Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): In much of my speech this morning, I shall refer to the work of Amnesty International. It is perhaps proper that I first place it on record that I am a member of Amnesty International, and that in the next few days I shall forward to the Register of Members' Interests the fact that I benefited last week from financial assistance from Amnesty in respect of a visit that I made to a prisoner on death row in Ohio.
The matter before us today is rather different. My interest in the subject was first engaged by my local Amnesty group in Orkney, which has been vigorous for many years in its efforts to support the democracy movement in Burma and to raise the profile of the issues in this country. It is proper that we remind ourselves why there is so much concern in Britain and around the world about the situation in Burma, or if one prefers, Myanmar.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the election with 82 per cent. of the vote. Even Liberals in Orkney and Shetland have never achieved that sort of result. The military leadership of the country, however, which has been in power since 1962, refused to recognise the democratic wishes of the people of Burma. That injustice continues to this day.
The brave struggle by the Burmese people for basic human rights and democracy, led by Suu Kyi, who, of course, is a Nobel peace prize winner, remains frustrated. Suu Kyi has been confined to her home on Inya lake in Rangoon for more than half the 13 years since her landslide election victory. She was last released in spring 2002 and began to rebuild her party and support base. Then, on 30 May 2003, a group of thugs backed by the military junta clashed with supporters of Suu Kyi. She and 35 members of the National League for Democracy were taken into custody.
During recent weeks, there have been mixed reports in the media regarding the current situation in Burma. The Burma Campaign believes that the regime's strategy is to delay further international pressure while it finds
Tin Oo, the vice-chairman of the National League for Democracy, was moved from custody to house arrest only 10 days ago. However, the NLD still does not have access to this 77-year-old man. Aung San Suu Kyi was offered release last autumn, but she told the UN human rights envoy that she would not accept her own liberty until all those arrested on 30 May had been released. Her telephone is cut off and visitors must get Government permission to see her. Last month, there were reports in the International Herald Tribune that the death penalty is still being used to silence critics of the Government. In November, the editor of a magazine was condemned to death by the regime, shortly after the publication of an article alleging the misuse of funds donated to the country.
Despite this, the perception in the region is that the situation in Burma is improving. Media reports on 20 February, for instance, said that the Thai Prime Minister had told his Vietnamese counterpart that he expected Suu Kyi to be released before October's Asia-Europe meeting.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important subject. I apologise for the fact that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate because I have another commitment.
In mentioning the Thai Government position, is the hon. Gentleman aware that if neighbouring countries were to do more to bring pressure on the Burmese authorities, particularly with regard to trade, land ownership and development, extractive industries and so on, the Burmese authorities might do more to improve their human rights record? Should not the Thai Government allow more aid to go across their country's border into Burma at this time?
Mr. Carmichael : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In broad terms, I agree with his comments. Later, I shall discuss the various different levels on which those of us in different parts of the world can hope to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese Government, and the importance of action within the region will be central to that process.
Minor steps in the right direction and vague promises of democratic reform must be set against the reality of the current situation in Myanmar. The Burma Campaign has summed up the present position as one in which there is
We in Britain must not have the wool pulled over our eyes. That will be critical in the run-up to the EU's review of Burmese policy in April and the Asia-Europe meeting in October. We should take the approach that
Despite all this, the latest process initiated by the regime has already started to benefit the generals. The international community has stepped back from any concrete action against the regime even though Aung San Suu Kyi and the leadership of her party remain in detention. One of the first elements of the so-called "road map to democracy" produced by the regime is to reconvene a national convention that was first tried in 1993. The NLD boycotted the convention because of the authoritarian restrictions imposed on delegates, which included not being allowed to deviate from approved discussion papers; being allowed to express support only for constitutional principles proposed by the military; not being allowed to distribute any papers on the convention premises; and being subjected to intimidation by the military while the convention is out of session. One delegate was given a 20-year sentence for distributing a paper to other delegates.
The Minister was right to take that position then, and the time for rhetorical pressure has surely now long passed. Since the July debate, the two largest UK investors in BurmaPremier Oil and British American Tobaccohave agreed to withdraw from the country. That is welcome, but the UK Government have still not introduced legislation giving them power to ban new investment in Burma. Will the Minister now give an undertaking to do so?
In response to parliamentary questions tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), the Department of Trade and Industry revealed in December 2003 that in 1998 the total value of UK imports of goods from Burma was just £17.3 million. By 2002, however, it had increased almost fourfold, to £64.3 million. Between January and September 2003, a further £44.3 million-worth of goods were imported from Burma. According to the Burma Campaign, the UK currently imports more goods from Burma than does any other European state.
He went on to call for targeted sanctions and an EU investment ban. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in securing such measures and, indeed, whether they are the objectives of Government policy?
I can understand that some hon. Members may be reluctant to impose further sanctions on Burma. The Burmese people have suffered greatly under the current regime. I do not think, however, that targeted sanctions would hurt the poorest Burmese people, who tend to work in the informal economy, which is generally not dependent on foreign investment.
Our approach to economic sanctions is to target the regime and those with economic interests in it, rather than to target the Burmese people with general sanctions. What does the hon. Gentleman think of that policy perspective?
