By Hanna Hindstrom
British Prime Minister David Cameron will be accompanied by a group of business leaders during his historic trip to Burma this week, in a controversial and potentially embarrassing move, the Guardian reported today.
Cameron is expected to bring ten members from his current Asian business delegation, but will present them as “tourists” to circumvent restrictions imposed by EU trade sanctions, which the UK still publicly backs.
A No 10 source told the Guardian: “It is not a trade mission. We are going to Burma for reasons of geography and the recent elections, which led to a positive outcome. The government policy on Burma is to discourage trade. That remains the case. Around ten members of the business delegation will come to Burma. They will have a cultural programme. They will be like tourists.”
Cameron is currently in Jakarta with a team of 30 business delegates, including representatives from the UK defence firms BAE systems and AgustaWestland. Downing Street would not confirm or deny whether they would be part of his Burma delegation.
The move has been criticised by campaigners, who say it casts doubts on Britain’s geo-political strategy in the region.
“It is inappropriate for the business delegation to be going to Burma with the Prime Minister, even if they are being labelled as tourists,” Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told DVB. “It undermines the credibility of the UK to be discouraging trade on the one hand, and then taking a trade delegation to Burma with the Prime Minister himself.”
The UK is expected to warn against easing EU sanctions too rapidly at the upcoming meeting of foreign ministers on 23 April.
“There are still political prisoners being held so the process of releasing [sanctions] is not complete,” said UK Foreign Secretary William Hague last week. “We will keep up the pressure on that.”
New research suggests that as many as 1,000 political prisoners, including students, activists and monks, remain behind bars.
The EU first began its punitive policy to Burma in 1996 by introducing a visa ban on senior members of the military regime. Over the years these were extended to include a freeze on assets owned by regime-aligned figures, and investment in enterprises associated with the military, as well as an arms embargo. The visa ban was lifted in January to reward democratic reforms made in Burma.
There has been growing clamour to further reduce Western imposed sanctions after Burma’s by-elections saw democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy earn a landslide victory. Germany and Italy are both pushing for the complete removal of EU sanctions, as the international business community gears up to capitalise on Burma’s emerging economy.
The Prime Minister is on a five-day trip to Asia that started in Tokyo, where he promoted the sale of UK defence technology to boost British economic ties with the region.
“It is absolutely right that a British prime minister takes defence companies with him on a trade mission like this,” he told reporters in Tokyo.
During his two-day trip to Indonesia, Cameron will seek to procure defence sales only ten years after the Labour government suspended military ties with the government over allegations that British technology was used to bomb civilians in East Timor.