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Let me set these matters in context. The Department for International Development’s assistance to Burma has increased from £2 million a year in 2002 to £9 million this financial year, including the additional £1 million that I announced earlier this month to meet urgent new needs and to help to ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer as a result of the recent grave brutality.

I can assure the House that none of this funding is spent through the Burmese central Government. All our aid in Burma is delivered through the United Nations or through non-governmental organisations. It supports basic services that make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people. For example, more than half of Burmese children fail to complete primary school. To help keep more children in school, the Department for International Development is supporting UNICEF’s efforts to provide materials and text books to half a million children, mostly in remote areas. We are also working with Save the Children to help local communities to organise pre-schools. Life expectancy in Burma is 10 years lower than in neighbouring Thailand. The Department is also supporting efforts to fight the three main killer diseases—malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS—with the aim of saving 1 million lives a year.

Continuing conflict in eastern Burma has had a terrible impact on the civilian population. They have been subjected to human rights abuses and forced labour, and many have fled their homes. Today, at least 500,000 people are displaced in Burma, including 90,000 still living in areas racked by conflict, and 160,000 living as refugees in Thailand. The Department is providing £1.8 million over three years for food and shelter for Burmese refugees in Thailand and for emergency cross-border assistance to displaced people in Burma. We are also providing £400,000 this year to support health, education and livelihoods among communities in Burma.

DFID is also supporting Burmese organisations to build the foundations for a better society. For obvious reasons, a lot of the work that those organisations do is not overtly political, but it is important to support their efforts where we can. We are, for example, providing £500,000 over three years to improve the ability of civil society organisations to organise themselves, and setting up a new fund of £3 million to help Burmese organisations to promote people’s participation in local level decision making—for example, in forest management, agriculture, education and health services.

Many hon. Members will recall that the International Development Committee reported on Burma as recently as July. The Government’s response to that report was published last week, and shows clearly our agreement with most of its recommendations. I should like to share four of the key recommendations with the House: the need to increase funding for cross-border assistance; the need to improve communication and co-ordination between aid agencies and local community organisations working in Burma; the proposal to maintain a Department for International Development presence in Thailand; and the recommendation to increase the size of the Department’s programme. Let me take each recommendation in turn.

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I fully agree with the Select Committee’s view that the humanitarian assistance provided from across the border in Thailand should complement, not compete with, the assistance provided from inside Burma. We remain deeply concerned at the condition of vulnerable people living on all Burma’s borders. I certainly pay tribute to those who are holding vigils in that cause this evening. Earlier this year, DFID agreed to allow its funding to be used for the cross-border delivery of emergency assistance to displaced people inside Burma, as well as to Burmese refugees in Thailand. We have given £1.8 million over the past three years to the Thai-Burma border consortium, and we will consider carefully the needs that it identifies for the next phase of our support, from early 2008.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs is undertaking an assessment of the needs of displaced people in eastern Burma. DFID will use those findings to inform our future funding decisions in relation to those people. The Department will consider project proposals from groups inside or outside Burma. They must be clearly aimed at poverty reduction, and will be assessed according to normal transparency and accountability criteria.

The Select Committee made a number of recommendations on improving communication and co-ordination among the providers of humanitarian assistance in Burma, including between those working inside the country and those working from across the borders. The Department and the United Nations are both supporting contacts between organisations working with displaced people inside Burma and the agencies providing cross-border support.

We recognise the need to strengthen our staffing to deal with Burma. The Department is substantially increasing the number of staff based in Burma and has also strengthened its London-based team working on Burma. We have carefully examined the Committee’s recommendation that we should maintain staff in Thailand to monitor our assistance to the border areas. Indeed, I have discussed that subject in recent hours with our head of office in Rangoon. However, our considered assessment is that this work can be carried out effectively from Rangoon and London. Increasing the number of staff in Rangoon allows greater capacity to do this, as well as to manage our programme in Burma itself. I have personally impressed upon our staff in Rangoon the importance that I attach to close monitoring of the situation on the Thai border. London-based officials also plan to visit Burma and the Thai border region regularly.

