UK to Increase Aid Amid ‘Worrying’ Human Rights Concerns

By Feliz Solomon 13 March 2015

RANGOON – Burma has been identified as a country of concern by the United Kingdom for the 10th consecutive year as the UK foreign office prepares to increase direct aid to the country by more than 30 percent.

In its annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, published on Thursday, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) listed Burma as one of 27 countries over which the UK has “wide-ranging concerns” with regard to human rights.

While 2014 was a “mixed year” for human rights in Burma, the FCO noted a number of “worrying setbacks” including a rise in political detention, conflict in Kachin and Shan states, repression of the media and a failure to resolve issues of citizenship and humanitarian access in Arakan State.

“Of all the human rights concerns in Burma in 2014, the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] remained the most worrying,” read the report, stating that discrimination against Rohingya and other minority Muslims has continued in the absence of a satisfactory government action plan.

In mid-2014, the Burmese government drafted a plan to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in western Burma’s Arakan State, where violence between Buddhists and Muslims has claimed more than 200 lives and displaced about 140,000 people since mid-2012.

Most of the displaced were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who still lack fundamental rights and are subject to severe restrictions on movement and access to public services.

The FCO’s report noted a “worrying increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and violence” in the country more broadly, in some cases linked to Buddhist nationalist movements.

The report also criticized proposed legislation, drafted by Buddhist nationalist lobbyists, which would create new regulations on religious conversion, population control, inter-faith marriage and polygamy. The FCO warned that the laws, “if enacted, could harm religious tolerance and respect for diversity in Burma, as well as contravene international standards and treaties to which Burma is a signatory.”

Despite the long list of concerns, the UK government announced in August 2014 that it would increase aid to Burma by more than 30 percent during the next fiscal year, up from about£60 million to £82 million (US$121 million) in direct development assistance. While the UK government is one of the largest bilateral donors of humanitarian aid in both Arakan and Kachin states, it has also supported other types of programs including a Peace Support Fund, police training and strengthening governance initiatives.

The UK government also contributed £10 million toward carrying out Burma’s 2014 census, later to find itself “deeply disappointed that the Burmese government went against its long-standing commitment that all individuals would have the right to self-identify” in the survey, according to the report. Those who wished to identify as ethnic Rohingya were instead given only the option of identifying as Bengali, as the government and much of the population in Burma views the group as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The UN Population Fund estimated that some 1.09 million Rohingya were not enumerated.

London-based rights group Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) welcomed the British government’s first ever “admission of setbacks,”while calling for a revision of current policy and review of assistance to military-affiliated entities.The group has been particularly vocal about the UK government’s participation in an EU-backed police training project, which began offering material assistance and courses on public order in 2013.

While the FCO cited police performance during last year’s Mandalay riots as an early indicator of the program’s success, events over the past week already make the report seem dated. The EU has come under harsh criticism for the $11 million project since police brutally dismantled student protests in Letpadan, central Burma, on Tuesday. Witness accounts, photographs and videos revealed a chaotic scene in which police indiscriminately beat up students, journalists, monks, medical volunteers and others at the site, injuring many and arresting more than 100 people.

BCUK Director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy that assistance to institutions such as the police force poses risks that the British government has not proven itself prepared for.

“Dangers involved in training Burma’s police apply across all the assistance being given to the government,” he said.“The human rights report can cite an example in Mandalay where training police may have helped, but the training and equipment can just as easily be used for repression. The British government has yet to explain how they are going to ensure this can’t happen.”