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Lords amendment agreed to.



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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

5.16 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Let me begin by explaining that the Foreign Secretary, with whom I spoke yesterday evening, would have been at the Dispatch Box this evening but for the joyful news that he and his wife Louise have adopted a second son, Jacob. Naturally, he is taking a short break from his ministerial duties, and I am confident that I speak for the whole House in sending the Miliband family our sincere best wishes at that wonderful news.

The House has long been united by a repugnance at the brutality of the Burmese regime and an admiration for the bravery of the Burmese people. This evening, I shall address three areas: I shall begin by outlining the situation on the ground in Burma in respect of the recent crackdown and the wider political and economic problems; I shall move on to how the United Kingdom is supporting international efforts to bring about change in the country; and I shall end by describing the actions that the Department for International Development is taking.

In mid-August, popular—and peaceful—protests began on the streets of Burma’s cities in reaction to sharp increases in fuel prices. Monks joined ordinary citizens on the streets; the voice of the Burmese people was being heard. The response of the Burmese regime was shocking, if predictable. We do not know how many the regime killed, but the true toll is likely to be many times higher than the regime has so far admitted. Some, such as the Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai, were killed in full view of the world—many more, we fear, have died behind closed doors.

Many people who may have been only remotely connected with the protests have been rounded up. Our best estimate is that more than 2,000 demonstrators, including many monks, remain in detention—in addition to the 1,100 political prisoners already held by the regime. The reports that we are hearing of the conditions in which people are detained are horrific: monks stripped of their robes and beaten; prisoners left to die in their cells; and hundreds crammed into rooms without sanitation.

The events of the past months have been the focus of much attention in the House, the media and the country at large. However, the roots of Burma’s social, political and economic failure lie deep. It is now 45 years since the military coup, almost 20 years since the 1988 student movement was crushed leaving thousands dead, and 17 years since the regime disregarded the overwhelming choice of the Burmese people.

Although recent protests were sparked off by popular reaction to a steep rise in fuel prices, they reflect a deep frustration with the persistent lack of democracy and economic opportunity. They were a desperate call for a better future for a country where isolationism and repression have condemned millions to poverty. The protests were not, as the Burmese authorities have suggested, the result of external
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interference. A third of Burma’s population—some 17 million people—live on less than a third of a dollar a day. Public investment in health and education is among the lowest in the world. Yet Burma is a country with no shortage of natural or human resources. It should stand alongside its neighbours as a prosperous, vigorous and outward looking member of the global economy.

However, that vision cannot be realised without fundamental change; and change in Burma will not be easy. It will require courageous leadership that allows a wide range of Burmese voices to debate and forge a common future. Genuine reform includes: reconciliation between the Government and opposition groups, including the minority ethnic groups; accountable and responsible Government; respect for human rights; and effective economic management. At the heart of change must be a process of national reconciliation and dialogue. The regime’s own road map cannot succeed. It does not involve the National League for Democracy or any other key political figures. It will convince neither the people of Burma nor the outside world. Real change requires the restoration of institutions: a free media, an independent judiciary, trade unions, local government and an accountable police force that protects rather than persecutes its own people. Better economic management is also vital to Burma’s future, ending over-regulation, fighting corruption and encouraging investment and enterprise.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend touch on the role that China has played in this? According to some pundits, it can have a great influence on the outcome of the situation in Burma.

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have been engaged in discussions with China, not least in relation to the recent presidential statement in the Security Council, which I will address in the course of my remarks.

Let me set out the United Kingdom Government’s view on the way forward for Burma. Our diplomatic strategy is to apply pressure from all possible directions. With Britain’s strong encouragement, the international community has made it clear that the Burmese regime must take meaningful steps towards reform and reconciliation. Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented statement by the UN Security Council, to which I just referred; the strengthening of European Union sanctions; and visits by the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, to Burma and the neighbouring countries. The United Nations is the primary focus of Britain’s diplomatic efforts. On 2 October the EU, strongly backed by the UK, tabled a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council strongly deploring the situation in Burma and requesting that the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, be given immediate access to the country. That drew almost unprecedented support, including from countries hitherto reluctant to criticise the regime publicly, and was, I am pleased to say, agreed unanimously.

