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29 Oct 2007 : Column 572

Looking to the strategy going forward, the Prime Minister has said that the Security Council will

of its recent presidential statement and that the UK will seek UN sanctions if no substantive progress has been made. That commitment must not be allowed to slide and is very much one that the Opposition support. We appreciate the difficulties in getting the support of other Security Council members, but without consistent pressure there is little hope of influencing the Burmese leadership. The obvious concern is the definition of the “progress” called for by the Security Council statement. I hope Ministers will agree that that must be real progress, starting with meetings without preconditions with opposition figures and the release of political prisoners. Token action should not be enough to stave off the pressure for action at the Security Council.

If it could be achieved, a binding UN sanctions resolution would require countries such as China, Russia and India to moderate their support for the Burmese regime, and in our view it should include an embargo on arms sales to Burma. That would worry the military regime more than almost anything else. There is also a strong case for imposing limits on companies making finance available to named Burmese state-owned companies, their joint ventures and subsidiaries, which serve only to prop up this unpleasant regime.

It is right that while debate about Security Council action is going on, the EU should act, as the US has done, to increase targeted sanctions on the regime. We welcome the EU decision of 15 October to increase EU sanctions on Burma. The steps taken to ban the sale of equipment to, and investment in, the mining, logging and precious jewels sectors are sensible. However, we had hoped for more.

I ask the Minister to provide clarification on a few points in her winding-up speech. The EU statement of 15 October requested

Will she confirm, therefore, that the EU is considering a full ban on new investments in Burma? That goes to the heart of the question raised by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick).

Secondly, on aid, the EU statement said merely that the EU

Given that the humanitarian situation is dire, that appears to be a complacent European response. According to the Department for International Development, Burma receives one of the lowest levels of international assistance—£1 per person in 2002, 10 times less than EU aid to Zimbabwe. That is insufficient. The Secretary of State made announcements on that matter this evening, on which I wish to make a point shortly.

Another question I want the Minister to address when she speaks at the end of the debate is whether efforts have been made to identify the Burmese leaders and officials most responsible for the violence against the protestors, and whether the Government will seek further EU restrictions against them personally. The widening of EU sanctions is an important first step
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but, as has been pointed out to us by Burmese activists, unless the EU resolves to enforce the measures consistently, they will have little effect.

Turning closer to home, the Secretary of State for International Development recently set out proposals to develop an economic initiative to support recovery in Burma, if and when there is verifiable progress towards reconciliation and democracy. It is right for incentives for change to be set out alongside the penalties that the regime will face if it continues on its course. However, there was concern about the way that the proposals were launched, which was reflected in some newspapers. There were suggestions that the announcement in Washington was not launched in consultation with the United States; the Minister might wish to clear that up. The US and the UK have stood shoulder to shoulder on Burma, and co-ordinating our strategy will increase our effectiveness and ensure that the Burmese regime is presented with a united front.

The International Development Committee recently described British aid to Burmese refugees as “unacceptably low”. Although the Government’s announcement that DFID will provide £8 million in aid to Burma this year and the Secretary of State’s announcement of an increase in future years are welcome, that still falls far short of what is needed. Although the Secretary of State announced an increase in aid in coming years, it is not in line with the IDC recommendation that aid should be quadrupled by 2013. That is the option that we much prefer, and we will wish to say more on it in winding up the debate.

The World Food Programme reported this month that at least one in 10 Burmese are going to bed hungry and about 5 million people do not have enough food. The WFP itself can reach only an estimated 500,000 of those people, which is far fewer than is needed. I hope that over the coming months the Government will set out steps that they will take to support those working to provide much needed emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Burma, and that they will revise upwards the Secretary of State’s commitments of tonight, as well as support those working to document human rights abuses and promote democracy in Burma.

There have been pleas by Burmese activists—already repeated in this debate—for the UK to provide more humanitarian aid to those hiding in the jungle and frontier areas. They argue that that aid could be sent across borders from neighbouring countries without being susceptible to interference by the Burmese regime. The Secretary of State said that he would seriously consider such requests. That consideration should be urgent; consideration at length would not be good enough. We must ensure that Britain is doing everything reasonable within its power to ameliorate the plight of these people. I hope that in her summation the Minister will give the Government’s assessment of the UK’s ability to deliver such aid. Can that be done without obstruction from the regime, and can it now be increased?

It is our duty as fellow human beings to continue to stand with the people of Burma. Our actions should embolden and empower the Burmese people, not contribute to their further impoverishment and
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isolation. Only a genuine process of internal reform and reconciliation with the full involvement of the Burmese opposition will deliver stability, democracy and prosperity to the country. That requires a great deal of pressure from the international community. It must seize the initiative now—when the regime might be most sensitive to international criticism and keen to deflect the consequences—in order to bring about the change that the people of Burma so desperately need. We must say that enough is enough, and work to ensure that the world never witnesses a repeat of last month’s scenes on the streets of Rangoon. The people who demonstrated so bravely must have done so because they have some hope that their circumstances can change for the better, and those languishing in Burmese jails will keep going only if they have hope for the future. We in this House must help to make sure that they do not hope in vain.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Last Thursday, the House decided to accept the Modernisation Committee report recommendation that the Speaker should have the power to vary a previously set time limit. That power takes effect in the next Session, which is unfortunate as it would have been handy to have been able to use it tonight, because a miscalculation has clearly taken place as a result of the other business having ended somewhat earlier than predicted. I am afraid that the 12-minute limit must stand, and it applies to Back-Bench speeches.

