The word out of Burma over the weekend was that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had paid a visit. Details are being kept fairly quiet, but it is confirmed that he traveled to Naypyidaw on Saturday and met with President Thein Sein and ministers, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi.
The New Light of Myanmar said Blair had “led a delegation” to Burma, and spoke with lower house speaker Shwe Mann. It said they discussed “cooperation in bilateral ties” and parliamentary affairs. A British embassy spokesperson told me he was there on behalf of The Office of Tony Blair, an umbrella group of foundations – inter-faith, sports, etc – and governance initiatives that he started up after leaving office. The spokesperson said only that he had “productive discussions about the reform process”.
Blair is a controversial presence in many parts of the world, but appears to have retained a quasi-diplomatic role for Britain – Xinhua said of a visit to Vietnam prior to Burma that Blair’s talks with PM Dung contributed “to strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries.
“Tony Blair, for his part, expressed his willingness to share experiences with Vietnam in restructuring economy, attracting investment, tackling climate change, protecting environment and promoting private-public partnership (PPP),” said Xinhua.
Whether the same topics were broached in Burma is unclear – the New Light, which dedicates the majority of its articles to listing ministers, leaving scant room for juicy details, said that Thein Sein and Blair discussed “cooperation in securing greater development in education, health and human resource sectors”.
Mark Farmaner at Burma Campaign UK wrote in an email however that the visit was lacking in many respects. “Blair doesn’t seem to have bothered to meet any grassroots or human rights groups before meeting Thein Sein and government representatives.” He said also that the group hoped Blair would be there “on behalf of his Faith Foundation, perhaps in response to the recent anti-Muslim and anti Rohingya nationalism from some Burmese Buddhists. However, he hasn’t met with any Rohingya representatives before meeting the government or others, which seems strange.”
A mediation role in the Rohingya crisis seems highly unlikely, however, and is sure to elicit a fierce reaction given his bloody legacy in the Arab world, where he remains deeply unpopular. Desmond Tutu, a friend of Suu Kyi’s, has publicly stated that Blair should face trial over the Iraq invasion.
It’ll be interesting to learn what exactly his intentions are in Burma. Since leaving office, he has set up a business consultancy firm, Tony Blair Consulting, and has reportedly earned some $100 million in various roles as consultant and business adviser to, among others, JP Morgan. What his motives are for courting Burma’s leaders are unclear, for as Farmaner notes, “Prime Minister Tony Blair showed little interest in Burma”. He had promised to introduce tougher sanctions when campaigning for office, but backtracked once in government. “The most we got was a bland three line statement on Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday,” says Farmaner.