On 11 October, the UN Security Council sent an even more powerful signal, when it unanimously agreed a presidential statement strongly deploring the use of
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violence against peaceful demonstrations, calling for the release of all political prisoners and underlining the need for the Burmese Government to establish a genuine dialogue with all concerned parties and all ethnic groups.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to what the UN has already done it would be helpful if the Secretary-General himself, rather than his envoy, went to Burma and argued with the regime? Will he suggest that to the Secretary-General?

Mr. Alexander: Obviously, we keep all options under consideration in terms of the means by which the international community, and the United Nations in particular, can most effectively make clear its views to the Burmese regime. We are anticipating a further visit from Professor Gambari, the Secretary-General’s envoy. I think that the appropriate approach to take forward now is to offer every support to Professor Gambari and to reflect on the outcome of his second and, I would hope, longer visit to Burma than the first visit that he was able to make since the terrible events of recent weeks. At that point, we will have the opportunity to discuss these matters with our partners in the Security Council and, indeed, with the Secretary-General. When I attended the UN General Assembly in September, I had the opportunity, along with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, to discuss our very grave concerns about the situation in Burma directly with the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. I can assure the House that he is fully seized of the importance of this matter and is keeping all options under review.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Is not the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) absolutely right in that it is a matter of great importance that the Secretary-General himself should go there? Is he not the right man to go there at this point in view of his provenance and his reputation?

Mr. Alexander: Obviously, I would not discount that possibility and I sought to reflect that in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South. However, we need to be careful in sending a clear signal to the Burmese regime. Given the tasking of Professor Gambari, it is important that we do not seek to undermine the Secretary-General’s special envoy ahead of what will be a critical visit to the region and the country in the coming days. In a relatively short number of weeks, we will have the opportunity to take a clear view in light of the further advice we receive from Professor Gambari as to whether the direct involvement of the Secretary-General would be appropriate at this stage. I certainly would not discount it.

I share the instincts of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that we need to make it clear that there is a universal, strong international community view on the matter, but a little patience is called for in allowing the Secretary-General’s special envoy to take forward his work.

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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a great feeling of frustration among those of us who have waited so long for a change in Burma? Would he cast his mind back to those instances where regimes have changed when senior people visit, such as heads of state, not just UN representatives? Is there not a time when a head of state should visit a country, or attempt to, to show how important the matter is to the British people, not just the United Nations?

Mr. Alexander: In response to my hon. Friend, I would simply observe that it is no secret that there have been divisions in the UN Security Council in recent years as to the way forward. As recently as January, a motion was tabled at the Security Council that precipitated a veto from two members, and although I accept and share his concern and frustration at the glacial pace of change in Burma, which all of us want to see accelerated, I ask him to take heart in the fact that the Security Council has spoken with one voice. It is against that backdrop that Special Envoy Gambari will make his second visit to the country.

I assure my hon. Friend that, based on my conversations with the Secretary-General, never mind the ones that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had with him in recent weeks, I know that he shares the broad sense of frustration felt in this House and in the international community. Careful, calibrated judgments have to be made regarding how best to ensure that international pressure yields the results we all want to see.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Returning to the issue of China for a moment, does the Secretary of State agree that next year’s Olympics in Beijing give the world community a precious opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese during the next few months? The role of China is fundamental, and the Burmese Government will listen to that country.

Mr. Alexander: Clearly, there are long-standing and historic ties, not least economic ones, between China and Burma. The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that. I had the opportunity to visit China earlier this year in my previous ministerial capacity as Secretary of State for Transport and there is a genuine desire on the part of the Government in Beijing for China to be seen as a responsible international citizen or player ahead of what they see as the welcoming of the world to the Beijing Olympics. Therefore, every opportunity should be taken to engage in serious and sustained conversation with the Beijing Government about the best way in which we can act together, with a single voice, on the issue of Burma.

I pay tribute to the fact that in recent weeks the Chinese Government have taken a different tack, in the presidential statement secured at the Security Council, from the one they adopted as recently as January, when both China and Russia exercised a veto in relation to previous moves by the Security Council.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Association of South East Asian Nations countries have an important role in relation to Burma. They have standards and aspirations relating to pluralism and
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democracy that are clearly not being fulfilled by the regime. What does he think that other countries in the region, as well as China, can do to assist in this process?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend brings to bear considerable experience from chairing the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to his observation. He will know that a decisive commentary has been offered by the ASEAN group this time, which has simply not been the case in the past when terrible events have taken place in Burma. Too often in the past, neighbouring countries—indeed, Asia itself—appeared to step back or walk on the other side when terrible events have taken place.

