LONDON — On his first visit to London, President Thein Sein of Burma has held talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on trade and military cooperation, as Western countries look to increase engagement with the formerly isolated country. But despite its improved relations with the West, human rights groups accuse the Burmese government of attempted ethnic cleansing.
President Thein Sein has been embraced by the West as a political reformer.
British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed him to London in the mutual hope of developing trade links. They discussed increased military cooperation - though no details were announced.
Speaking at London’s Chatham House policy institute, Thein Sein called Burma’s transformation unparalleled in modern times.
“Thousands of prisoners have been freed. A special committee, comprised in part of former prisoners, is working diligently to ensure that no one remains in prison due to his or her political beliefs. We are reviewing all cases and I guarantee you that by the end of this year there will be no political prisoners of conscience in Burma," he said.
But outside the British parliament, protestors built a mock graveyard. They want to highlight what they claim is an attempt at ethnic cleansing against Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine state - and they accuse Prime Minister Cameron of ignoring the conflict.
Ahamed Jarmal is secretary general of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK.
“Since last year - June 2012 - a state-organized and government backed ethnic cleansing has started. Many thousands died, and children were burned alive. Many houses (were) burned and nearly 140,000 people were internally displaced," he said.
On his presidential website, the Burmese leader said Sunday that he had disbanded a security force accused of violations against the Rohingya.
He did not mention the Rohingya directly in his speech - but predicted a nationwide ceasefire within weeks.
“My government has been working tirelessly for peace. This too is not an easy thing. The remaining conflicts all have an ethnic character and are rooted in long-standing ethnic grievances and aspirations. And in Myanmar (Burma) there is not just one non-state armed group, but more than a dozen.”
But human rights groups say the targeting of Rohingya continues, prompting campaigners to draw comparisons with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
Ahamed Jarmal of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK said, “Rohingya - we have got only 800,000 people in Rakhine state. Compare that 800,000 to the nearly 200,000 in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, massacres and killing and burning alive. So shall we wait until Rwanda actually happens or shall we raise our voice now?”
Officials say Cameron did raise the issue of the Rohingya during the talks. President Thein Sein denies any state involvement in the violence.