Mr. Carmichael : That clarification is very helpful, but if the Minister reads what I said he will see that I spoke of targeted sanctions. If it is possible to minimise the effect on the ordinary Burmese person, who will certainly not benefit from foreign investment in the same way as those with power and influence, that will be extremely welcome and I will commend the Government on their approach.
According to the Burma Campaign, United States sanctions have hit some elements of the regime's support base in the export and banking sector, but those measures are now being undermined by the European Union. Burma is looking to the EU to replace lost US export markets, especially in textiles. The fact that the EU may be giving the regime assistance is reprehensible. Can the Minister confirm that when European Foreign Ministers meet in April to decide their position on Burma, our Government will press for tougher sanctions?
The impact of US sanctions has also been undermined by the actions of Swift bank, as was exposed in The Observer last month. Following the imposition of tough financial sanctions by the US in August, the regime has successfully converted its financial dealings into euros. The technology business Swift, via one of its regional
It pains me to say that the mood music that will accompany April's talks does not sound promising. Earlier this month the Irish Government, who will hold the EU presidency when the talks take place, decided to recognise the military regime in Rangoona decision that will no doubt have angered one of Ireland's best-known sons, Bono of U2 fame. Writing in the Herald Tribune in January, he and US senator Mitch McConnell said:
What is critical is that a time frame should be established by the EU. At present, the Burmese regime is busily trying to find new markets to replace those lost in the US. The EU and the Association of South East Asian NationsASEANare making no time demands on the regime, and thus its use of smoke and mirrors continues to be an effective way of maintaining power. That cannot be allowed to persist.
Last December, the EU adopted a resolution prohibiting the sale and export to Burma of equipment that might be used for internal repression or terrorism, and freezing the funds of certain people related to Government functions in the country. While that is welcome, there is a fear that at present Europe's position is simply not strong enough.
One important issue brought to my attention by Amnesty International involves visits to the EU by members of the SPDC. When Burma joined ASEAN a few years ago, its membership disrupted relations between the EU and ASEANthe two organisations being known as ASEM, or the Asia-Europe Meeting, when they meet. ASEM could not meet in Europe because of the EU ban on visas for members of the SPDC, and it could not meet in ASEAN countries because EU members refused to sit at the same table as
At UN level, the Burma Campaign wants the imposition of targeted sanctions, including a mandatory arms embargo, an investment ban and a ban on Burmese exports of strategically important goods including oil, gas, gems and timber. The UN Secretary-General should take the lead in formulating a comprehensive road map with a specific time frame backed by a UN Security Council resolution and sanctions. Such tough measures are supported by the people on the ground, members of the National League for Democracy. At present, they have popular support but no power. Giving them power to control the level of international sanctions would give them a significant bargaining chip.
As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) suggested, regional pressure on the regime is vital. Last year ASEAN members took the unprecedented step of criticising the detention of Suu Kyi, but they remain silent on human rights issues more generally. I think that we in this country are right to look to neighbouring countries in the region to take a much more robust and proactive approach to human rights abuses in that region. Pressure applied closer to home will always be more effective than that which comes from countries whose politics and culture are different from ours in the western developed world.
In September, Indonesia sent its former foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, on an attempt to bring about the release of Suu Kyi. That attempt was of course unsuccessful, but our Government must use their influence to pressurise ASEAN countries into being more robust in their dealings with Burma.
Finally, I want to impress on the Minister the necessity of recognising the contradiction between the fine words emanating from Rangoon and what is happening in practice. Amnesty International and the Burma Campaign UK both believe that, in many ways, the situation in Burma is deteriorating. I hope that if we return to this issue in another nine months' time, we might have a rather happier picture to outline, and that today's debate will have played a small part in the process of bringing about that happy situation.
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. Some progress has been made since I secured the previous debate on this issue, which took place in Westminster Hall on 2 July. However, in recent times, the attempt to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and to make the Burmese junta change course has been becalmed, so it is right that we should now reflect on what more we can do to make further progress.
I want to pay tribute to Amnesty International in Dundee, which got me involved in setting up the all-party group on Burma, along with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). In conjunction with our friends in the Burma Campaign UK, we have made progress in campaigning for changes
We should consider the economic progress being made in the countries surrounding BurmaI shall call that country by its old namesuch as India. This week, we met the assistant high commissioner for Bangladesh, who told us about the economic progress that his country is making. Burma has natural resources that any developing country would give its eye-teeth for, and the poverty and trouble it is experiencing are a sad reflection on the state of that country.
We set up the all-party group not only to campaign for human rights but to bring about democratic change and to restore democratic government to Burma after some 15 years of junta control. Progress was made in last year's debate, and the Minister who was present thenhe is also present todaypainted a very active picture of what the Government were doing to bring about change; indeed, I paid tribute to them in that regard.
We should draw attention to the part that the Minister has played since then in persuading British American Tobacco, with which he had several meetings, to disinvest in Burma. Our all-party group also had many meetings with BAT, partly as a result of Government pressure, but what also became clear in our discussions with its Asian management was the extent of the economic chaos in Burma. BAT was not even sure that it could pay its workers, whether weekly or monthly, because the banking system had collapsed. That factor played a big role in forcing BAT out of Burma: at the end of the day, it was unable to operate properly. We had a long discussion with it about its operation, and I am glad that, thanks to the pressure applied by the Government and the Burma Campaign UKand in the light of the economic chaos in BurmaBAT has disinvested in that country.
