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24 Oct 2006 : Column 382WH—continued

11.57 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Mr. Olner. Following your strictures, I shall of course curtail my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) has brought a moving subject for debate before the Chamber and he introduced it in a statesmanlike manner, which is a great tribute to him. I had not heard him speak at any length before, but he is a new Member of the House who will clearly go a long way, and I congratulate him on his speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made his customary speech—well crafted, statesmanlike, moving and extremely knowledgeable. I expected as much, given that he introduced such a debate in this Chamber on 15 June 2005. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) had to keep his remarks brief, but he is very knowledgeable on this subject. He has been to the area, as have I and other Members. I have been right up to the Thai-Burmese border, and have met and talked to people who crossed the border, seeing their desperate plight, so I was interested to hear of his personal experiences. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, also made his customary well-informed contribution.

On 19 June, the Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated her birthday. She has spent far more than half her past 17 birthdays in the prison of home detention for the unpardonable sin of winning a landslide victory in an election against Burma’s military junta in 1990. For five decades, the regime has sustained itself through brutalisation and human rights abuses, resulting in one of the most brutal regimes in
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the world. As my hon. Friends have said, if there ever was a case for UN action, this must surely be it.

The State Peace and Development Council—I believe that the renaming was done on the advice of an American public relations company—is clearly exactly the opposite of what it purports to be. Abuses have taken place in respect of opposition politicians, and I was particularly sad to hear of the recent death in prison of Thet Win Aung, the pro-democracy activist. I was also sad to hear of the death of Aung Hlaing Win, who was also a pro-democracy activist. The coroner’s autopsy report showed that he suffered 24 injuries, but when his family filed for a wrongful death case, the judge barred admission of the coroner’s autopsy report and instead upheld the police report on the cause of death. That is the sort of thing that happens under that vile regime.

As my hon. Friends said, the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Burma is spreading to neighbouring countries, especially along the drug-trafficking routes. Burma is one of the world’s largest producers of opium and, more recently, amphetamine-type stimulants.

I read some of the horrific reports on human rights abuses, and heard about the experience of some of the people I met in Burma. My hon. Friends mentioned many of those, but one of the most shocking is the rounding up of children to become child soldiers. We should pay specific attention to that.

My hon. Friends also mentioned horrendous abuses against ethnic minority groups. During 2005, many senior Shan leaders were arrested and last November eight were given prison sentences, some of which exceeded 100 years. In other words, they will never be let out of prison. Many of them were imprisoned merely for where they lived, not for having committed any offence.

Since last year, the regime has pursued what can justifiably be classified as ethnic cleansing against the people of northern Karen state. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office report describes the widespread destruction of villages, instances of killing, torture of civilians and the displacement of up to 16,000 villagers, with more than 2,000 refugees arriving at camps on the Thai border since January 2006.

The United States Department of State estimates that there are more than 500,000 internally displaced people in the country and more than 500,000 refugees living in India, China, and Thailand. The number of undocumented Burmese refugees living in Thailand alone is estimated to be in the millions, and growing. More than 100,000 additional refugees have crossed into Thailand since April or May because of the Burmese army’s offensive against the Karen and other minority people.

What can be done? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, I pay tribute to the Government where tribute is due. They have pushed hard in the European Union for stronger measures against the regime. However, Burma does not receive the priority it deserves, given the scale of abuse. If the Minister feels strongly about those abuses—he will tell us that he does—why have the Government not imposed unilateral investment sanctions against the
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regime? I shall come to investment in the regime, but it seems to me that propping up the regime through trade is a key area where it has benefited and one that we can do something about.

Following the 1990 election, the regime was vulnerable because the economy was in ruins. It was opened to foreign trade at that time and the resulting influx boosted revenue for the regime’s military spending, which now makes up almost half Government spending. It was only in the mid-1990s that Burma’s democracy movement started calling for economic sanctions after witnessing how trade and investment were helping the regime rather than the people and helping to entrench military rule. There is no legal barrier preventing European or Asian companies from investing in or trading with the Burmese dictatorship. The regime survives through foreign investment, and the National League for Democracy has asked the world to cut lifelines that keep that regime alive.

My hon. Friend referred to the Burma Campaign’s dirty list, which is a list on its website of companies that do business, or have subsidiaries that do business, with the Burmese regime. I looked at the list in detail yesterday, and there are some big and surprising household names on it. I do not want to name and shame them in this debate, but it is possible to contact every one of those 79 companies—I challenge the Government to do so—and explain to them what they are doing in propping up the regime. If they had a little explanation, many of those companies would stop trading with that vile regime.