6.7 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I was flying over Burma at about 1 am this morning, and I wondered what was happening below in that country. Like many, I have not had the opportunity to visit it, but I have been to the border camps and I have for the past three years been the chair of the human rights committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which deals with the human rights of parliamentarians in trouble. We have over a five-year period heard from the Burmese in opposition, some of whom were elected in 1990. They have told us about the plight of their colleagues in Burma, and the stories are tragic. Members should be particularly concerned about the plight of our fellow parliamentarians who, unlike us, are not able to stand on any platform and speak out, or to practise their mandates.

At the last count, 12 Burmese politicians elected in 1990 were in jail. To our knowledge, three of them are seriously ill. We have asked at the past three IPU annual conferences for those MPs to be released. We have also asked that all those elected in 1990 and all political prisoners be released. I am afraid that the generals do not listen to very much. They have had many opportunities to listen to special envoys in the past. I hope that this special envoy will be successful, but the past record of the regime is not good at persuading us that it might listen now. If the generals want to show that they are at least listening to some arguments, they should release the elected politicians who languish in jail, particularly the three who are seriously ill.

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Not only are those people in jail, but others have died in custody—six of those elected in 1990 have done so. We know that since the October crackdown, another 13 parliamentarians have been arrested and are now in jail. In total, 26 elected members of the Burmese Parliament are in jail in that country. As a gesture, the generals should at least show that they are listening to the arguments of fellow politicians all over the world.

At the IPU conference that took place in Geneva a few weeks ago, at which several hon. Members were present, the British delegation asked for talks with the Chinese and Indian delegations and we withdrew our own emergency resolution in order to support the tough ASEAN resolution. It is worth everybody looking at that resolution, which is available on the IPU’s website. It was adopted unanimously by the 117th assembly in Geneva on 10 October, which included members of Parliament from 143 countries, the Chinese and Indian delegations and all the ASEAN countries. It is significant that, again, all the ASEAN countries supported the resolution.

This has been a good debate and people from all parties have said things with which we all agree. When I was flying over Burma this morning, I thought about the people below and about the reports by our ambassador. I would like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to congratulate our ambassador in Burma, because his reporting in the first few days of the crackdown was significant. It was brave of him to speak out in the way that he did, and I hope that he is able to continue to do so.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I can give her the assurance that she seeks. I had the opportunity to speak to our ambassador this morning. Not only did I congratulate him on his efforts in recent weeks, and those of his staff, but I assured him of the good wishes of all Members of the House for the conduct that British diplomats have shown in what has been an extremely trying time for themselves and their families, as well as for the people of Burma.

Ann Clwyd: I thank my right hon. Friend. I am grateful for that because I read with horror the account given by diplomats. They say that the regime probably still holds between 2,000 and 2,500 protesters. As he said, many are being detained in so-called “new life camps”, which are re-education centres a long way from the capital Rangoon. People are jam-packed in rooms where the walls are covered in excrement, they are not given any food, they are being continually interrogated, subject to brutal torture, routinely beaten and soaked in ice-cold water. The Human Rights Watch report is similar:

The courts continue to try protesters in secret and hand out heavy sentences, crematoriums have been working overtime to cope with the number of dead and there have even been allegations that some injured
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protesters have been buried alive. We can all imagine the scene, and it has been described vividly here today. I urgently call for one thing to happen right now on behalf of the detainees who are at immediate risk. We should get the International Committee of the Red Cross back in so that it can visit the detainees to ensure that they are at least being fed.

As I said, the IPU will continue its efforts. We have attempted to visit Burma, to no avail, but we need to keep putting pressure on neighbouring countries to initiate a regional political process in a meaningful way. We should get them to get the generals to the negotiating table. The ASEAN member states of China, India and Russia must give their full backing to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Burma and assist him in getting this initiative off the ground.

Daniel Kawczynski: The right hon. Lady tells the House that her group, the IPU, has tried to visit Burma, but that it has been declined entry. Does she know of any IPU country that has managed to send a delegation to Burma? Are only we being targeted?

Ann Clwyd: No, I am afraid that I know of no IPU country that has managed to get a delegation into Burma, although people obviously continue to try. Our committee is involved with the human rights of members of Parliament all over the world, and the IPU covers about 143 countries. Unfortunately, the human rights abuses that elected members suffer are getting more rather than less frequent. The IPU continues to attempt to get delegations in.

As has been mentioned, ASEAN needs to expel Burma if there is no sign of reform. ASEAN Heads of Government will gather in Singapore for a summit towards the end of November, and that will be a good time to discuss that and other measures. I know that there is not time to say much else, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the last thing that we need is for the international community to rail against the generals and make a lot of noise but to forget again in a few months’ time and allow Burma to descend into anarchy, and for the suffering of the Burmese to drag on and on and on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I feel that I must apologise to the right hon. Lady if she was misled by the clock. We have had a slight technical difficulty with it.