There is still a big job to be done, and we should not hide from what we need to do. It has rightly been pointed out that we need to consider a two-tier strategy. Our colleagues in the European Union still trade with Burma, and they are running scared from taking a more progressive and harder line on sanctions. There has been some £4 billion of investment in EU trade there in the past 14 years. The chair of the all-party group and I, along with MEP colleagues of all political persuasions, hope to visit those EU countries to put the case for stronger action against Burma. I hope to hear from the Minister that the Government will be making that case to colleagues on the European Council to ensure that there is a unified European voice.
We need also to consider the fact that trade continues with Asian countries. It has been rumoured that, in the wake of BAT's disinvestment, China has stepped into the breach and is investing considerable sums. We must discuss that issue with the Chinese Government when we get the chance, given their commitment to becoming a much more active player in the world economy. There are therefore many different countries and forums that we need to tackle to ensure that the pressure we hope to continue to apply is really felt.
The all-party group is actively seeking another meeting with the Burmese ambassador, whom we have met on several occasions. Following the 2 July debate, we met him at the embassy, on 15 July, and pointed out that it was now time for the Burmese Government, if they are honestly intending to move towards democracy, to issue their road map. Unfortunately, that road map has constituted something of a run-aroundas much of the documentation has described itin that it has been used as a ploy to stave off international pressure. At the last meeting of the all-party group, we agreed to speak again with the Burmese ambassador.
Bob Spink : The hon. Gentleman is a recognised expert in this field and he has done much good work to draw international attention to these problems. Does he agree that one way to galvanise world opinion is to draw attention to the junta's links with the production of drugs and their trafficking across the Burmese border, which, of course, affects the entire world?
Mr. Luke : The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. As I said during last July's debate, the drugs trade is an essential part of the black economy in Burma, and to an extent it keeps the military junta afloat. If we can do more to highlight that issue and to embarrass the junta, we can bring about change.
We must continue to put pressure on the Burmese Government, and we will meet the Burmese ambassadorsoon, I hopeto make that case. We shall point out that last July he promised that his Government would change their ways. However, no significant change has occurred, and in many cases there has been a re-entrenchment of the junta's existing attitude towards change. The Burmese Government have promised to introduce a civilian face to government by 2006, but I am very sceptical about whether they will live up to it. If they are going to make such promises, we must ensure that we continue to apply pressure.
There is a lot to do, and we must continue to work with as many groups as possible, such as Amnesty International, throughout civil society in the UK. Many trade unions are involvedUnison, for example, attends our all-party group's meetings in the Houseand we need also to work with Church groups and the Burma Campaign UK to keep this issue to the fore. We did a great deal of work last year: for example, the early-day motions that we tabled on the issue were the most heavily subscribed of last year's quota, and we will continue to consider that option in the next few months.
The Government must continue to make a strong case for the Burmese Government's accepting the inevitable fact that, if they are to progress and to provide economic security for their citizens, they must embrace democratic change and bring about Burma's full membership of the economic community. That way, Burma can capitalise on its immense wealth as a producer.
I look forward to the Minister's reply. He has been very supportive in the past and I have no reason to doubt that he will be so in future, and that he will continue to make the case. The campaign goes on.
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): This is an important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing it and on setting out the position in Burma in such a comprehensive manner. His remarks were complemented by those of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke).
The position in Burma seems to go through a repeating cycle in which the regime's abuses get worse, international pressure increases to match them, concessions are suggested and then, over a period of timefrustratingly for us and worryingly for people in Burmalittle is delivered. Thus we return to the beginning of the cycle once again.
A couple of years ago, there was considerable optimism when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in May 2002. That came with the easing of restrictions on the National League for Democracy and the release of many political prisoners. Within 12 months of those happy events, however, the situation was almost completely reversed, particularly in the events of 30 May last year. As the Foreign Office's human rights report of 2003 put it:
Events are set against the background of an economy in ruins. As the hon. Member for Dundee, East pointed out, the country has rich natural resources yet most of its citizens live in stark poverty. In response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), he also drew attention to concerns about opium production and its clear links with the military regime. As we reflect on the dire state of the country, we should not lose sight of its dire HIV/AIDS problems.
Abuses are widespread and continue to horrify everyone of a decent disposition. The State Peace and Development Council, as the military Government of Burma style themselves, could teach us a few things about irony, but I doubt whether they could do much on human rights. The EU and the UN echo the British Government's strong criticisms. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Burma Campaign UK, among many others, have catalogued the level of abuses.
Those abuses start at basic levels with the lack of any freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of association: all the basic tenets of a civilised society are ignored. Even at the convention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland explained, where some discussion was supposed to take place, people were arrested for daring to bring other discussion papers to the process. People are detained on an arbitrary basis, and the most recent estimate of the Burma Campaign
There is a strategy of abuse in the economy with widespread use of forced labour; in the army with the use of child soldiers; and across the country with the most disgusting and systematic use of rape as a means of repression. Burma's generals oversee a loathsome evil state, but in all that, they have happily not broken the spirit of Aung San Suu Kyi or the thousands of others in her movement and across the country. Their shining example gives the international community a special responsibility to act on their behalf.