Some companies are big offenders. Total Oil is probably the biggest and probably contributes about $400 million to the regime. It is possible to persuade big companies not to trade with the regime; the Government persuaded British American Tobacco to do just that. It probably trades in more countries than any other international company, yet it was persuaded not to trade with Burma because of its regime.

How can Britain help, unilaterally and with its partners in the EU? EU sanctions are slow in coming because European Governments have not yet reached agreement. EU members are committed to a common foreign policy on Burma, but if one country—for example, France—opposes such action, no progress can be made. The FCO report on human rights proudly boasts about the actions that the EU has taken to counter the Burmese regime, but those actions are in no way as strong as those taken by the American regime. Why?

President Bush signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act 2003, which restricts the financial resources of Burma’s ruling military junta and bans the importation to the US of any products that originated in Burma. More importantly, the American Government backed those actions with tough penalties. Anyone who violates the orders risks a fine of up to $50,000 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and companies risk a $500,000 fine. Why have the British Government not persuaded or tried to persuade the European Union to take such tough action?

As I said during an intervention on my hon. Friend, the new United Nations Human Rights Council must surely look at Burma as one of its first actions. There cannot be many regimes as vile in terms of human
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rights. It is invidious to make comparisons, but I can think of only a few: perhaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. There are not many other regimes with a Government as abusive of human rights as Burma’s. If there were a test for the new Human Rights Council to show that it is working properly, it should start by calling for a proper UN resolution, whether binding or not.

It is often argued that the Chinese would not support a UN resolution against Burma, but observers in Thailand say that the People’s Republic of China was dismayed by the arrest of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and is now looking for ways to restrain the State Peace and Development Council. China is deeply affected by the flow of refugees, disease and drugs. Furthermore, Burma’s uncontrolled logging is damaging China’s reputation in the World Trade Organisation, which it is doing so much to enhance and protect.

In May, China closed the China-Burma border to all timber trade. It is extraordinary that when China can do that, the 79 companies on the dirty list include many British companies, which are importing Burmese teak to this country completely unfettered and unhindered. Members of the Burmese army are reportedly responding by attacking Chinese migrant workers—hardly behaviour likely to endear the Burmese regime to Beijing.

A Security Council resolution is the most achievable diplomatic tool to build a policy consensus among countries interested in resolving the Burmese problem. Among other things, the resolution should call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a programme for national reconciliation that includes the National League for Democracy, immediate and unhindered access to all parts of Burma for UN relief agencies and other international humanitarian organisations, a timeline for compliance, and punitive sanctions if the SPDC fails to comply.

The UK should be in the vanguard in pushing for those efforts and trying to build a consensus in the Security Council. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said that

If his words are to mean anything, we must ask the Minister what actions he is pressing the EU, the UN and any other international organisation to take to put pressure on the Burmese regime. That regime is vulnerable to international pressure, but it is even more vulnerable to economic sanctions.

12.10 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I welcome the opportunity to discuss the disturbing situation in Burma and the various issues that have been raised so well in today’s debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, and the other hon. Members on making clear in their speeches and interventions the understandable depth of concern that is felt in the House and in this country about the grave situation in Burma. I and the Government share those concerns, and I assure hon. Members that the United Kingdom will remain at the
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forefront of efforts to secure a safe, democratic and prosperous future for the Burmese people. They have suffered for far too long.

I shall set out in detail the Government’s views on the situation in Burma and respond to as many points as I can. Hon. Members will have read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights Report 2006” that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs presented on 12 October. Burma is one of the 20 countries of major concern highlighted in the report, and one of only two addressed by my right hon. Friend in her foreword. Many of the issues raised today are considered in greater detail than I can cover, but hon. Members have described vividly and accurately the continuing abuses of human rights committed against the Karen people and the National League for Democracy. This year there has been yet greater pressure on those groups and further arrests of student leaders. The situation is made even more difficult by the denial of access to all Burmese prisons for independent monitoring organisations for almost a year.

It has been argued that the targeted abuse of ethnic groups could amount to genocide. It is clear that large-scale human rights abuses are taking place, so my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for investment and foreign affairs, discussed the human rights situation in Burma with Juan Méndez, the special adviser to the UN Secretary General on the prevention of genocide, on 27 June. We remain in regular contact with Juan Méndez, and we have offered him whatever political or practical assistance he needs to complete his work. My right hon. Friend has invited him to return to London in November to discuss those issues with interested Members of Parliament. Knowing the consistency of many Members, I am sure that they will take up the opportunity.

Many hon. Members asked what the United Kingdom was doing. We must recognise that the influence that any single country like the United Kingdom has is necessarily limited, making it even more important to work in partnership with others. There is nevertheless valuable work that we can do and are doing in Burma. We are one of only four European Union member states to have an embassy in Rangoon. Our embassy plays a vital role in communicating information to us. It also gets our messages across to the Burmese Government directly. Mark Canning, our ambassador in Rangoon, conveyed to the Burmese Home Minister only yesterday our concerns about recent abuses, as he has done with a range of senior interlocutors since his arrival.

