Myanmar President Thein Sein began a four-day trip to Britain and France on Sunday at the invitation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. It is the first visit to Britain by Myanmar’s head of state in more than 25 years, since the late General Ne Win visited in 1986.
The visit is a follow-up of Thein Sein’s visit to five other European countries—Italy, Norway, Austria, Finland and Belgium—from Feb 25 to March 8.
The president’s visit will focus on improving relations over education, social affairs, and the economy. Relations between the two European powers and Myanmar have significantly improved in the last couple of years, triggering the resumption of political and economic activities.
But despite the rapprochement, more needs to be done to address problems in Myanmar. Britain and France, via the EU, imposed sanctions on Myanmar.
Both countries pursued an isolationist policy for several years in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the nullification of the 1990 general elections in Myanmar. Along with the US, the two countries were also vocal in trying to pass a resolution against Myanmar at the UN Security Council in January 2007.
However, in Myanmar, gradual democratic reforms since the 2010 general elections, including the release of political prisoners, cessation of hostilities with most of the ethnic armed groups, and the accommodation and participation of National League for Democracy (NLD) in national politics have changed the dynamic of diplomatic relations.
In April 2012, a week after Myanmar’s by-elections, Mr. Cameron was the first high-profile Western leader to visit the country and became the first British prime minister to visit Myanmar in more than six decades. He was accompanied by economic and trade officials.
Mr. Cameron was also the first Western leader to have suggested the suspension of Western sanctions before entirely lifting them, which was supported by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD had just won the by-elections overwhelmingly.
Mr. Cameron at the time said: “We must respond with caution, with care. We must always be skeptical and questioning, because we want to know these changes are irreversible.” The plan was to encourage further progress in democracy and human rights, by retaining the option to re-impose the sanctions if the conditions in Myanmar warranted them.
Subsequently, the EU suspended its sanctions imposed on Myanmar for one year and lifted them in April this year, with the exception of arms embargo. Moreover, Britain has committed £185 million (8.7 billion baht) for the next four years to fund health and education projects in Myanmar through non-governmental organizations.
Britain has also shown its intention to improve military cooperation with Myanmar. Last month, Chief of the Defense Staff of British Armed Forces, General Sir David Richards, visited Myanmar. It was the first visit by head of British armed forces in more than 50 years. It was a milestone in relations between the two armed forces since 1988.
Though bilateral relations between France and Myanmar have not been as strong or significant as that of Britain, recent changes inside Myanmar convinced Paris to embark on certain diplomatic initiatives.
In January 2012, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Alain Juppe, visited Myanmar, which was the first high-ranking French official since 1988.
Subsequently, the two countries have stepped up cultural and tourism cooperation in areas of preservation of cultural heritage, upgrading and preservation of museums, human resources development, and granting scholarships to culture ministry staff.
Later, in September 2012, French Senator and Chairman of South Asia Committee, Gerard Midquel, visited Myanmar to discuss ways the two national parliaments could cooperate and how to build ties in regional government and administration.
France’s Total Company invests in Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and is becoming engaged in regional development. France also played an important role in lifting European sanctions against Myanmar.
The cooperation between Britain and France with Myanmar has shown improvement primarily on trade and investment initiatives. But the situation in Myanmar demands that the European powers pay attention to other areas as well.
Both Britain and France should use their economic and political resources to influence the Myanmar government to speed up the process of resolving the country’s ongoing ethnic minority problems, and the prevailing religious tension.
The government must address minority problems by recognizing the necessity of establishing a union government either through consociational democracy or federalism. Since there are overlapping populations across different geographical regions, proportional representation also needs to be looked at as a solution to the country’s political problems.
European powers must ensure that the Myanmar government practices equality of law to all its citizens, and adheres to equal treatment of all religious groups. The ongoing democratic reforms are reversible if the Myanmar government does not address unresolved, pressing issues.
Britain and France must also put pressure on Myanmar’s leadership to release the remaining 100 or more political prisoners, and amend undemocratic elements in the 2008 constitution before the 2015 general elections.
While extending all the necessary assistance to rebuild Myanmar, London and Paris must continue to apply pressure to prompt further democratic reforms. Myanmar’s relations with the international community, including Britain and France, can only be reliable when domestic politics and polity are stable.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post newspaper, based in Thailand.