Significant progress has been made since the issue was debated here last July. The Minister deserves considerable credit for the decision of British American Tobacco to withdraw, coming on the heels of Premier Oil's decision earlier last year to divest itself of its interests in Burma. More recently, PricewaterhouseCoopers, with which I was associated in my Edinburgh days, and others have agreed to cease their involvement with the country. I also pay tribute to the so-called "dirty list" which, thanks to the campaigning zeal of the Burma Campaign UK, has become part of this country's debate on Burma. It has proved highly effective in drawing attention to the companies that continue to invest in, and trade with, Burma.
Trading is a delicate issue and we recognise the need, as the Minister highlighted, to ensure that sanctions on economic activities are targeted on the regime rather than on the generality of the Burmese population. It is clear from the National League for Democracy and others that that sort of campaigning is important, and they fully support it.
The issue of Burma has been raised in many international bodies and forums of the world. It is regularly aired in the UN, having been the subject of debates and reports by the General Assembly and by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. One element missed from that list is the UN Security Council. When the Minister replies, will he touch on whether the Security Council could make more effort to bring further pressure to bear on the regime?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, the countries that make up the Association of South East Asian Nations have a special responsibility because they have the closest links with the Burmese authorities. Those countries have a duty to reflect on their economic and political ties. Suggestions have been madeI put it no more strongly than thatthat part of the current make-up of the Burmese regime may lead to its having a civilian as the head of Government just in time to be able to take over the presidency of ASEAN in due course. I believe that the world will see through such a charade, but it is incumbent on ASEAN and others to ensure that it does not come to pass.
Closer to home, the EU, which has been criticised by some campaigners, has a list of targeted sanctions, but people are concerned that since the US took tougher direct action against the Burmese authorities, the EU will soak up the trade and investment lost to America. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that he and his colleagues in European capitals are aware of that
I repeat my earlier tribute to the Minister for his work on BAT and other companies. Regular and strong denunciations of the regime are made, including by the Prime Minister. As a full participant in the EU and the UN, the UK has an important role to play. I acknowledge the difficulties that the Government would face if they were to act in isolation, but I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the Government's plans to ensure that the pressure continues to be felt by the Burmese regime.
There is consensus among the political parties represented in this Chamber about the situation in Burma, and by and large about the response that is required. We must recognise the progress that has been made, but we must not lose sight of the fact that further efforts are needed before we get rid of this evil regime.
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): I add my warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. His introduction was comprehensive and powerful.
We can all agree that Burma has a brutal and oppressive military dictatorship that destroys the human rights of a people whose traditions are of peace and decency. I saw those traditions, and the landscape's mesmerising beauty, when I visited the country more than 20 years ago.
I applaud the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) for the consistent way in which he has raised the issue of Burma in the House. Burma is a country of considerable natural resources and wealth, and it is quite shameful that the benefits of that have not permeated down to the people.
The concept of human rights as a legitimate consideration in the formulation of foreign policy is becoming increasingly entrenched around the world, and that is understandable and right. It is no coincidence that countries ruled by some of the least democratic and representative regimescountries such as Burmaalso have some of the worst human rights records.
Burma's human rights record is marked by consistent abuses and broken promises of reform. The ongoing conflict between the regime and various ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, until recent ceasefire talks, contributed substantially to an increase in the overall pattern of human rights abuses. Burma's regime has systematically detained large numbers of political prisoners, often elderly people, in appalling conditions. It has subjected them to torture and used rape and
By any yardstick, that is an absolutely horrendous catalogue of unacceptable violence and abuse against our fellow human beings. It is coupled with the absence of any real form of democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has been deprived of its rightful place as the Government of Burma. As we have heard already, with more than 80 per cent. of the vote in the 1990 elections, the NLD enjoys an unimpeachable mandateone of which politicians in any democratic country can only dream.
The Burmese regime persists in making promises about moving forward to the so-called constitutional convention now that the ceasefires have occurred. The convention has been promised by the country's Prime Minister. In theory, all parties and groups will have a say, and the intention is to draw up a new constitution as part of the seven-point road map to democracy.
Talk however, is easy, and promises from the Burmese regime in the past have been of little value, serving merely to distract attention. There were some improvements in 2003, only for everything to be reversed with the ambush of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters' convoy at the end of May. She has languished in detention, either in prison or at home, ever since. The "protective custody" explanation offered by the Burmese regime was a sick joke. I find it difficult to see how long-term progress can be made as long as Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters remain in detention and excluded from participation in a proper dialogue with Government and the convention.
Not only are democracy and basic human rights absent from Burma, but the country's people live in abject poverty due to chronic economic mismanagement. Total spending on health and education amounts to just 0.5 per cent. of gross domestic producta fraction of what is spent on the military forces of a country with no obvious external enemies. All that fosters a climate in which corruption and abuses of economic, civil and social rights are all too common.
The picture in Burma is indeed gloomy, but there have been some welcome developments. I freely pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done in that regard. We welcome BAT's decision last year, and Premier Oil's decision before that, to pull out of the country, thereby sending a very clear message to the regime. I pay tribute to the untiring efforts of the Burma Campaign UK, which does so much to keep the profile of this issue high and to persuade companies of the error of supporting such a brutal regime, however indirectly, by investing in the country.