6.17 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): May I open my remarks by expressing our support for and solidarity with the pro-democracy demonstrators and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi in particular? We would all agree that they have dealt bravely with the impossible situation in Burma and deserve all the assistance that the international community can give. I add my voice to those condemning the indiscriminate violent attacks on the demonstrators and others in Burma over the last months, and the awful human rights violations that have occurred.

It is important to say on this occasion that those violations are continuing. There are widespread reports of the ill treatment and torture of detainees, of secret detention, and of sentencing in closed and unfair trials. The situation in Burma is still desperate. We do not
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know how many people are being detained, or under what conditions, or where or, in many cases, why that is happening. Amnesty International has reported that arrests continue in far greater numbers than the official figures given by the Burmese state media. Despite the regime’s supposed co-operation with the UN, information about these detainees has still to be published. Surely the first step by the junta in resolving the conflict should be to publish information about those detainees, to allow immediate and independent access to them and then to release them.

The situation for the whole country is bleak, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as a result of forced displacement, the fear of violence and political, ethnic and religious persecution. With the current social and economic conditions further exacerbated by the violence of the past few months, is it any wonder that more than a quarter of Burma’s population now lives below the UN-agreed poverty line of $1 a day and that one in 10 children die before they reach their fifth birthday?

The internally displaced people and refugees, as well as ordinary citizens, face widespread poverty and a lack of health care and education, and all depend on action from the international community. We must ensure that they are not disappointed. The Select Committee on International Development’s recent report on British aid to Burma said that the £8.8 million currently allocated was an “unacceptable” level of assistance and recommended that the budget should be quadrupled by 2013.

In the light of the events of the past month and their repercussions on the number of internally displaced people and refugees, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement tonight that he has reconsidered the Department’s aid budget to Burma; but, as had been said, even doubling it still leaves many hon. Members with considerable concern that that will prove to be insufficient for the purpose. Perhaps when the Minister responds to the debate, she could also explain to the House DFID’s new spending priorities for Burma, given that timely budget increase.

Of course, the United Nations should continue to play the leading role in resolving the issues in Burma. We certainly hope that the UN will continue to push for regular visits by the special rapporteur on human rights and Special Envoy Gambari, because it is only by continued investigation that we will establish precisely what happened during the riots and what the current situation really is. Burma must give the UN free, full and unfettered access to all areas and peoples, and those visits should be reported on and followed up by formal UN Security Council discussions to establish what, if any, progress is being made. Where no progress is made, the Security Council must act decisively and move to adopt binding sanctions, including an international arms embargo and a demand for the release of all political prisoners.

China, in particular, has an absolutely key role to play. Although we recognise the significant movement that the Chinese have made already by supporting the formal UN Security Council statement, they also need
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to stand ready and willing to support the adoption of a binding Security Council resolution if one should be necessary.

Thailand, India and the other ASEAN nations, as close neighbours and significant trading partners of Burma, also have a key role to play in resolving this issue, and they must support international mediation and reconciliation efforts. Perhaps when the Minister responds, she might inform the House whether discussions have taken place with those Governments about their trading practices with the current Burmese regime and whether they support US and EU sanctions and, if so, how they might help to bring pressure to bear on the regime.

We welcome the extension of the EU trade and investment bans to include timber, gems and precious metals. By targeting those sectors of the Burmese economy, the EU’s sanctions will be better able to strengthen their impact on the regime; but to be effective, those measures must be implemented quickly and the sanctions must be watertight. They must, for example, include goods that are processed through third countries, as most of the gems and diamonds that come into the EU from Burma do at present.

We also welcome the agreement that a general EU investment ban will follow if the Burmese Government do not comply with the demands of the international community. However, if the international community is to keep up the pressure on the junta and the momentum on this issue, there must be a clear timeline for when such an investment ban might be implemented. Perhaps in her winding-up speech the Minister might clarify how long the Burmese Government would be given to comply with international demands before the general EU investment ban would be implemented. Will she say whether the Government have considered supporting the introduction of that ban at the next General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting if no progress has been made?

Further sanctions should also be planned to continue to increase pressure on the Burmese authorities and to make it clear to them that the international community will not stand idly by but will continue to act if they continue to break international law and human rights agreements. A strong message needs to be sent. Those measures should perhaps include sanctions on the very lucrative oil and gas industry, and as with the investment ban, they should include a clear timeline for implementation. Perhaps the Minister might say whether discussions about further sanctions have taken place and, if so, whether they included the specific possibility of introducing future sanctions on the oil and gas industries.

Although we acknowledge that the Government have taken a lead on this issue at EU level, we are concerned to ensure that existing sanctions are being implemented properly in all British dependencies and overseas territories. The Burma Campaign UK has reported that companies in Singapore have invested in Burma through their base in the British Virgin Islands and that an oil company has also invested in Burma through Bermuda. That will be a matter of great concern to the House.

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