of its diverse communities, the potential to become a prosperous, stable and democratic country will never be realised.

That is why the UK firmly supports the efforts of the government, political parties and armed groups to reach a nationwide ceasefire and establish an inclusive nationwide political dialogue. The precise shape of this dialogue, and its outcomes will be determined by the parties involved. But the broad guiding principle seems clear: that Burma must evolve towards a political system that truly enshrines equality and greater self-determination for its many minority ethnicities.

We are under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge. Before I became a Foreign Office Minister, I was Minister for Northern Ireland. And long before that, I served as a British Army officer. I know from personal experience the difficulties of resolving a long-running conflict. But as our own Northern Ireland experience has shown, real progress can be made even in the most apparently-intractable conflicts. Ultimately, it takes a combination of extraordinary hard work, and courageous leadership.

In this respect, your country has been very fortunate indeed. Today ceasefires are in place across most of the country. A nationwide ceasefire is within reach. This stage could never have been reached without the remarkable courage and perseverance of leaders on all sides. It is an extraordinary collective achievement.

It is, of course, only a first step. But it is an essential first step towards building trust and creating conditions for the political dialogue that must follow.

The UK will do our part to support this process in whatever way we can. On the diplomatic front, we will continue to engage with all parties. This week I have discussed with government, Tatmadaw, and ethnic leaders the British Government’s readiness to play a helpful role at future rounds of peace talks, subject to agreement by all sides.

At the same time, I am pleased that we have been able to share our own experiences from the Northern Ireland peace process. Over the last year, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister U Aung Min, the United Nationalities Federation Council, the Karen National Union, and the 88 Generation have all visited London and Belfast, drawing lessons from what we did right, and what we got wrong. We have also been running workshops for ethnic armed groups focused on security sector reform. And we stand ready to provide further technical support and funding for the political dialogue itself.

We also remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of conflict. The British Government has been the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in Kachin State, committing $20m over a two-year period. Our support to refugees on the Thai border continues. And we will expand our health, education and livelihoods programmes into ceasefire areas, bringing tangible benefits to villagers who have lived in dire insecurity and without access to basic services.

We will also remain unceasing in our efforts to address human rights violations in conflict and post-conflict areas. I have been particularly concerned by reports of ongoing sexual violence by Tatmadaw soldiers against women and girls in ethnic minority areas. The British Government, led by our Foreign Secretary, has established the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. In Naypyidaw this week, in meetings with government and the Commander-in-Chief, I have lobbied for this country to join 138 others, including six of its ASEAN partners, in endorsing the Declaration launched at the UN General Assembly. This year we are funding projects worth nearly half a million dollars focused on Preventing Sexual Violence here, including training women in basic legal skills and counselling.

The military

In discussing both constitutional change and the peace process, I have already touched on the critical role of the Tatmadaw, and I want to briefly expand on this. In 2012, the British Government took the decision to re-establish relations between our two countries’ militaries. Last year, we appointed a Defence Attaché for the first time in twenty years. We made these moves after consultation with opposition, ethnic and civil society leaders, the vast majority of whom firmly supported cautious and calibrated engagement.

Earlier this month, the UK’s Defence Academy delivered a classroom-based course to the Tatmadaw for the first time, covering topics including the role of the military in a democracy, security sector reform, governance, accountability, and the rule of law. It did not enhance the Tatmadaw’s military capacity or capabilities. The training aimed to expose future senior officers to new thinking, and encourage the Tatmadaw to prepare for a new role. I very much welcome that this course, dealing with such challenging subjects, was able to take place and that those attending engaged frankly and openly. The fact that senior officers attended the opening and closing ceremonies clearly demonstrated the value they attached to it, and I welcome their willingness to have a dialogue over issues like human rights and humanitarian law. I was also pleased that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could be there in person at the closing reception.

The fact that we are engaging with the Tatmadaw does not mean we will shy away from raising very real and continued concerns. Sexual violence and humanitarian access are two concerns I have already mentioned. Child soldiers is a further example: I welcome the recent release of 96 child soldiers, but I have made clear that there is an urgent need for the existing Joint Action Plan with the UN to be extended, to address a problem that, despite encouraging progress, remains far from resolved.

But let me be clear; I am convinced that cautious engagement with the Tatmadaw is the right thing to be doing, and that now is the right time to be doing it.

Rakhine State and Anti-Muslim Violence

Every democratic transition has its challenges- some common, some unique. Here, the constitution and the peace process are rightly seen as the biggest of those challenges. But it is also essential, at a time of change, to stay alert to the wider risks and threats. We must, for example, ensure that the new space for media freedoms is firmly protected, that the right to peaceful protest is consistently defended, that land rights are addressed fairly and transparently.

Yet there are two areas of concern that I wish to highlight in particular, as I believe that they risk gravely undermining the wider reform process. I refer to the situation in Rakhine State, and the violence targeted towards the wider Muslim community.