The recent ceasefires that have been agreed and the ones that have been discussed by the Burmese military regime and the country's myriad rebel groups, most recently the Karen National Union and the Karenni National Progressive Party, are welcome. In addition, the transfer of Tin Oo, the NLD's vice-chairman, from prison to house arrest offers some basis for mild encouragement. Nevertheless, I see no valid reason why he should have been detained illegally in prison in the first place, and I deplore the fact that his "release" is
Too often, the lack of democracy in Burma and the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi is seen in isolation from the overall human rights situation and the suffering of particular ethnic groups. All these issues must be addressed in parallel, as they are facets of the same problemthe unwillingness of the Burmese regime to respect its people and its people's will. It is not good enough for other countries simply to wring their hands and to mutter platitudes about a vile regime, but to do precious little. The US has adopted a very tough line, and in June 2003 the EU's "common position" was apparently strengthened. It now includes "targeted sanctions", travel bans and asset freezes on regime figures and supporters. Also banned are defence links or arms sales, high-level visits, and non-humanitarian assistance from countries.
I am concerned that we have seen no evidence of positive results from the asset freezes and travel bans. The only official figure that we have, passed on to me by the Burma Campaign UK, is the freezing of Euro86 in Germany. Will the Minister take this opportunity to say whether that is accurate? What value of assets has been frozen EU-wide, and also specifically in the UK?
It appears that the Bank of England's list of assets to be frozen consists only of the assets of individuals, not of companieseven if, as in the case of companies such as the Myanmar Economic Corporation and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, those companies are effectively adjuncts of the regime. Business activities by companies close to the regime, or even owned by it, fund its activities. The common position calls for the assets of entities to be frozen, yet the apparent failure to do that has given the military regime an opportunity to shift assets out of harm's way.
What steps are the Government taking to bring regional pressure, such as we have alluded to this morning, to bear on Burma from the surrounding countries, Bangladesh, India and China? India and China are regional powers of enormous and growing significance and of wealth and influence, and I am sure that they are concerned about what goes on in Burma. What conversations have our Government had with those countries about the situation in Burma?
To refer to a point that I made in our debate last year, what efforts are being made by the United Kingdom to secure a UN Security Council resolution to extend the common position to a larger number of countries and unequivocally to condemn the regime? What contacts have Her Majesty's Government had with officials and member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations to press them to take a tough regional stance?
Mr. Spring : My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and he correctly alludes to the abuses, although of course other countries commit human rights abuses but remain members of the UN. However, the UN is a forum for bringing such matters to international attention and the Security Council is the right place to do that. There is some evidence that, where that has happened in the past, the UN has had some influence. We need to approach the situation in a multi-faceted way.
Mr. Mike O'Brien : On the point raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about membership of the UN, when the UN condemns a country that is a member of that organisation it sends a much more powerful message than if the country is not a member. The embarrassment factor is much greater because Burma is a member of the UN. There is more that the UN could do, but we have to remember that some members of the Security Council might not take entirely the same view as us.
Mr. Spring : I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. The British Government have, of course, had some experience over the past year of some members of the Security Council not taking an identical view, but I am sure that we can find a route through this problem.
Will the Minister enlarge on the steps that the Government are taking to promote a fully watertight and legal ban on British companies investing in Burma? The debate gives us an opportunity to send a further unequivocal message to the Burmese regime that its behaviour is unacceptable, that it must change and that it must democratise Burma.
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore): there is no divide in the House on the issue and, again, I pay tribute to the Minister for his efforts in this regard. I hope that, in his remarks, he will be able to inform us further about the progress that has been made in dealing with this tragic problem, which is of such concern to all of us who cherish human rights and who are concerned about their abuse anywhere in the world.
The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : I repeat my congratulations to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on initiating this debate. I also congratulate him on the constructive way in which he put his case. If I am unable to deal with all the points he raised, I shall be happy to meet him later to discuss some of the issues in detail. He raised a series of important questions, so it would be worth while going through the issues in a different context.
We have gone through cycles with the regime. There was a period of engagement and liberalisation, with an election, but the regime did not like the result, so reaction set in. Periodically, the regime's grip on the country is relaxed but then there is further reaction. My diagnosis is that the regime has enormous control over the country. Many of the generals engage in economic and business activity: they accept backhanders, are involved in various forms of corruption, and are reluctant to give up the largesse that they receive from those activities. However, they want to maintain their grip not simply for financial reasons; there is also fear in the regime. The generals are afraid that their position and that of their families will be endangered if they liberalise and allow the Burmese people to control their own country.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear throughout that her aim is not overthrow and revolution but reconciliation. Her aim is that the military should be under democratic control, but she does not seek retribution. She shows a willingness to come to terms with the past which we recognise in other great leaders such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who have said that, in the long term, the key thing for a country is not to seek retribution but to be reconciled with its past. I have nothing but the highest regard for Aung San Suu Kyi in her articulation of those views.
