Think that ‘Global Britain’ means the Foreign Office will have your back as a UK citizen abroad? Think again: a sobering story from Myanmar.
A few weeks after February’s military coup in Myanmar, I found myself phoning the Foreign Office (FO) line for people with concerns about loved-ones in the country. My brother, communicating intermittently via a VPN, wanted to make sure the embassy knew he was there.
Things were getting increasingly violent and frightening in Yangon: with police and military shooting protesters and with 20,000 violent prisoners released from prison, apparently with express instructions to cause disruption and disturb the peace. Citizens were forming together to keep watch over their communities at night. But still people were being abducted, their corpses later returned, severely beaten or with missing organs.
My brother had been unable to get to the embassy or to contact them by phone. And now the country’s phone lines had been cut and internet was about to be. He thought we might have more luck letting the government know he was there from this end – just in case things deteriorated even further and they decided to evacuate Brits.
It’s possible the woman who answered the Foreign Office’s Myanmar number had heard there’d been a coup in the country, and had an idea about the disaster unfolding there, but she gave no indication this was the case. She disinterestedly informed me they couldn’t pass information about the presence of Brits in Myanmar to the embassy, and recommended I tell my brother to sign up online to the FO’s alerts and updates.
I explained (again) that the phones and internet had been cut off so I couldn’t reach him to tell him that, and he anyway couldn’t do it. She recommended I sign up to alerts myself and then tell him what they said. I explained (again) that I couldn’t contact him to tell him what the alerts said.
“Is there any way to just let the embassy know where he is?” I asked. No, it seemed not. She said tell him to keep trying the embassy himself. I very, very slowly (and by now quite loudly) explained that I couldn’t tell him to keep trying the embassy. That lack of phone and internet malarky hadn’t resolved itself since the third time I’d mentioned it; ten seconds previously.
I wondered what the point of her was at all. The foreign office is not what it was! When my brother’s friend was arrested by the Burmese military (he’d been publicly criticising the new regime and its campaign of “domestic terrorism” on its own citizens) no-one showed up to help. The German man arrested at the same time was “sprung” almost immediately. The German consul was there within 20 minutes making a noise and extracting his man. The Brits didn’t show up at all.
We later learned that the ambassador had actually left the country by the time my brother’s friend was picked up by the police! And the second in command was on leave. It is also worth noting that they had had no staff in the embassy to keep it open since before the coup, and nothing changed directly afterwards either.
British embassies are not what they were. He’s still in Myanmar, my brother. Getting ready to leave the house he built, and not knowing if he’ll be able to go back to it one day, in the country he loves – a country which is on the brink of civil war, economic collapse and humanitarian disaster. A country whose citizens are being murdered, abducted, raped and tortured daily by a regime determined to keep control over a nation they have beggared in order to enrich themselves; whose banks are about to crash reducing the country to economic rubble.
There is some contact now, as well as some always-worrying periods of radio silence. But it’s not nearly as deafening as the radio silence from the media, international community and, above all, from our government. Britain and Myanmar go way back after all. We’re mates. Why aren’t we rattling our sabres and showing our Great British might?
Perhaps because our country is not what it was.