The International Development Committee recommended that we quadruple our Burma programme by 2013. Clearly, as has been reflected in this evening’s debate, the situation in Burma remains fluid, so it seems appropriate at this stage to address funding during the spending review period to 2010-11. That is why I can inform the House today that we will double our aid to the Burmese people over the period of the spending review—from £9 million today to £18 million a year by 2010-11. That does not prejudge any decisions made in relation to the next spending review period.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Having previously visited the camps on the border, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the embassy in
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Thailand will continue to carry out the solidarity work with those camps? Leaving the refugees on the border without that support, quite apart from the humanitarian and practical implications, would be a terrible political blow to them. They might well see it as the withdrawal of support from the UK Government.

Mr. Alexander: I think that we all need to exercise caution in the language we use about these issues. None of us would seek to give encouragement to the Burmese regime by characterising any of these organisations as somehow having the interests of anyone other than the Burmese people at heart. I can assure my hon. Friend—I took the opportunity to speak to our ambassador in Rangoon today, though not to our ambassador in Bangkok—that the Foreign Office is seized of the importance of this work. Nothing that I have announced from the Dispatch Box today—effectively the doubling of our assistance from £9 million to £18 million—prejudices the ongoing work that is being taken forward in the camps. I hope that when we see the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs review and when the other work I mentioned is carried out, we will be able to make judgments on the basis of the best evidence as to what further support should be provided to those who are often suffering in very poor conditions in camps on the border.

The doubling of funding that I have announced by 2010-11 will enable us to help more children go to school, to treat more people suffering from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, to invest in community development and rural livelihoods and further to address the humanitarian needs of those living in border regions. More humanitarian assistance will help alleviate immediate hardship, but I hope fervently that we will soon see the wider reforms needed to unlock the true potential of the Burmese people and the full support of the international community. As the Prime Minister has said, we will not turn our backs on the people of Burma. In that, I am confident that he has the backing not only of this House, but of the British people.

5.43 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): It is welcome that the House is turning its attention today to the plight of the people in Burma—a bitter injustice which has inflamed the strong feelings of hundreds of millions of people across the world and which blights the lives of millions of Burmese people. We had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would open the debate, but we entirely understand why he cannot and why he asked the International Development Secretary to take his place. We heartily wish him well with his expanded family.

It is appropriate to debate this subject now, as five days ago marked 12 years to the day that Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. Her courage and self-sacrifice never cease to inspire our deepest admiration and respect. There is perhaps no greater testament to the power of her example than the lengths to which a vicious military regime has gone to keep one woman isolated from the world and from her own people.

As we know, the Burmese have lived under military rule for 45 years. The images and information about their suffering that have reached the outside world throughout that time are truly appalling—images of
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poverty, stories of human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, rape, the destruction of villages, the use of forced labour and children pressed into military service. Presumably, the facts that have reached us are the tip of the iceberg, as the regime has gone to great lengths to shield its actions from the spotlight of the world’s attention. The fact that we know as much as we do is testament to the bravery of those Burmese who have spoken out against the regime, to the dedication of aid workers on the ground, and to the courage of Burmese pro-democracy activists, such as Zoya Phan, who has twice made inspirational addresses to the Conservative party conference. From her words, and those of others like her, we can say, I think without exaggeration, that the Burmese regime is one of the worst in the world.

On the Conservative Benches, in common with colleagues in other parts of the House, we have long regarded the situation in Burma as a human rights priority. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, who will wind up the debate for us, visited the country this year and was the first senior British politician in many years to meet members of the regime. When we created the Conservative party human rights commission in 2005, its first action was to hold a hearing on Burma.

