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Paul Scully MP: Raising the profile of Burma’s democratic transition

Aden Simpson | PoliticsHome

4 min read Partner content

MP for Sutton and Cheam, Paul Scully, talks Burmese politics ahead of his backbench debate on the topic this Wednesday. While the country is moving in the right direction, there is still a long way to go, he says, and plenty of reasons for UK parliamentarians to take an interest.

After 54 years of military rule, Burma’s ongoing transition to democracy reached a turning point last week as Htin Kyaw was elected president by the two houses of parliament. For Paul Scully, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, there is ‘still a long way to go,’ and ongoing international assistance will be needed if the country is to navigate the long road to stable government.

On Wednesday, the UK’s first MP of Burmese heritage will be leading a backbench debate on Burma’s political situation, with the aim of raising the country’s profile among parliamentarians, and discussing ways in which the UK can help open Burma to international trade and offer technical assistance to its fledgling MPs.

“It’s about maintaining and widening the profile of Burma,” he said. “There is a core of MPs here that support the campaign for greater political freedoms, the release of political prisoners and the progression of Burma. We’re already putting a lot of money and development into Burma, but it’d be nice if we could open up the country so that we can trade with Burma, and help it become a partner in an important part of Asia.”

As Scully explained, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has achieved a landslide victory, albeit one held back by military meddling with its constitution. One such change has guaranteed the military retain 25% of seats in parliament, and despite being leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi has been banned from the presidency because her children are not Burmese citizens; Kyaw, a childhood friend, now effectively stands in as her proxy. Corruption still grips the system; political imprisonment, religious intolerance and fighting between ethnic groups are prevalent, and the country needs investment and infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of tension,” said Scully. “Just because we have a new political situation that doesn’t necessarily wave a magic wand against all these various tensions that have no centre effectively.”

If these are to be improved, Scully argues the new government will benefit from sustained political and financial interest in the region.

“They’re already moving in the right direction, towards proper democracy, but it will still take time, and Aung San Suu Kyi has a load of very new and inexperienced MPs,” he said.

Part of Scully’s prescription for Burma is to offer technical assistance to this newly formed group of politicians: “I’m a new MP, when I came in I had a mature parliamentary democracy to help me settle in. Of course, they don’t even have that.

“So that’s actually what we need to do. There was an international delegation of MPs including three of our own [Joan Ryan MP, Chloe Smith MP and Angela Smith MP] who were training new MPs when I was there in February; showing them how to make law and how to scrutinise law. So we’re already working with them to help them move in that direction.”

Another factor is trade, which Scully hopes will also appeal to the UK’s enlightened self-interest. The country is rich in certain resources such as gemstones and teak, but is used to having these ‘stripped out’ and exported elsewhere.

“What they need is companies here finding ways of going over there, trading and investing in infrastructure improvement. But also using Burmese resources, not just stripping them out, in ways that will have a benefit to Burma as well as the UK.”

Scully explained that Burma has been too reliant on China in this regard, but is starting to realise that ‘cheapest isn’t best.’

“China doesn’t have much of an affinity with the country,” he added. “It’s just generating a lot of income out of Burma. There are a lot of people now looking to other places such as the UK who will trade with them on a more equitable basis, and I think that’s a good opportunity for us.”

“A lot of people in this country may be thinking: ‘Burma is thousands of miles away - what does it matter to us?’ All I’m saying is how important it is. It is strategically important because of where it is, there is a lot of trade we can do, and a lot of work we can do in terms of development.

“Helping Burma to open up, will ultimately lead to open democracy at a really important part of Southeast Asia, and the human rights of its people being looked after.”

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