UK MP Paul Scully discusses Myanmar’s transition, hard work of MPs

24 February 2016
UK MP Paul Scully discusses Myanmar’s transition, hard work of MPs
British Conservative Party MP Paul Scully. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

British Conservative Party MP Paul Scully is visiting Myanmar to check out the changes as the country heads towards a more democratic future.
Mr Scully was born in Britain to a Myanmar father and British mother and has long felt he had an important link with the Golden Land.
In the following interview with Mizzima, Mr Scully discusses a range of issues from his hopes for Myanmar’s new government to UK-Myanmar relations and the need to be patient with the new government and Myanmar MPs as they learn on the job.
What are your thoughts on Myanmar?
I have had a fantastic time over the last week here. It has been very personal to me as well as looking at the future of the country. My father was born here and my grandfather was born here, in Mandalay in 1893 and brought up in Moulmein, before he moved to what was then Rangoon. And my father was born here and brought up here before he moved to the UK aged 18. And there have been some moments in my father’s life, and the rest of my family’s life that are actually coincided with really important moments in Myanmar history, including when my father was walking past, home from school, past the place General Aung San was killed, and the commotion and aftermath of that with the police around. My father was aged just 13, and I don’t think he would have understood or know at the time how important an event that was for the country’s history.
Why have you come to Myanmar at this time? You must have important reasons?
Absolutely. I was delighted when Benedict Rogers, who has been here a number of times, asked me. Benedict works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights and religious tolerance advocate, so he asked me to come because he knew I had a connection to Myanmar, and he works very closely with this country. And I have wanted to come, not only because I have always wanted to come to the place where my father was born, which I feel proud to have a connection to, but also because this is a hugely important time for the country. And so to come just at the end of the transition, after the most amazing election, it is important for me to see what is going on, to offer any advice and support that I can do for local politicians, but also to see what more needs to be done, especially to do with the rule of law, to do with human rights, to do with religious tolerance and ethnic conflicts, because. Although everybody is very excited, we have got to be cautious. You can’t change the country in a day. And if I can help in any small way, that is why I am delighted to be here.
The words you expressed about the rule of law, this has been lost for five decades. How do you feel about the rule of law in previous times compared with today?
I think there are three things that have to be looked at in terms of regaining trust and regaining people’s trust in the law. First of all, obviously the law itself needs to be looked at, in some cases started again, in some cases improved, including of course the constitution, which I know is a controversial issue here. Because then people can know exactly what to expect, what is set out for them. The second thing is enforcement of the rule of law, working so the police know they can’t misinterpret the law, to use … there have been a number of people, a number of famous cases that have reached the ears of us over in the West, where people have been arrested on a charge where the police or someone has misused the law. And the third is making sure people get a fair hearing as well from judges, because it is one thing if you don’t agree with the law, it is another thing if you don’t agree with how a law is interpreted, but if you cannot stand up in front of a judge knowing that judge will hear your case, will hear your evidence in a free and fair and open way, no matter what your background, then you don’t have a credible legal system. And I think all of those three things will take a lot of time and a lot of effort to change. They do need to change.
You mentioned the rule of law and the corporate good governance.
I think at the end of the day, I am a new MP as well. The MPs here have really only been sitting in Hllutaw for about 10 days or so. I’ve been sitting in the UK parliament for 10 months. This is still pretty new. The difference being I have actually walked into a parliament where all the systems are hundreds of years old. So it means the support people know exactly what they are doing and they can help settle me in and advise me how to go about how to be a good politician. Not tell me what to do, there is a big difference, but advise me and show me how to do these sort of things.
At the moment here in the Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw and in the regions, the MPs are new but also a lot of the support staff don’t necessarily have that experience. And so a number of countries, including the UK, have offered a lot of support. The speaker of the House of Commons is a big, big friend of Myanmar, he has been here a number of times, and hosted Daw Suu (Aung San Suu Kyi) in the UK in 2012. He’s offered people, he has had people come over here, they are still here now, helping train up clerks, the support staff, to be able to offer good experience. And that is really important.
How do you feel your Burmese heritage has affected your approach in terms of the challenges Myanmar faces?
Well I think I can’t tend to be an expert on Myanmar just because my father was born here, because the stories that I had, he didn’t talk about all of the dark times in the country’s history, they tended to focus on good experiences they had, the wonderful childhood they had growing up here. But nonetheless, I am really proud of my heritage and that has meant that I have wanted to read up and wanted to find out more. I have wanted to visit here and I really do have a little bit of Myanmar in my heart that makes me want to help, especially the Myanmar people. The people are wonderful.
The Rohingya issue is one that is very sensitive here and here even the word ‘Rohingya’ is not recognised by the government. They are termed ‘Bengalis’. So, in your discussion with all these stakeholders, including religious leaders, were you able to talk openly and in a friendly manner with all the communities?