The embassy is in regular contact with the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups inside Burma, including the ethnic groups, and it has come in for some sharp criticism from the regime for its activities. The embassy provides funding for grass-roots development and capacity-building projects throughout Burma, in addition to the Department for International Development larger programmes.

We do what we can to strengthen civil society within Burma, while recognising that those people and organisations who choose to associate with us are taking considerable risks. It is therefore a long-term and low-profile effort, and we try not to politicise what
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we are doing or to seek public acclaim, for obvious reasons that I hope hon. Members will understand.

In addition, the British Council is respected in Burma for its pivotal educational role. It is improving the skills of Burmese teachers of English. It offers access to a library of 30,000 uncensored books, newspapers and journals, the BBC World Service radio and the internet. It all helps to increase the knowledge and skills that will one day help democracy take root.

We have taken a lead in helping to relieve the suffering of the Burmese people. On 10 October, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development announced that the United Kingdom would contribute £20 million to the newly formed three diseases fund to help fight TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS in Burma. The UK was instrumental in setting up the fund together with five other donors.

Hon. Members have referred to internally displaced people in Burma. DFID provides assistance to conflict-affected people in that country through the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing some £500,000 a year. Our health, education and rural livelihood programmes include within their geographical remit conflict-affected regions to which internally displaced people have been relocated. We also support grass-roots civil society projects specifically aimed at internally displaced people in conflict-affected areas.

We are providing humanitarian assistance through the Thai-Burma border consortium to help Burmese refugees in Thailand, with funding of about £1.8 million over three years. The United Kingdom also provides support through its contribution to the European Commission’s ECHO fund for the Thai-Burma border consortium. It totalled €5.5 million, or £3.7 million, in 2006, representing the highest per capita amount that ECHO funds for any refugee programme in the world.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. I understand what he has just read to the Chamber, but does he accept the point that I made that the Government’s funding for the Thai-Burma border consortium is specifically for the purposes of helping on the border, but the British Government have stipulated that it should not be used for the provision of humanitarian aid in-country? Will he acknowledge that, and can he see why many of us feel that it is wrong?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have praised in the past for his consistent and determined efforts on behalf of the people of Burma, does not recognise the valuable work that is being conducted on the border to help the very people about whom he is properly concerned. Recognising that the project is a European Commission scheme and that legal limits affect our ability to work with partners through the Commission, I hope that he will accept that the work is valuable, even though it does not go as far as he might like and cross that border to assist inside the country.

I hope also that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members accept that we judge it best to work in
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concert with other international organisations such as the European Union, because our influence is thereby strengthened. It is a much more effective way of working than unilateral action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is reviewing a cross-border project, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman writes to him in the manner in which he has expressed his views so well today, his contribution to the review will be taken very seriously.

I have made it clear that the UK’s direct influence over the regime in Burma is inevitably limited. We have nevertheless vociferously expressed our outrage at major breaches of international human rights law. Hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. He summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 15 June to set out our concerns in detail. In case the message was insufficiently clear, my right hon. Friend subsequently sent a letter to the Burmese Foreign Minister. A copy of that letter is in the Library, and it includes a reference to child soldiers.

My right hon. Friend also released a statement about Ko Thet Win Aung, a 34-year-old Burmese student leader and political prisoner, who died in Mandalay prison on 16 October. The European Union, at our specific suggestion, will make representations about that terrible case.

Hon. Members also made considerable reference to UK policy on trade and investment, so it might assist them if I set out the precise position. The Government have a long-standing policy of discouraging British firms from trading with or investing in Burma. We offer no support whatever to companies wishing to trade with or invest in Burma. British companies that inquire about trade with Burma are informed of the grave political situation, the regime’s atrocious record on human rights and the country’s dire economic prospects. We hope that that clear indication represents what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, asked for.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: What the Minister has just said rather indicates that the British Government are reactive and passive on trade involving British and British-associated companies. I was hoping for a little more proactive policy and that the Minister might contact all 79 companies and point out the dangers and difficulties that they are causing for the Burmese people.

Mr. Hoon: I had hoped not to contradict the hon. Gentleman too much, but he referred in his speech—I hope not casually—to the “many” British companies on the list. I cannot identify the many British companies and neither can the Burma Campaign. I would have a little difficulty trying to contact companies whose names I do not know.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There are 79 companies listed on the website.

Mr. Hoon: They are not British.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: They are either British or have major interests in this country.

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