Business Britain continues to suppo unified future for Myanma
“Why would we want to dismember Myanmar? We’ve spent most of the last twenty years struggling to have a unified, democratic future for Myanmar.”
BRITAIN has spent the last two decades supporting Myanmar to have a unified, peaceful, prosperous and democratic future, and there is no reason to believe the UK has turned its back over the Rakhine crisis, Britain’s departing envoy said, urging people not to believe in unfounded conspiracy theories.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Myanmar Times, outgoing British Ambassador Andrew Patrick spoke at length about the challenges Myanmar faces regarding the Rakhine crisis, the work of Ukaid, economic reforms and how the UK will continue to support Myanmar’s development. Given the change in mood and circumstances in this country since the Rakhine crisis broke out, the envoy also firmly responded to unfounded conspiracy theories and dispelled the myths and misconceptions which have been all the rage of late.
At the time of this interview last month, on May 8, the UK had just welcomed the first Asian, the first Muslim and the first person from an ethnic minority background to hold one of the great offices of state as Sajid Javid took the helm of the Home Office. Meanwhile, the country, like Myanmar, is led by a female leader, as Theresa May is the second woman prime minister for Britain. Ambassador Patrick explained why diversity and equality matters.
“Almost every country in the world is diverse these days – We are, most of Europe is, and the United States certainly is. If you were going to utilise your people’s skills, you would have to embrace diversity,” he said. If differences widen, there is a risk of conflicts. There’s also a moral argument: “We should treat other people equally, whatever their race or religion – that’s the sort of moral argument we subscribe to.”
With the political transition and opening up, Myanmar is now having a debate on what it means to be “Myanmar”. Ethnicity and religion play a big part here.
For the UK, one solution is multiculturalism, which is the idea that “you can be British and have a culture within that, that represents your heritage.” It is not plain-sailing and problems arise. But that remains an important part of being a modern country. “I think the most successful countries have found a way to address this issue of ethnicity, and that is important if you want to grow,” he continued.
The UK’S Department for International Development (DFID) has been supporting various aid programmes in Myanmar, many of which focus on supporting the “software”, such as financial inclusion, female empowerment and supporting people with leprosy and disabilities, among others.
The diplomat stressed that British aid supports the developments across the entire country, including Rakhine as well as every single state and region in Myanmar. To date, the UK has contributed £129 million (US$174 million) to resolve the Rakhine crisis since August 25 last year, while DFID had pledged an addition of £70 million for the refugees living in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. The fresh humanitarian support came ahead of the looming cyclone and monsoon season, alongside help to vaccinate almost one million people against deadly cholera.
At the same time, DFID provides extensive resources for ethnic Rakhine communities.
“People often confuse humanitarian aid and aid as a whole,” Ambassador Patrick said. On the one hand, humanitarian aid refers to providing food and medicines to people who are in a very difficult situation, such as those who cannot work and have no access to hospitals. “In Rakhine, the people who are in that situation are mainly Muslims. There are some Rakhine, but mainly the Muslim population. So, obviously, the humanitarian aid has been going mainly to the Muslim population,” he explained.
On the other hand, UK’S development aid mainly goes to the ethnic Rakhine communities. DFID operates two major programmes in Rakhine State - the Dana Facility and the Livelihoods and Food security trust fund (LIFT), a multi-donor fund. Dana with £2 million specifically for Rakhine is working on improving the business environment, financial inclusion, capacity building for domestic businesses, investment promotion and trade facilitation. Meanwhile, LIFT, with around £52 million for Rakhine, has projects covering 14 out of 17 townships in the state, working mostly (98
The issue of citizenship for the Rohingya is something that people in Myanmar “often misunderstand about the international community’s position”, Ambassador Patrick explained.
“We use the word ‘Rohinga’ to refer to the Muslims in northern Rakhine. And the reason we do that is because we think any group should have the right to call itself by a name that it wants. But when we do that, we’re not saying we accept or endorse all of the history that they talk about, neither do we reject it.
“We’re not making a decision on that. We’re also not arguing for particular sets of ethnic rights for these people. But we are arguing for their human rights and for those eligible for their rights to citizenship. Of course, we have a very unfortunate situation where people who had citizenship and people who still even have citizenship aren’t able to move around, their access to education and healthcare and so on is not what it should be for someone who’s a citizen. The solution is to treat people who are citizens equally. Whatever they are and whatever ethnic or religious group they come from. That’s what the international community is asking for. We’re not asking for particular ethnic rights. We are asking for citizenship and human rights,” the diplomat clarified.
Conspiracy theories on speed Eleven Media printed an editorial on May 1 arguing that “some efforts of United Nations, West countries and Bangladesh concerning Rakhine State is more than the case of sending back refugees and resolving the problems… Their act can destabilise Myanmar and lead to disintegration of Myanmar into pieces.”
“Why would we want to dismember Myanmar?” Ambassador Patrick rebutted firmly.
“We’ve spent most of the last twenty years struggling to have a unified, democratic future for Myanmar. Why would we suddenly be trying to split Myanmar apart? I really don’t think that’s real,” he went on, urging Myanmar not to embrace unfounded conspiracy theories.
“It’s always common for people to believe that the world has some plan and that everybody is working together on some secret plan for the future. I’ve been in diplomacy for over thirty years, and a lot of things are coincidences. You may think but that these things are all linked and there is some plan but actually, it’s people reacting, it’s people dealing with the things that are on their desks every day. It’s not about having a great plan to undermine any country.
“I would urge people not to look for secret plans when there are other explanations,” he remarked.
Eleven Media’s editorial is not the only criticism.
Last October, The Irrawaddy’s news editor Kyaw Phyo Tha, in a commentary piece “Britain is still being beastly to its former colony Myanmar”, claimed that Britain is trying to “bully the country because it once colonised”.
“I honestly don’t think on the UK side that what’s happening has anything to do with our history,” the envoy said in response. Look at Sweden, other European countries and the US and one can see that they share Britain’s concerns and positions. Hence, it has nothing to do with the past.
Naturally, because of the historical circumstances, most journalists and parliamentarians in the UK are interested in Myanmar than others. The UK has paid more attention to this country’s developments.
“In previous years, I think people would have seen that as positive – the UK leading the campaign against military rule, we supported human rights in Burma for the ethnic groups and for the majority population. At that stage, we were getting all the praise. Now we’re supporting the human rights of the Muslim population of Rakhine and people feel differently about it. But I don’t think there’s been a great change in the way the UK behaves; perhaps the change is in the perception of that here [in Myanmar],” the diplomat observed.
We’ve spent most of the last twenty years struggling to have a unified, democratic future for Myanmar. Why would we suddenly be trying to split Myanmar apart?