Burmese President Thein Sein, the first leader of Myanmar to visit Britain in more than 25 years, was to hold talks yesterday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is under pressure to confront him on human rights.
Thein Sein was due to talk trade, aid and democracy with Cameron and his ministers during a two-day visit at a time when Myanmar is opening up its oil, gas and telecommunication sectors to foreign investors, with further liberalization likely.
Sein, a former military commander, is trying to get the West to help Myanmar’s economy recover from decades of military dictatorship, Soviet-style planning and international sanctions.
Western leaders have praised him for ending the house arrest of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy icon, releasing some political prisoners and allowing the opposition to contest an election.
However, they want him to further loosen the military’s grip on the mineral-rich state before a 2015 presidential election which the UK-educated Aung San Suu Kyi hopes to contest. The opposition leader, a Nobel laureate, visited Britain last year.
Thein Sein is also under pressure to act to protect Myanmar’s small Muslim minority from inter-ethnic violence.
“Prime Minister Cameron should not miss an important opportunity to press Burma’s president on justice for crimes against humanity committed against the country’s Muslims, the release of remaining political prisoners, or an end to repressive laws,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
At least 237 people have been killed in Myanmar in religious violence over the past year and about 150,000 people have been displaced. Most of the victims were Muslim and the deadliest incidents happened in Rakhine State, where about 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live, according to the UN.
Avaaz, a global campaign group, was to hold a demonstration outside the British parliament yesterday and said that almost 1 million people have signed a petition calling for an end to inter-ethnic violence in Myanmar.
It said the bloodshed risked escalating to become the next Rwanda, referring to the bloody inter-ethnic violence there in 1994 in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
“We want to recognize the remarkable reforms of the last 18 months, but also to raise at the highest levels our ongoing concerns, particularly about inter-communal and anti-Muslim violence,” a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
Britain will press Thein Sein to improve humanitarian access, to address accountability for crimes, and to end discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya community, he added.
Cameron visited Myanmar last year and Thein Sein, who remains close to the Burmese military, became the first leader of his country since 1966 to visit the White House earlier this year.
His British trip is thought to be the first since Burmese general Ne Win, who ruled the country for 26 years, visited in 1986.
Thein Sein is expected to visit France afterward.
Additional reporting by staff writer