British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire delivers his speech at the British Council in Yangon, Thursday. Pic: AP.

By Mark Inkey

British Minister of State for the Foreign Office Hugo Swire has called for called for constitutional change in Burma to pave the way for democratic reform ahead of next year’s elections. In particular he called for the repeal of constitutional amendment 59(f), which forbids anyone with children of a different nationality, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, from standing for president.

“I can only assume that the restriction was written into the 2008 constitution in order to prevent one particular individual from ever becoming president,” he said.

The minister was speaking at the British Council in Rangoon last Thursday, at an event that was hastily relocated from Rangoon University.

Originally the minister was due to give the speech to students at the University. The university has a history of activism and has only recently been re-opened since being shut down in 1988 hen the students union was instrumental in leading democracy protests.

Following the venue change he had to give the speech to a far smaller audience consisting mainly of the press.

Mr Swire said the university became unavailable “at the last minute, for reasons beyond our control,” according to The Irrawaddy.

He also suggested that the speech was cancelled to avoid controversy, though it appeared uncontroversial and largely uncritical of the government. While some problems were mentioned, none were seen as being an impediment to further investment and aid to Burma.

Mr Swire said Burma had two main issues to address, democratic reform and the peace process.

He said democratic changes required constitutional changes including an independent judiciary, removal of the military’s veto over democratic reform and devolution of power to states through a strengthened federal system. He also hinted strongly that the constitution should be changed to allow opposition leader Suu Kyi to run for president in next year’s elections.

As for the peace process Mr. Swire called for: “A fair and equitable peace settlement that reflects the aspirations of its diverse communities” and the establishment of “an inclusive nationwide political dialogue.”

The previous day he had been to Kachin State and met with representatives from the State government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). He had also visited a camp for IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) near Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital.

He said that Britain was the biggest bilateral aid donor in Kachin State, having donated $20 million over two years.

He seemed happy with how the government was handling the ceasefires with the ethnic minority groups. He said: “Today ceasefires are in place across most of the country. A nationwide ceasefire is within reach. This stage could never have been reached without the remarkable courage and perseverance of leaders on all sides.”

On the ground the ceasefires appear far less binding and concrete than Mr Swire’s assessment.

As he gave his speech, according to a Burma Campaign UK report, the Kachin villages of Nam Gau and Nam San were being attacked by the Burmese Army with heavy mortars and machine guns. Eighteen villagers were taken prisoner and three bodies were found which showed evidence of having been tortured by the Burmese Army.

Despite continued reports of rapes by  the army and Burma consistently refusing to sign up to the UN Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) the British government has gone so far as to provide training for the Burmese armed forces.

Instead Mr Swire praised the attitude of the senior Burmese soldiers who received British training, but insisted that it “did not enhance the Tatmadaw’s military capacities or capabilities.” He said those attending the course “engaged frankly and openly.”

He added: “The fact that we are engaging with the Tatmadaw does not mean we will shy away from raising very real and continued concerns. Sexual violence and humanitarian access are two concerns I have already mentioned. Child soldiers is a further example.”

He called for an extension of the UN’s Joint Action Plan on Child Soldiers.

He said: “I am convinced that cautious engagement with the Tatmadaw is the right thing to be doing and that now is the right time to be doing it.”

Many other observers were strongly against the British training the Burmese Army.

Mai Naw K’nyaw Paw the General Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) said of the training: ““We think it is still too soon. They are giving the training without questioning or addressing anything.

“We wrote a letter and asked that they don’t give training directly to the army because they continue to commit crimes with impunity. They should hold their soldiers accountable before they give training.”

Mr Swire finished by saying that British aid to Burma would be raised to $100 million a year.

Money will be spent on fighting diseases like TB and malaria, providing mother and baby healthcare and supporting improvements in basic education.

UK-funded livelihood programmes will also help farmers to increase agricultural production and give villagers access to credit. The UK will also support the rebuilding of Rangoon General Hospital.