I join with colleagues who express high regard for the Burma Campaign UK, which has maintained a high political profile for this issue for a long time, through all the cycles of liberalisation and reaction. It must have been deeply frustrating for members of the campaign when it looked as though things were going right and progress was being made, but then the regime suddenly clamped down and re-imposed its dictatorship. I hope that they will continue their campaign; they have broad support from all parties in the House. There is consensus that change must come in Burma, and as long as the dictators continue to run the country we shall continue to press for change.
The British Government have been at the forefront of international efforts to press for improvements in human rights in Burma. We co-sponsored a highly critical resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in December and we are working with our European Union partners on an equally firm resolution at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in April.
One difficulty in respect of the United Nations is that some members of the Security Council have close relationships with the regime in Burma. China, in particular, maintains a close dialogue with it. However, I have no doubt that China is seeking to bring about changes in Burma. On several occasions, in Beijing and elsewhere, I have engaged with Chinese leaders who certainly recognise that a series of regimes in the whole south-east Asian region, including China itself, want to bring about economic reform and/or democratic change.
All those countries are seeking to change the historic image to encourage investment into their region and produce economic benefits for their countries. I am thinking of Malaysia and Indonesiaone can go through the listbut one country is letting down the whole region, damaging international investors' perceptions and raising questions about whether it is safe to invest there and create the jobs that the people of that region want. That country is Burma.
The regime in Burmathe dictatorshipis so incompetently handling the economy and so appallingly damaging the whole international perspective that it is damaging the whole region. Chinese and other leaders recognise that that country's dictatorship is damaging not only to the interests of the people of Burma, which it so clearly is, but to all the wider neighbours in the region, because of the way it stands out as one of the most reactionary dictatorships in the world, thus damaging the whole region's economic prospects.
The UN's approach partly involves supporting the nomination and mandate of Professor Pinheiro, the special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights. He visited Burma in November and pressed for the immediate release of 1,350 political prisoners. We strongly support him and the work that he is doing.
I also join in welcoming the release, such as it iswe must be grateful for small merciesof U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the National League for Democracy, from prison to house arrest on 14 February, as well as the earlier release of 26 NLD members. Those are small steps, but I call on the regime to release fully all the political prisoners. I welcome the fact that it has released some of the political prisoners, but I want it to release more. I welcome the fact that U Tin Oo is no longer lying on the floor of a prison cell and is in his home, but I want more to be done and for him to be fully released, as I wish Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be fully released.
We have repeatedly condemned the violent regime-sponsored attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy on 30 May 2003. Since then, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been in detention or under house arrest. I had been in regular telephone contact with her until her arrest, but the regime has repeatedly rejected my attempts to speak to her on the telephone again. She is not even allowed to telephone her family. The regime has failed to respond to our ambassador's repeated requests to arrange to call on her. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly made it clear that she wants the process of change to be brought forward by dialogue and discussion. We hope that the regime will find a way to enter into serious dialogue with her, as that will lead to long-term and serious change.
Amnesty International was able to visit Burma in December. It noted a grave deterioration in the human rights situation. Again, let me welcome the fact that the regime allowed Amnesty to visit Burma. That is a change, and we must be grateful for those small mercies; they are small but important steps. Amnesty pressed the State Peace and Development Council to allow an independent investigation into the events of 30 May. I am glad that the UN resolution called on the SPDC to hold an independent inquiry. We await the SPDC's response. We will not hold our breath, but we hope that there will be some kind of investigation.
The regime's explanation for the events of 30 May defies belief. Its claim that there was some sort of communist conspiracy to overthrow the military dictatorship really does beggar belief. The communist party, as we know it, appears to be in China, and I am perfectly sure that the Chinese authorities would not allow those Burmese communists who are resident in China to carry out any sort of destabilisation in Burma itself. The prospect that there was some of sort of communist conspiracy is not a sensible or in any way coherent explanation for the behaviour on 30 May. Indeed, the regime seems not to have much of a sensible explanation for what it did at all. After it happened, there were various expressions of regret, and it almost seems as though the regime was so dysfunctional that one hand did not know what the other was doing. It ended up detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, without being quite sure why it was doing so. It simply continued with that process, and it is still in a bit of a mess. It is a very dysfunctional regime.
I should like to draw attention to the nine death sentences passed in November. Details of the charges are not known, but the accused, who were not allowed access to lawyers, were sentenced for conspiring with exiled dissident groups to disrupt peace and stability in the country. No doubt that was related to the events of 30 May. One of the nine was editor of a popular sports magazinethe first time that a journalist in Burma has received a death sentence. We condemn those death sentences and seek explanations from the Burmese Government for them.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the death penalty. The presidency pressed the EU's grave concern about the sentences in a démarche to the Burmese authorities in early December, and we will continue to press them.
The first step is to reconvene the national convention to draft a new constitution. At a meeting in Bangkok in December, the Burmese Foreign Minister announced that a national convention would be held this year. The Thai Foreign Minister, Dr. Surakiart, briefed my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself on 18 December. We very strongly welcome we wish to do so publiclythe Thai Government's engagement and their effort in trying to bring about change.
Mr. Luke : I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Thai Government's positive engagement, but does he share my concern about comments made in The Nationa newspaper in Thailandabout a change in attitude by the Thai President and the Thai Government towards Burmese refugees who are now living in Thailand? There seems to be a hardening of policy. Indeed, some of the people who crossed the border to escape oppression have been returned to Burma. Has that been discussed with the Thai Government? Can we do any more to ensure that that hardening of policy is obviously softened?