Yes, absolutely. I understand the sensitivities of the phrase and the community. But what has been particularly noticed especially with my colleague Ben Rogers who has brought me here from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, because Ben has been here over a number of years he has been amazed how quickly I have been able to stand here in front of a camera, in the middle of the street, a public place, say what I want without fear of arrest, reprisal anything like that and people have been able to talk to me freely about that. Yes, there is military intelligence and special branch and things like that wandering around in the background wondering what I am up to but nonetheless nobody’s tried to stifle conversations and people have felt free enough and confident enough to be able to speak their mind.
How can Myanmar liberate itself from the dark times?
I think there is a massive expectation from the election in November but we need to be cautious. People need to make sure that they give their politicians a little bit of time, and their support. So we need to build up the capacity of the members of parliament to make sure they have all the tools they need to do the job to become productive. They need to build up the skills and experience through training and other things as well. So the capability of doing these sort of things.
They need to have a clear vision of how you are going to change the country. It is all very well saying, right, the country needs to change, how is it going to change, what you are going to do on a day to day basis. And they need to have the confidence to change that as well. And that is with people helping them.
Daw Suu is one woman. She is an amazing woman. But she is only one woman. She can’t do everything. The MPs can’t do everything. A lot of the change, the positive change, will need to come from communities in the cities, the towns, the rural areas, the ethnic states. People need to take the lead from the new government. But democracy doesn’t start and end with one vote. Everybody needs to play their part.
When you were growing up, how did you view yourself? Being British, did your Burmese heritage mean much when you were young? Was it something you became more conscious about as you grew up?
I think… how do I describe myself … it certainly was something I was more conscious about as I was growing up, especially when I was getting involved in politics because I was reading more about world politics and obviously with a special interest in what was going on here.
I guess I describe myself as British to some people and half-Burmese or half-Anglo-Indian to others. Because my grandmother was born in India. My grandfather was born in Mandalay, and so I am a little of a mixture of everything.
Growing up, my mother is English whereas all my cousins, they have both Burmese parents. And so they probably eate more Burmese food than I did. But all of my family occasions, I loved eating all of those foods, and balachung sandwiches as well.
What is your view on reconciliation on Myanmar? You mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi, as your hero. I have read your interview in some Myanmar media. Aung San Suu Kyi has to be willing to forget the past. Yet some members of the public would like to see some members of the previous military regime brought to court over what they allege are crimes against humanity. Where do you stand and where does the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Burma stand on this issue?
I think it is important to say at this stage, when I am talking about the politics of the country, I am very much speaking in a personal capacity. Certainly I can’t speak on behalf of the UK government. I may be here in the ambassador’s residence, who is hosting me, but I can’t speak on behalf of them.
But form a personal point of view, I think there will need to be a long period of reconciliation but you do need to be careful about reprisals and looking back too far. Because I look at what has happened in Bangladesh, for example, a neighbouring country. This is a country that came into independence about 40 years ago and even now there is a lot of mistrust among the main parties stemming back from that period of history. Although it is doing fantastically economically, culturally and in many other ways, there is still a degree of resentment among certain groups. What you don’t want to be doing here in Myanmar is – forty years later – still being repeating history. So I would just err on the side of caution, whatever you decide to do.
You met Aung San Suu Kyi. What is you view on her now? She is in a very delicate situation with the power transition?
She is still a very strong and determined woman. You could see that she had a very determined look about her in the short time that I had. I am glad that she knew who I was, glad that she had heard about my trip around the area. Ahh! You’re our Burmese MP, she said. But it is clear that she will need the support of people around her to make sure she can focus on what is really important, that only she can do and let other people around her take up some of the heavy lifting, the hard work that needs to be done. Because no matter how remarkable she is, and she is, one woman can’t do everything, one parliament can’t do everything. That is why everyone needs to come together. I think that is something I took away from my afternoon in Nay Pyi Taw that there needs to be a bigger support network for the party as a whole.
Can you tell us about your role as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma?
We have a number of all party parliamentary groups in the UK in the UK parliament on every different subject. Every different country has one. Lots of different interests have one as well. And it is really an opportunity for groups of MPs, who have a particular interest in a subject, to get together and discuss them. And so I became co-chair pretty soon after I was elected, along with Baroness (Glenys)Kinnock, who has been here a number of times, and a Labour MP, Rushanara Ali, who was a former international development minister as well. What we have done at the moment is we have worked very closely with the Burma Campaign UK and a number of civil society groups in the UK, and a number of ministry people come to our meetings. And we have had updates from the ambassador when he is in the UK. We have had updates from the head of international development here to tell us how our aid is being spent and we want to make sure it is going to the people who most need it. What I want to be able to do over the next few months, though is to attract more MPs and more members to do something practical than just receiving updates.
