Is Tony Blair Pursuing a ‘Governance’ Mission in Burma?

By Daniel Pye 8 January 2016

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was in Burma again this week for at least the fourth trip he has made to the country since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. The former UK leader met with Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday, but as with previous Blair trips to Burma, few details on the purpose of his latest visit were forthcoming.

In this story From The Irrawaddy Archive, we look back at one of the last times Blair touched down in Burma, in a piece published March 20, 2013.

Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Burma on Saturday meeting with top government officials.

He led a “delegation,” including Britain’s ambassador to Burma, Andrew Heyn, which met with Vice President Nyan Tun at the ostentatious Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on Saturday.

The representatives from The Office of Tony Blair, an organization staffed by Blair’s aides that oversees his numerous charities and companies, discussed the “implementation of a long-term plan for economic development that is crucial for frameworks of economic and social reforms,” according to Burma’s President’s Office website.

But the exact details of what was discussed are being kept quiet.

When asked about the meeting, a spokesperson for Blair’s office said: “At the present time we are simply having wide-ranging discussions with the [Burmese] government on the development of the country because Mr. Blair is interested in it.”

Blair made a previous trip to the country in October last year. This weekend’s visit, during which he also met Aung San Suu Kyi, according to his spokesperson, was to continue discussions that began in October.

But the goal of Blair’s two appearances in Burma remains a mystery, and there are lingering questions over the exact nature of his sudden interest in a country his critics say he showed little interest in while in power.

An official source, who wished to remain anonymous, said the talks could pave the way for a “governance initiative” Blair is considering establishing in Burma.

It is not clear what such an initiative could entail, but it is possible he may assume an advisory role with the Burmese government if he has not already done so in an unofficial capacity.

“The problem is that he hasn’t taken the time to contact or try to meet with any democracy activists or human rights groups before his visit,” said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK. “He’s showing more interest [in Burma] now, but he backtracked on sanctions and getting his government to do anything was a struggle.”

While in office, Blair called for stronger sanctions on the military junta and warned tourists to stay away from the country, which was ruled by a military dictatorship until a nominally civilian government was elected in 2010.

During the trip he also met with presidential insider Soe Thane, the former industry minister and head of Burma’s navy, before calling on ethnic Kachin and Karenni groups to “be patient” with a shaky ceasefire in the country’s north, in what The Irrawaddy’s insider source called an “impromptu” visit to the National Peace Center.

According to Farmaner, Blair is “desperate for any contacts in the [Burmese] government.”

If Blair was to assume a role as an adviser to Naypyidaw, it would not be the first government he has worked for with a dire record on human rights.

In 2011, Blair added the Kazakhstani regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev to his roster of resource-rich client states, a deal said to be worth about US$13 million, although Blair’s aides denied he profited from the arrangement.

As well as Kazakhstan, he has advised Kuwait, South Korean oil firm UI Energy Corporation, and Abu Dhabi investment fund Mubadala, and is employed by investment banking giant JP Morgan. A Financial Times investigation last year found he earns about £20 million ($30 million) a year through such deals.