This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 21 March 2016
During the hard years of military dictatorship, relations between Britain and Myanmar were often tense. The BBC would get rough treatment from its Myanmar counterparts. Sometimes it was even accused of broadcasting a “sky full of lies”.
When Senior General Than Shwe made the big decision to move government from Yangon to Naypyitaw we understand that one of his justifications was the lingering colonial hangover. Even today, everywhere you look
in parts of Yangon, there are indications of the former British presence.
Those who appreciate shambolic post-imperial vibes rejoice in Yangon’s old buildings and streetscapes. And, for all their resentment, it was only on rare occasions that Myanmar’s dictators worked actively to destroy the British heritage of bricks-and-mortar.
What was far more prevalent was the effort to eradicate foreign ideas associated with colonial meddling. Local institutions were discouraged from unscripted interaction with their counterparts from Western democracies.
Its history of colonial rule meant that Britain was often singled out for critical scrutiny, in particular for its ties with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Throughout these difficult times, the British government naturally sought to keep some channels of interaction open.
Notwithstanding the difficulties they faced, I was always impressed by the unwavering British commitments to Myanmar. The country’s diplomats were well trained, many with seriously sharp language skills and a deft command of local politics.
Outside that official stream, British businesspeople, academics, analysts, journalists, humanitarians and activists also kept up the tempo of interaction. It helped that the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London maintained the world’s best Burmese-language program.
Among Britain’s Myanmar specialists there are quite a number who have gone on to become very prominent figures over the past half-decade. Much of their current success is built on quieter investments in the country during the dictatorial years.
When Senior General Than Shwe was in charge, Britain served as a bastion of democratic defiance, hosting large numbers of Myanmar exiles and refugees. It also supported the most vocal campaigns against military rule. What those campaigns sometimes lacked in appreciation for the subtleties of Myanmar life, they made up for with an unflinching commitment to ending dictatorship.
Today the Burma Campaign UK maintains its chorus of criticism, seeking to keep up the heat on the enduring political and economic role of the armed forces. From that perspective, demilitarisation of politics remains a pressing concern.
Right now they are running a campaign to end sexual violence against women in Myanmar. The campaign materials state that “the use of rape and sexual violence by Burma’s armed forces is ongoing with impunity and reports of rape have increased over the last years”.
High-profile international supporters of this campaign include Dame Judi Dench, Annie Lennox and Gillian Anderson, alongside local activists like Cheery Zahau, Khin Ohmar and Khon Ja.
Such campaigns draw attention to problems in Myanmar society, particularly where egregious human rights violations persist.
Yet, now that the National League for Democracy is taking power, the old repertoire of denigration will need to be refreshed. Britain-based activists have done much good work; it would be a pity if they struggled to adapt to a situation where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself will increasingly need to be held to account.
That will not always be easy. But in the wake of her 2015 election triumph, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still seems very comfortable with her British friends. With her ongoing support, there is a significant opportunity to reinforce ties in the crucial early months of NLD government.
Such opportunity could take many forms, but strategic areas like health and education surely merit a further injection of British resources. There is no doubt Britain will need to remain a major contributor of development assistance and general economic support.
Nowadays, the British Chamber of Commerce Myanmar, led by Stephanie Ashmore, is a driving force behind a wide range of mutually beneficial activities. It makes sense that British businesses in Myanmar are not looking to make short-term profits when the revitalisation of society so clearly requires their enduring involvement.
Under current conditions, it is also likely that Britain will want to work more consistently with the Myanmar armed forces. There are obvious sensitivities. Both sides will be reluctant to make prematurely bold moves.
Nonetheless, given the residue of British military doctrine and culture in a variety of Myanmar armed forces, including non-state armed groups, there is an unusual opportunity to play a significant role in shaping new military minds.
The current trends all look promising for Britain-Myanmar relations. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal affinity for Britain is shared by some other senior figures in the NLD.
History suggests that such mutual affection is a useful ingredient in foreign affairs.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala. His column in The Myanmar Times is published each Monday.