We very much hope that the Thai Government will respond positively to the needs of those who are fleeing from the dictatorship in Burma. The Thai Government recognise that they must engage with the Burmese regime and seek to bring about changes to relieve the human rights problems in Burma. I welcome the steps that the Thai Government have taken to try to encourage the regime to bring about a process of reform.
Given the history of reform efforts in Burma, it is difficult to believe that the regime is genuine in its wish to change things, but each time an effort is made to bring about change, we need to encourage it, despite our scepticism. If I am right and we are dealing partly with a fearful, as well as a mendacious, regime, we need to encourage it to recognise that reconciliation is in the interests of all the Burmese people and, indeed, ultimately in the interests of the military.
As for the new road map, we welcome the fact that at least an effort is being made in terms of an announced plan. Despite our scepticism, we wait to see whether that can be delivered. If so, we shall give a positive welcome to a national convention and to an attempt to devise a new constitution.
Mr. Carmichael : I was perhaps remiss in not acknowledging the role that the Minister has played in this matter. Sometimes, when dealing with a situation in which there are so many negatives, one forgets to acknowledge the positives, and his role is a real positive. I say that more by way of explanation than excuse.
Does the Minister agree that a great deal of the scepticism could be allayed, and that reassurances would be much more warmly received, if a concrete timetable were to be attached to the regime's proposals, given the suspicion that we are facing a further delaying tactic that will ultimately allow it to continue to consolidate its position?
Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman is right. There are obvious deficiencies in the road map put forward by the regime, including its lack of a clear timetable. Indeed, there are even doubts about whether the national convention will be held this yearI very much hope that it willand about the sort of convention that it will be, who will be able to attend, and the possible role of the NLD. All those aspects are unclear and require clarification from the regime, but we must welcome the fact that at least we have a road map and the beginning of a process.
One key issue is who will draft the new constitution. We believe that the representatives chosen by the Burmese people in 1990 are those best qualified. The welcome ceasefires in the border areas have brought peace to places where polling could not take place in 1990, adding a new dimension to the constitutional drafting process. There is no doubt, however, that elected representatives from 1990 are essential to the
Several of the draft 104 principles that the SPDC says it wants a national convention to rubber-stamp seek to enshrine a constitutional military dictatorship. Nobodyleast of all Daw Aung San Suu Kyiwould deny that the military has an important role in Burma's future, but its primary role should be to ensure the security and defence of Burma, not to run the economy or to enact and vote on legislation.
Mr. O'Brien : There is a Government in exile. Our primary links are with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, who are based in Burma, but we are aware of the other claims that exist. Let me put it on that basis for now, and perhaps I will discuss it with my hon. Friend at a later stage.
What is needed now is dialogue and compromise. That is why we continue to press for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all her NLD colleagues, the release of all political prisoners, and freedom of speech and political activity. We want a genuine and meaningful dialogue between the SPDC, the NLD and other political parties and ethnic minority groups that will lead to national reconciliation. We want ultimately to see a Government who have the support of the majority of the Burmese people and promote and protect their human rights.
As the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) said, the EU common position expires in April. We are discussing its renewal with our EU partners. We believe that in light of the regime's road map, it would be wrong to send a signal that strengthened sanctions at a time when it is saying that it will undertake change. It would also be wrong to send a signal of a lack of resolve. We therefore support the rollover of existing measures of the common position in April and believe that that will maintain pressure on the regime. At the same time, we are saying that if it pursues
On sanctions, I welcome the steps taken by BAT and, before that, Premier Oil, to disinvest. We must be clear that the EU common position is directed at the regime and its links with various parts of the economy. One sector that I am considering is tourism. Several UK travel agencies still promote tourism to Burma. We are encouraging them to cease to do so, because many hotels and other tourism-related activities in Burma are linked to the military regime. Because there are kickbacks and investments by generals in hotels and other parts of the tourism industry, people who go on tourist trips to Burma are in a sense actively supporting the regime and enabling those generals to receive financial advantage from it. I very much hope that anyone considering such a trip will decide against it.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) asked about asset freezes. As far as we are aware, the Burmese have very few holdings in the UK, so we have not frozen any. They do not invest here partly because we would impose a freeze on any assets as soon as they arrived. The Bank of England actively monitors the freeze list, and we do not believe that there are significant investments here. However, if the Burma Campaign or others wished us to examine any assets, we would be happy to pass that information to the Bank of England to ensure that that happens.
I was asked about conversations with other countries in the region. We have had discussions through ASEMthe Asia-Europe Meetingand bilaterally with several countries, including Thailand and China, which are important in this context. I have also talked to the Malaysians, the Indonesians and others, including the Indians, about their relationships with Burma. The perception of most of those countries is that the regime's activities are damaging the whole region.
We fully support the tireless efforts of the UN special envoy to Burma, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, and urge the regime to allow him to return to Burma soon. We believe that his work is enormously important, and we very much support it. We hope that he can play a crucial role in the reconciliation process.
Andrew Selous : Given the fact that Britain is a member of the UN Security Council and that the Government believe in the justice of the cause, will the Minister explain what would be lost if the United Kingdom tabled a Security Council resolution requiring the UN to take stronger action on Burma?
