British Parliament Speaker Offers Assistance, Urges Federalism for Burma

By Naomi Gingold, Reform 1 August 2013

RANGOON — John Bercow, speaker of the British House of Commons, delivered a blunt speech at the University of Rangoon on Thursday, welcoming nascent change in Burma but delineating the need for continued reform to further the country’s democratic transition.

While acknowledging the “glimmers of hope” sparked by reformist President Thein Sein over the last two years, Bercow cautioned that the international community “must be vigilant in guarding against premature euphoria, which is as misplaced as it is desperately dangerous.”

Urging the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, Bercow called on the government to repeal repressive laws, conduct a full legislative review, revise the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and enshrine international human rights standards into law.

Bercow also called for amendments to the 2008 Constitution that would enable inclusive democratic reforms and advised lawmakers to redefine eligibility for a presidential candidacy. “Any constitutional change that would not allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be a candidate for president would be regarded in my country, and surely across the international community, as a joke in very poor taste,” he said, referring to a constitutional provision that prevents Suu Kyi from running for the office because her late husband and children are foreign nationals.

“But I am not here just to tell the government what we expect of them,” Bercow added. “I am also here, along with my colleagues, to offer assistance.” In addition to the British delegation’s trip to Burma, he noted that two groups of Burmese parliamentarians had already been to London to consult on issues of lawmaking, and that both sides were considering ways to further that relationship.

Bercow was adamant in asserting that current reforms would mean nothing without an immediate halt to violence against minority groups and the initiation of a nationwide peace process. Violence in Burma’s ethnic regions, as well as recent Buddhist attacks on the country’s minority Muslims, have been blights on Thein Sein’s largely lauded reform agenda.

“As a friend of this country and its people, I say, stop the war, stop the killings, stop the torture, stop the rapes, stop forced labor,” the speaker said.

Bercow called on the government to engage in genuine political dialogue with Burma’s ethnic rebel groups, some of which have been at war with the government for more than 50 years. The creation of a federal system, Bercow said, would help ensure the rights of all citizens were respected. Rather than view federalism as a dangerous idea that would only wreak havoc on the stability of the state, he pointed to countries like the United States and Germany—where federal systems had produced bastions of political stability—as models for Burma’s road forward.

Bercow also called on the government to bring an end to the prevailing culture of impunity. “If the president’s reforms are to be believed, the culture of the Tatmadaw” must change, Bercow said, calling the military by its Burmese name.

Bercow’s speech and actions were a marked departure from the typical role of the speaker of Britain’s lower house, as it is unusual for the speaker to involve himself in anything that could be deemed “political.” According to staffers, his multiple visits to Burma’s border regions, where he personally saw the effects and heard stories of Tatmadaw brutality, had deeply affected Bercow and played a part in his decision to eschew the largely apolitical approach traditionally adopted by the speaker.

When asked about the durability of the current reforms, Bercow, looking out over a crowd that included students from all over Burma, responded that the people’s appetite for change had become irreversible and that ultimately, he was an optimist.