Outgoing British ambassador to Myanmar Mr Andrew Patrick talks about his five years in Myanmar, including the 2015 election, the current state of press freedom and what the government needs to do to begin addressing the crisis in Rakhine State.
By WIN ZAR NI AUNG and HTET HTET NAING
You have been ambassador since 2013, and have witnessed some momentous highs and despairing lows during that time. Do you believe Myanmar is in a better place than it was five years ago?
Yes, I do. Obviously some things are better, some things are worse but overall I would say things are better. There’s more freedom, people are able to express themselves, freedom of the media, fewer political prisoners, all those things are important. Obviously the situation in Rakhine has got more difficult than it was five years ago but overall I would say things, for most people in the country, are better.
Myanmar has a chequered history when it comes to human rights. One thing Doh Athan has found is that public perceptions of human rights are very different to what they are in the UK, for example. What do you believe will help to change those views?
Well, I think it’s not surprising that views of human rights in Myanmar are different from the views of human rights in other countries. You have had this very unique history, this very difficult history for many decades and the main this during that time the education system was very badly affected, and I think everyone agrees that the Myanmar education system is not as good as it should be.
So I think that one of the things that I hope will change when people become better educated is that people will understand different views about human rights and different views about human rights will become a bit more similar to the view of human rights in Europe or America. But I think people understand some of this very well.
Talking to people they understand the fundamentals of democracy, they understand why the changes that have happened are good and I think, obviously, there are some issues about race and the role of ethnic identity in a modern society where the views in this country are very different from what they are in the UK or France or the United States.
So, there is some way to go but a lot has changed over the last five years and I hope, as I say, that as people get better educated over the next five, 10, 20 years we will see views changing on this.
A vital part of human rights is giving people a voice. Press freedom in Myanmar has deteriorated in the past 12 months, most notably with the imprisonment of the Reuters journalists. Do you think there has been a conscious effort to squeeze the media here? Should such outdated laws be used to imprison journalists in Myanmar?
I agree that things have got worse. We, as you know, have called for the release of the two Reuters reporters, we have called for the reform of article 66(d) [of the Telecommunications Law] which has been another major problem. Those things are important and if the media is to operate freely then that needs to change.
I think we shouldn’t be too hard on the situation here. When I compare the media situation here to some other countries in Southeast Asia things are still better here than they are there. Things are worse here than they were before in some cases but they are better than they are in other places and I can still read some very hard-hitting articles in Frontier magazine and they would be as hard-hitting as articles you would find in a British newspaper and nobody comes to shut down your newspaper.
The Rohingya crisis is obviously very complex and sensitive, and you have witnessed the scenes of devastation in northern Rakhine State yourself. What steps do you believe need to be taken to avert further hardship for the refugees in Bangladesh?
It’s a very difficult situation. I do understand the history, having been here for nearly five years, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about the history and I do understand the history is very much debated and we tend to call the Muslim community there Rohingya.
We don’t do that because we accept everything they say about the history. We do that because in general in the UK if a group wants to call itself by a particular name then we accept that and we say you can call yourself that.
The Rakhine situation is going to take some time to improve. At the moment my impression is that most of the people who have left are not yet ready to come back. The government has done preparation for that. They’ve prepared these reception centres. But at the moment it doesn’t look like people would want to come back because they don’t trust the security situation. They’re worried that if they return they would be attacked so I think it’s very important that as well as focusing on the physical preparation, the reception centres and so on, you need to look at the environment, the security environment in which people will return.
One of the other things that has been difficult [is that] there are very different views inside Myanmar and outside about what happened. If you read a British newspaper and you read most of the newspapers here you get a very different view. I haven’t investigated but some of the stories that come out of the camps in Bangladesh seem very convincing. The only way you are going to settle that debate is by having some kind of independent, credible, investigation that can go down there and really dig in to all of this and tell us what really happened. If you have that kind of investigation I think it will help clear the air and help people understand what really happened and hopefully make the people in Bangladesh feel more secure and more able to come back.
I was very pleased the government has started discussing with the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the UN Development Programme, discussing how they can be involved in northern Rakhine because I think that will reassure everybody that this process is going to be managed in a way which fits with international best practice.
You were here for Myanmar’s historic election in 2015. What lessons do you think need to be learned for the next national vote, due to take place in two years’ time?
I thought it was an amazing election in 2015 given the history of the country, given this was the first fully – well it wasn’t even fully democratic because the constitution, there are still some problems with that. Given where the country was I thought it was a very, very high standard achieved. I think a lot of people deserve thanks for that, the election commission performed a great role.
It seemed to me that a major problem at the time was about the voters list and I think – I hope – some work is going on to try and make that whole process a bit easier for next time round. I was worried some people might have felt excluded by the problems with the voters list. Actually we got a very high turnout and people seem to have been able to express their vote freely and that’s what’s important.
Do you think foreign embassies, including your own, should move to Nay Pyi Taw?
I guess we are all going to move to Nay Pyi Taw one day. There are lots of practical things you have to think about before moving an embassy. It takes a long time. In the British system it usually takes about 10 years, so it’s not going to happen immediately and of course people are interested in things like schooling and those sorts of practical things.
In the long-term if the capital of the country is Nay Pyi Taw then embassies should be in the capital: that’s natural, that’s how things work. I am sure we’ll all keep a presence here in Yangon too. The business centre of the country will clearly be Yangon, probably the media centre will still be Yangon and all of the civil society people will be mainly in Yangon. I think we’ll keep a foothold in both places. I’m not expecting we’re going to move very quickly.
What are your hopes and expectations for Myanmar for the next five years?
I hope that things will continue to improve, I hope the economy will grow more quickly. I think people deserve to see better livelihoods. This is a very rich country, should be a very rich country and it has very talented people and I am always encouraged when I go around the country and I see how young people, how passionate they are about education, about teaching themselves on the internet. I think the new generation is going to be a very good thing, very exciting. So I hope the economy will improve, obviously I hope the peace process will get onto a more positive track and I hope the situation in Rakhine, we can see people coming back and we can see progress on some of the longer term issues because the root of the problem is the status of the Muslim population and whether or not they have the right to citizenship. That is the key question.