Mr. O'Brien : Gestures may look good, but it does not look good when they fail, because the other side then claim it as a victory. The regime would no doubt say that the UN had refused to pass a resolution condemning Burma, and would regard that as a victory. As for the way we play this, we need to maximise the pressure on the regime, rather than seek to make gestures that could prove to be counter-productive. We supported and promoted a strong resolution only a few months ago, which was subsequently passed. We were able to discuss it with other members of the Security Council and received their support or acquiescence. Some countries
Andrew Selous : The Minister has been extremely generous in taking interventions, and I shall try to be brief. I accept that it would be unfortunate if the UN resolution were not passed, but I disagree with his argument. The pressure would then be on the countries that defeated the resolution, and the international community would ask questions of countries that were not prepared to put pressure on the UN through their Security Council membership. The Minister did not deal with that point.
Mr. O'Brien : As for the British Government's dealings with the UN and other countries in the region, we have engaged very actively indeed for more than a year with a number of countries to see whether we can maximise the pressure on the regime to get it to move. Our aim is to get results, not to make gestures for the sake of it. If, by encouragement, cajoling and pressure, we can get the regime to move in a particular direction, liberalise, provide more opportunities for dialogue, and respect human rights more, we shall obviously seek to do so. The timing can be difficult to judgeeach step must be made at the right time and calculated to encourage a process, rather than discourage it. If I may be critical of the UK, I should say that in the early part of last year we could have been more encouraging of the process of reform undertaken before 30 May. We could have said that we welcomed that reform and been more positive. However, I have no idea whether that would have made a difference to events on 30 May.
We need to measure our responses carefully and see whether we can get the road map to deliver something positive for the Burmese people, get Aung San Suu Kyi released, and get a process of dialogue and reconciliation started. That is the objective of our policy, which is why we are working with UN Security Council members and other bodies.
Mr. Carmichael : I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way. I agree broadly with his analysis of the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). However, in relation to the overall scheme of pressure, is there a role for a ban by this country on new investment in Burma? That would be a more substantial gesture that would not be subject to the vagaries of international opinion in the Security Council.
Mr. O'Brien : There is no particular need for a legal ban on investment in Burma because there is little or no investment there at the moment. That is not because there is a ban, but because any sensible company director, seeing the economic incompetence with which Burma is run, would say that it is not a country in which they want to invest. There is hardly any investment going into Burma at the moment. Businesses in one or two neighbouring countries are making a small investment, particularly in the tourism industry, but by and large there is little or no western investment. The investment by BAT and Premier Oil, as we have seen, has been withdrawn. Total is still there, but few other
The SPDC repeatedly cites its commitment to national reconciliation, which is good. However, as long as we continue to receive reports that Opposition politicians and NLD supporters are being systematically harassed by the local authorities and the Union Solidarity and Development Association, I doubt whether that is achievable. In addition to facing physical violence, NLD activists are being singled out for other forms of harassment. A record of Opposition politics makes it difficult to get a passport or a train ticket from Mandalay to Rangoon, let alone run businesses or lease buildings. In May, a distinguished medical professor was sacked just because Aung San Suu Kyi visited her house while on release to see the professor's sick mother, who was staying there at the time. Two students have just been jailed for 17 years for distributing leaflets critical of the road map.
Hon. Members may have seen the recent television coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi's upcountry tour before 30 May, which showed the orchestrated violence and harassment that the NLD facedorganised, we believe, by military intelligence, even as thousands of people bravely turned out to show their support.
The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised the issue of ethnic minority rights and the abuses suffered by the ethnic groups in Burma. As a consequence of civil war and a heavy military presence, those groups have suffered disproportionately, whether through forced labour, extra-judicial killing, rape, forced relocation or the destruction of their villages. About 140,000 refugees live in camps on the Thai-Burmese border. There are some 20,000 refugees in Bangladesh and about 630,000 internally displaced people within Burma, which is why we welcome reports of the recent verbal ceasefire agreement between the SPDC and the Karen National Union, and reports of talks with other insurgent groups. We hope that those talks will lead to a peaceful settlement in which the worst abuses become a thing of the past. The Government stand ready to consider what support we can give to a genuine peace agreement and how we can help to protect refugees and internally displaced people hoping to return home. However, the conditions are not yet in place for that to happen.
The Government are committed to enhancing the human rights of the Burmese people, the primary responsibility for safeguarding which lies with the SPDC. Major improvements could be achieved if less money were spent on the military and more on medicine and education, on which the regime spends less than $2 per person per year.
The international community, too, has a role. Within the EU, we are the largest donor of assistance to alleviate poverty and address basic human needs and health care in Burma, particularly on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. We do so mainly through local and international non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, and we monitor their programmes carefully to ensure that the regime does not benefit from
The situation in Burma is dire for the Burmese people, and damaging for neighbouring countries in the region. The rest of the world sees outrages and unacceptable attacks on human rights. The regime has, to some extent, recognised that the current situation cannot continue. A regime that lives on fear and seeks to maintain power in such a way must be pressured, encouraged and directed towards a transition to democracy and reform. As a Government, we will do all that we can to encourage that process.