I welcome the robust statement issued by ASEAN, reflecting its repugnance at the actions taken against the monks in Rangoon and throughout Burma. It is a welcome development and reflects, exactly as my hon. Friend’s question suggests, an awareness on the part of ASEAN that if it wants to develop beyond being an economic community and stand for certain norms in the region, it should recognise that the present conduct of the regime in Burma stands far apart from expected reasonable standards of international conduct.

There are glimmers of hope—whether in the action taken in the United Nations Security Council through the presidential statement or in the different tone that ASEAN has adopted about recent events in Burma—that the international community is making clear its view about the darkness and horror of the events that we witnessed. That simply was not the case in previous years.

The presidential statement was the first formal action on Burma that the Security Council has taken. Those signing up to it included, of course, China, a permanent member of the Security Council, as we have had the opportunity to discuss, and, as has also been said, Burma’s most powerful neighbour. The political situation has therefore shifted significantly from the position of only a few weeks ago. That reflects a genuine and shared concern across the international community, uniting countries that have traditionally engaged with Burma with those that have previously sought to apply pressure through sanctions.

We look forward to the first meeting of the “core group” on Burma, proposed by Ibrahim Gambari and, if asked to join, we will be glad to do so on behalf of the United Kingdom. At the same time, the UK has been working with our EU partners to ascertain the direct leverage that we can bring to bear on the Burmese regime. On 15 October, Europe agreed stronger restrictive measures, targeting the business interests from which the regime draws much of its revenue—timber, precious metals and gems.

On the same day, our Prime Minister announced that we will review with our partners the implementation of the EU arms embargo to address any risk that arms or their components might be diverted or re-exported to Burma. We have been careful to avoid measures that will hurt the ordinary Burmese people. Sanctions are therefore targeted at the regime.

Those with the most direct influence on the Burmese authorities are Burma’s neighbours, ASEAN countries, China and India. It is becoming ever clearer that
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regional stability and prosperity is best served by a managed process of political reform in Burma. So the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Foreign Office Ministers have been in regular contact with their counterparts in the region, encouraging them to make their voices heard and get behind the United Nations process.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): What differences does the Secretary of State perceive between the Chinese and the Indians in their stance on Burma? Is there a difference between the two countries’ current thinking on the matter?

Mr. Alexander: Obviously there is a difference in their place in the United Nations system, given that China is a permanent member of the Security Council. There has been a significant shift in the position that China took as recently as earlier this year, when it exercised its veto in the Security Council. We continue to discuss the matter with India. I am not sure whether it greatly assists the cause of securing a broad international consensus to offer a comparative view of two of the principal regional players, on which we rely to offer the sort of concerted and co-ordinated international response that will be most effective in trying to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese regime. The relationship between China and Burma is key and we will be watching to ascertain whether China follows up the positive steps that I have described.

If genuine progress on reform takes place in Burma, the international community should be ready to support it. On 15 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to the leaders of G7 countries, India, China and Portugal—as president of the European Union—Singapore, as the current chair of ASEAN, Ban Ki-moon and the heads of the World Bank and of the IMF, proposing an economic initiative in support of a recovery plan for Burma, conditional on progress with reconciliation and moving forward with the process of political change in Burma.

On 20 October, at the Prime Minister’s request, I held a meeting in Washington with representatives from that group. We emphasised the shared need for concrete and verifiable steps along the path to reconciliation and reform in Burma. We initiated a discussion of the possible size and shape of international support should those steps be taken. Although the international community is rightly considering Burma’s future, we must also continue to provide humanitarian support to the roughly 50 million people who suffer genuine poverty under the current regime.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the concern of the many people who are keeping a vigil tonight for Burma? Will he acknowledge especially the plight of the internally displaced people who are the long-standing victims of the military junta, for example, the Chin people on the Thai border? Will he follow the Select Committee’s recommendations and the Canadian Government’s lead in giving genuine and positive help in the form of aid to the border people?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention anticipates some remarks that I hope will find favour with him as I move towards the conclusion of my speech.

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