One year ago I visited Rakhine State. I was the first European Minister to do so. I heard directly the grievances, fears and concerns of both the Muslim and the Buddhist communities. I went to a mosque as well as to a Buddhist monastery. I saw the terrible conditions of the Muslim camps. Twelve months on from my visit, there has been little progress in addressing either the humanitarian situation or underlying intercommunal relations. I have been appalled to hear of further tragic deaths this month in Northern Rakhine, and we have called for a credible investigation into these allegations.

On the humanitarian front, the rise in intimidation and threats towards UN and international staff attempting to deliver life-saving food and medical supplies to vulnerable displaced communities is utterly unacceptable, and actually quite shocking. I urge Rakhine community leaders to tackle this trend urgently, as a matter of conscience. I also reiterate the responsibility of the authorities, both at state and Union level, to facilitate full and unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need, and to address robustly any efforts to block such access.

To the Union government, I further urge rapid action to address the citizenship status and basic rights of the Rohingya. The government has committed to running a full citizenship verification exercise, and this should be conducted without further delay. The continuation of the status quo is unacceptable, and presents growing risks to the country’s long-term stability.

I recognize the desperate poverty that afflicts all communities in Rakhine State, the result of many decades of chronic underinvestment in the country’s second-poorest region. The international community must be committed to poverty alleviation programmes in every township in Rakhine state. And on the part of the government, the state’s rich natural resources revenues must be shared equitably, including with the local population.

Beyond Rakhine State, over the last 12 months attacks against Muslim communities in Meiktila and elsewhere have also been of deep concern across the world. The violent actions and aggressive rhetoric of a small minority of extremists is harming the reputation of this country, and raising serious questions about religious tolerance and rule of law.

Rule of law is clearly the responsibility of the government, judiciary and security forces, and I welcome the swifter and more balanced actions taken in response to the latest outbreaks of violence. Those carrying out violence, and those inciting it, must be held accountable, in line with the government’s pledge for ‘zero tolerance’. Police must also learn how to respond effectively, and I am pleased that British police officers have played a central role in the EU’s police training programme over recent months, aimed at improving the handling of relations with communities.

Religious tolerance is a responsibility for everyone in this room, but I am heartened by the united call from major religious leaders for dialogue, understanding and empathy. All too often around the world we have seen fragile new freedoms tragically shattered by divisive ideologies that prey on fear and rumour. It is my fervent hope that your country does not suffer this fate, and that the voices of moderation and wisdom prevail, such that you can realize your vast potential as a peaceful democratic and diverse country.

UK support to Burma’s development, including Rangoon General Hospital, and our trade relationship

It is on this note that I want to end. Your country is at a crossroads, so inevitably my speech today has focused on the very real challenges ahead. Yet if those political challenges can be overcome- and I do believe that they can- then this is a country of vast potential. With a large young population, plentiful natural resources, and a strategic location between some of the world’s biggest markets, your economic prospects ought to be bright. And don’t underestimate the international community’s goodwill towards you.

The British government’s policy is clear. We are encouraging responsible investment, and we are encouraging trade relations. We believe that British investment can bring benefits to all parties- through sharing of knowledge and technical expertise, through job creation and vocational training, and through improving labour standards. British businesses are interested. We are already seeing some early success stories: for example, JCB selling over 50 machines in their first year of operations here, and Aggreko delivering their first power supply project for the Ministry of Energy, on budget and ahead of time.

At the same time, we are working with the government to help create the right conditions for investment that benefits all, not least the poorest. Above all, this means strong rule of law and transparency, and that is why the UK is supporting government and civil society in signing up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership, and working with ministries on improving public financial management.

At the same time, British aid is improving the health and education of this country’s poorest people. This year we are further increasing our annual aid budget for Burma to $100m. We are funding the treatment of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, providing life-saving healthcare for mothers and their babies, and supporting improvements to the standards of basic education. UK-funded livelihoods programmes are helping rural farmers to increase agricultural production, and giving villagers access to credit. And we are supporting the regeneration of the historic Rangoon General Hospital, which has for many decades played a central role in the healthcare system.


Through development, through trade, and through ever-closer links between our two peoples, we want to be an active partner working with you over the years ahead to realise your country’s undoubted potential. But ultimately the effectiveness of development aid, the eradication of poverty, the boosting of trade and investment – all of this rests on political foundations. And in the year ahead you have the opportunity, through leadership and through dialogue, to set the political foundations for a stable and prosperous future.

This is a moment that calls for courage and for vision. But the progress that your country has already made over the last three years has surely shown that it is the bravest actions that reap the greatest rewards. Today, Burma can take great strides forward on the path of peace and on the path of reconciliation. And there can be no going back from the path on which you are embarked. Thank you.