The situation in Burma could be so different. If the party that had won an overwhelming victory in the 1990 general election in Burma had been allowed to take office, we might be extolling the Burmese success story and looking for ways to deepen trade and links between our countries. Elsewhere in Asia, countries once dominated by military regimes have successfully evolved and are richer today. More than 100 million people across east Asia have left the ranks of the extreme poor since 2000. However, Burma is light years from that progress. It used to be known as the rice bowl of Asia. It was one of the richest nations on the continent when it gained independence. Today, the Burmese regime invests less in education and health care than almost any other Government in the world and its people face some of the worst poverty in the region.

In those dreadful conditions—the House must recognise this—the people of Burma have shown incredible resilience and courage. In a country where criticism of the regime is punishable by imprisonment, September’s dramatic protests reminded us that the people of Burma want their freedom and that they deserve our full support as they seek to attain and exercise the rights that we freely enjoy.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that what typifies this hideous regime is the imprisonment of a good friend of many of us in the House, James Mawdsley, for the crime of distributing Bibles when he visited Burma? Trying to repress the distribution of Bibles and lock away people involved in such an act shows how hideous it is.

Mr. Hague: Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I remember hearing James Mawdsley describe his experiences. It brings home the tyrannical nature of the regime and its determination to suppress the freedom of thought and religion that he was trying to encourage.

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Thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent last month in the full knowledge that the last time similar protests took place—in 1998—the Government response killed 3,000 people. This time, too, the junta met peaceful protesters with violence. They levelled their weapons against monks. As we watched the ruthlessness with which the protests were crushed, we witnessed not only the junta’s repression but in some measure the outcome of 17 years of inactivity by the international community. Seventeen years have been lost. During that time the Security Council has not passed a single resolution condemning the situation in Burma or applying pressure on its leaders.

I want to raise three sets of issues: first, our immediate diplomatic response to the recent crises; secondly, what has been done to build an effective diplomatic coalition since then; and thirdly, the Government’s strategy going forward, on which the Secretary of State said some words. On the immediate response, our first concern must be the safety of those detained during the protests and those who have been rounded up since. We hope that it has been possible to establish a better picture of what happened last month. The regime claims to have released all but 500 of the Buddhist monks and other demonstrators it detained, although the Secretary of State just put the figure at 2,000, which is a far more believable assessment. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that it is deeply worried about those who are believed still to be in custody, particularly as it has been banned from visiting prisons to check up on those still under arrest. That is in itself a gross failure to meet the basic principles of international humanitarian law. We hope that the Government pressed the Burmese regime on that issue throughout the crisis and that it continues to do so now in the most vigorous way.

There are also disturbing reports of detainees being dispersed around the country to centres that the regime chillingly and bizarrely calls “new life camps” but which are in reality gulags where detainees are used as forced labour. That clearly makes the task of tracking the condition and whereabouts of those in detention vastly more difficult, but no less vital. There were reports during the crisis that UN computers had been seized by the military with the apparent intention of obtaining information on opposition figures. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government think that that did take place and if they have been able to establish to what extent such information was available on the computers and could have been of use to the regime?

There have been first-hand accounts of regime officials scouring villages looking for people whose faces were caught on camera during the protests. I trust that all possible efforts will be made to monitor these activities to try to keep track of the numbers arrested and to use every opportunity to protest about such detentions. Another area of concern must be the fate of those involved in the leadership and organisation of the protests. I hope that the Minister can say whether it has proved possible to establish any contact with the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, which emerged during the crisis as the group leading the protest. Although we are aware that any such contact
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could be dangerous to the safety of those involved by making them known to the authorities, identifying individuals has made it possible elsewhere to hold Governments to account and to make it harder for them to subject such people to violence or politically motivated imprisonment.

On the surface, Rangoon, in the official assessment, is calm. The regime speaks of a return to normalcy and stability. However, the situation is anything but normal. Reports suggest that the regime continues to raid monasteries, arrest activists and subject those detained to inhumane conditions. The death of National League for Democracy member, Win Shwe, who was arrested and tortured by the authorities, is only the most visible manifestation of the cruelty; many others appear to have shared his fate.