Does the stance develop from the Conservative government’s approach?
I don’t think there is one stance that the group takes, particularly. The Burma Campaign UK that provides the support and assistance has probably more aggressive stance in terms of human rights and actually wanting to push a little further, where as I would say the UK government is keen to make sure human rights is absolutely at the top of the agenda, but we are not here, and I totally agree, we are not here even at a personal level, we are not here to tell Myanmar what to do. We are only here to offer advice and support. You have elected your politicians, you have elected Daw Suu to bring in change and deliver that change, and it is important that she is able to have the space to do that without Britain standing behind, the old Colonial power, saying “we know best.” We don’t. You know best in your country.  But we would like to offer any advice and support we can.
What is the UK government’s position on the democratic transition?
Well again, as I say, I won’t speak on behalf of the UK government. From what I see they are very supportive of the elections and pleased that actually, although the elections were far from perfect, it is clear that people’s voices were heard. It is clear there was a very clear result and now the will of the people can now be pushed from in terms of reform and change. But it is at the stage the UK government and number of governments around the world, they are looking on with interest and support as well, but not really wanting to, certainly not wanting to oppose anything but just being a critical friend.
Some eyebrows were raised of the UK government’s programme for training Myanmar military officers. Can you give us any insight into this decision?
I think the government has been opening up for a number of years. We’ve just had a pivotal moment with this election in November. But the foundations of being able to get to this point have been over the last few years since… in the last Hluttaw as well, so I think the UK government will have been looking at these situations and how they can help and support without treading on toes. But that is engaging with both sides because the military naturally wouldn’t have given up power lightly, so it is important we speak to both – obviously Daw Suu but also keep correspondence and contact with the military.
You have been following the transition politically and economically. What is the difference between members of parliament in the UK and Myanmar in terms of accountability and capability?
Well there is a huge difference in terms of where they have come from. Most of them have been in prison for a long long time so that is a huge amount of commitment. Whereas I have worked incredibly hard to get myself elected, it is nothing compared to the struggle, fight and sacrifice that so many people who have been activists for a number of years and now are MPs, personal sacrifice and that of their families.
In terms of their capabilities, it is really important they get the support that they can, and grab every bit of support as they can so that they can draft good laws. They need to know how to scrutinize laws well. They need to be able to look at a bit of legislation and ask the right questions. They don’t necessarily need to be experts, but they need to be asking the right questions to make that law the best law it can be. But they also need support from within the Hluttaw or from outside, wherever it comes to be great constituency MPs as well, to make sure they can be productive. For me looking in, it’s a slightly odd timetable where they have to be in Nay Pyi Taw Monday to Friday and then packing everything into their constituencies at the weekends, and juggle family life as well.
They know they have to work really, really hard and I don’t doubt their dedication. But they have got to be practical. To be able to have the tools to do the job, because there is no substitute in terms of constituency work than being in your village, being in your town, sitting in your rural area, speaking to that trusted in you and cast their vote for you. I always say I have two ears and one mouth, and I use it in that proportion, I listen more than I speak, and that is really important. That is what you should do in a constituency.
Rule of law is the fundamental thing in Myanmar. Is that right?
I think it is the fundamental basis of a lawmaker is to make good law. And it is not the only thing but there is a lot of change that needs to happen, but actually it’s core, it’s what defines what is acceptable in your society, what freedoms you agree to give away for the good of society as a whole. And so it is important that laws are defined clearly. So they are defined so they can’t be misinterpreted as well.
There are a number of examples. When people have been arrested for trumped up charges, charges that have … the law has been abused, basically. And that is not acceptable. People need to know they have the freedom to go about their everyday lives without fear of arrest.
Lots of people have said the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi have no experience to run the country, the legislation, government bodies, to pursue good governance. Is there a need for training?
Everybody needs more training. If fact, I need more training. What will happen, though, with a new MP, I remember what it was like when I first came in, is you can have this week that they have just had, they had some really good training from really experienced politicians, but that is very difficult to take in in one go. So actually what you will find is they will then need to start doing their work and then coming back, learning a little bit more, having master classes, and these kind of things. But that is not a sign of weakness. I really hope that members of the public will actually understand the delicate position that the members of the Hluttaw are in and give them the confidence to be able to have the space to have that training, that experience, to do a good job.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Only that I am so grateful for the warm welcome that I had. It has been so wonderfully received wherever I have been to in the country. It has been a particularly moving experience for me personally to, as I say, tread in the footprints of my father, but it is wonderful to be here at this amazing time in history, and also to see the excitement and anticipation in many people’s faces. It is important that members of the communities around the country play their role in an open democracy, that they play their role in making their local area, their ethnic state a better place that everybody can live.