It is vital—this is why it is so good that we are debating the issue tonight—that the Burmese regime is not allowed to believe that it has weathered the storm and that the international outcry about its actions has somehow died down. Now is the time for us to step up our diplomatic efforts. We welcome—I am sure that we all do—the prompt visit to Burma by the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, but it is far from clear that he was able to receive any specific commitments from the Burmese leadership to engage in real talks with the opposition and to release political prisoners. The apparent concession made by the regime to allow him to meet Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have been little more than a ruse to gain some positive publicity. Attacks on villages and military atrocities in northern Karen state, where 80,000 people have been displaced in this year alone, continued unabated during the UN special envoy’s visit. Professor Gambari was prevented from meeting any other detainees, other members of the National League for Democracy or representatives of the Buddhist clergy. The junta's talks with the opposition leader should be seen in this light. Seventy detainees appear to have been released last week, but there is no sign that the regime is prepared to release her, or most of the 1,300 political prisoners in Burma.

Turning now to the building of an effective diplomatic coalition, we hope that Professor Gambari, on behalf of the UN, will return to Burma soon and that when he does so he will have the full backing of the Security Council to extract commitments from the regime and to hold it to them. We agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall) that the time has come for the UN Secretary-General to go himself, which my hon. Friend the shadow International Development Secretary has called for and has put to the Government. The Secretary of State said that the Government would look for a further report, but we have no doubt that, whatever the recommendations to come from Professor Gambari, the UN sending the Secretary-General himself to visit Burma and meet the main players there would accord a degree of profile and pressure that would place the military leaders in a more difficult situation. We echo that call.

Equally important are the visits by the UN envoy and others to key regional capitals. The active support of Burma's neighbours would transform the current international censure into real, effective pressure—a point made by several Members. We welcome the fact that the 10 nations of ASEAN formally condemned the violence and expressed their “revulsion” at the
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methods used to suppress the protests. We also welcome Thailand's proposal to convene a four-party meeting of ASEAN, the UN, India and China to formulate a response.

However, ASEAN as a whole has displayed unwillingness to take action against Burma. The Foreign Minister of Singapore, who currently holds the chair of ASEAN, described its policy in a recent interview as a group decision to

That is a great disappointment. Over 70 per cent. of Burmese exports go to members of ASEAN, giving those countries great leverage over the Burmese leadership if they chose to exert it. A $150 million gas exploration deal with the regime was agreed even as the protests were taking place and Chinese trade and investment provides the regime with its main economic lifeline. Regrettably, the priority of Burma's neighbours appears to be not to resolve the crisis, but to defuse it as far as their own interests are concerned so that they can return to business as usual.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman talks about neighbouring countries investing in Burma, but many European companies invest in Burma, including Total, which also invests in Preston. I am very glad about that, but obviously its activities in Burma concern me. What is his view on the issue of investment from European sources?

Mr. Hague: Investing in Preston is a rather different matter, I am delighted to say. I will come in a moment to European policy and what our Government should be doing on that score. I will complete my point about Burma’s neighbours and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will come to his point in a moment.

In order to be effective, international pressure on Burma needs to be supported across the international community. That means that Burma's neighbours and key trading partners must act. The regime in Burma will not feel under pressure until they do so. We support the Prime Minister's announcement that Britain will send Ministers to the region to talk to the ASEAN Governments, as well as to China, India, and Japan. I hope that the Minister will be able to specify in greater detail what Britain is setting out to achieve in this respect. Our case for raising Burma at the Security Council would be considerably strengthened if any of Burma's neighbours were to lend their support, for although those countries have joined us in condemning the situation, they do not share the same view of how to encourage change in Burma.

In light of that, we must all welcome the fact that the Security Council was able to agree a joint statement on Burma. It was the first time that the Security Council had taken any kind of public position on Burma and it is action that is long overdue. We fully supported the Government's efforts, along with the US, to bring Burma before the Security Council earlier this year. I hope that the Government will continue their efforts to raise the issue at the Security Council and to generate Russian and Chinese support for measures relating to Burma.

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