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The whole country is deeply disturbed by the recent events in Burma, which are arguably the result of decades of oppression. The Burmese regime may have hoped that by closing down the internet and targeting
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the media it could hide its crimes from the eyes of the world. If so, it has failed. Horrific repression has provoked disgust and anger across the globe. The suppression of democracy, as well as beatings, forced displacement, killings, arbitrary detention, forced labour, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers are just some of the tools used in Burma. The Burmese regime can be summed up in a few words—oppressive, abhorrent, brutal, and barbarous—but with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to express my absolute disgust with the regime in a few more words.

As we have heard, the military regime imposed a reign of fear on the people more than 40 years ago, and it has crushed protests ever since. It remains steadfast in its opposition to free speech, worship and assembly, but the Burmese people’s desire for freedom continues. That was vividly expressed when Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won the election, but we all know that the results were ignored by the military, so instead of ruling her country, she was placed under house arrest, where she remains to this day. The freedom fight continued, however, and on 19 August this year, brave Burmese students took to the streets to protest against increases in the price of fuel, food and other basic items, as we have heard. Essentially, those already poor and desperate people were denied their most fundamental rights while the military regime continued to construct and maintain one of the world’s largest armies. Burma has the 12th largest army in the world, with nearly 430,000 active troops, thus dwarfing our own armed forces and those of France and Germany.

Students throughout the world have stood up against oppression, whether in Tiananmen square in 1989 or on the streets of Belgrade in 1992, and it was no different in Burma in 2007. Those students—hopefully, some of them will be Burma’s future thinkers and leaders—were arrested in midnight raids, left to die in their cells, and killed under interrogation. In the days after 19 August, as demonstrations grew, those who remained outside the crowded prison cells marched in Rangoon, joined by Burmese monks, who are no strangers to protest. Bullets were fired, and tear gas was directed at crowds that reportedly reached 100,000 strong. As the saffron revolution began, many monks were beaten. Let that thought stay with the House tonight: Buddhist monks beaten as they protested on the streets. The monks, once the most respected group in Burma, are not safe from the state-sponsored violence and repression.

As the Prime Minister said, we must not turn away. As Edmund Burke said, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. It takes a brave person, but also a desperate one, to face down a loaded gun and stand up for what they believe to be right. We should salute that bravery here today, but also send the message to Burma to let the Burmese people know that we stand alongside the good men and women of the pro-democracy movement in their fight. We cannot march with them, but we have the power to effect change.

I doubt that there was significant belief among the protesters that their actions alone could bring down this oppressive regime, but any small hope that they may have endured was brutally shattered when the crackdown was launched: monasteries raided, as we
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have heard, thousands arrested, and unknown numbers killed. Some of the protestors were as young as seven. We hear rumours of hastily arranged cremations designed to hide the number of the dead. Is this 1940s Europe or modern day Burma? What could be going through the minds of Burmese soldiers to make them shoot their own people? Is this the same evil that ran through the minds of the Nazi SS troops? Are they only following orders or do they believe that killing their own people is the right thing to do?

The steps to be taken in Burma are clear: end the violence, release the political prisoners and grant access to the international community. The only obstacle to a stable and prosperous Burma is the regime itself. There is no reason why Burma cannot match the economic success of its neighbours and go on to become a strong player on the international trading stage. Once the world’s foremost exporter of rice, it can again be, with our help and the willingness to change on the part of the military regime.

We have seen recently that the US and the EU have instituted firmer actions against the regime, but the UK and all other nations need to utilise all their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom. I am thankful that our Government have announced the additional £1 million of urgent aid to Burma to attempt to deliver support to those in real need, and I am glad that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are exploring other avenues. However, on the issue of support to the Burmese people we can go further.

I thank the Secretary of State for International Development for his commitment today and trust that he will continue to review the issues of funding to projects to promote human rights and democracy in Burma. I understand that our Government are preparing for the future should reconciliation occur, and recent international meetings are an important step. It is important to look at how Burma can be supported if it demonstrates real and verifiable progress. If such a situation should develop, our primary priorities should be access to health care, education and debt relief. Those measures will hopefully encourage the regime genuinely to work towards reconciliation. But if progress is insufficient, too slow or piecemeal, stronger options must be considered.

On the issue of health care, the closure of two Red Cross stations in March was deeply regrettable. We cannot allow international posturing to distract us from the fact that people are needlessly suffering through disease and injury as the Red Cross is forced to the sidelines. I urge the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development, as other hon. Members have done here tonight, to do all in their power to have the International Red Cross and other aid agencies allowed back into Burma.

To return to international pressure, the UK Government’s key aim is to mobilise support, particularly among Burma’s neighbours. The Burmese situation should be troubling to China for several reasons: Burma is on its doorstep and Beijing is wrong to think that domestic unrest in Burma has no regional impact. Burma is a country transformed in recent years into a virtual client state, where the Chinese are building roads, burning forests and backing gas projects. However, we are grateful for their support for the latest UN Security Council statement and for the facilitation of access for the UN
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special envoy. Ibrahim Gambari has been instrumental in opening new dialogue between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party. The pressure that that brought about must be maintained. China must stay involved in the process and the international community is watching China closely in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

I take this opportunity to urge the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has a 8.25 per cent. holding in the Bank of China, to use its position to bring about a change in attitude of Sinopec and PetroChina, and dare I say, even the Bank of China itself. It should not rest easy with the Royal Bank of Scotland shareholders that they are benefiting from the profits of Burmese repression.

John Bercow: What the hon. Gentleman has just said is absolutely right. Does he agree, however, that we simply cannot within the EU be in any way complacent about this matter? Will he concur with me that it is frankly the most damning indictment of a democratic Government, namely that of France, that Total Oil should be engaged in a $400 million investment to prop up the sadistic thugs who rule Burma? Is it not about time that they reconsidered and stopped offering sanctimonious humbug and self-serving rhetoric about their tiny little humanitarian aid projects when they are there for the filthy lucre?

Gordon Banks: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps if we gathered some more information regarding UK trading and investments within Burma, we could apply our own individual pressures in that way as well.

It is also grossly unacceptable that the First Minister of Scotland seeks to make Burma an ally in his conflict with the Westminster Government.

Despite Burma’s massive army, it is a fragile state where the danger of fragmentation is real. Insurgencies and drug warlord militias could easily fill a vacuum, and that is certainly something that no one wants to see. China can be a strong voice for reform in Burma, but, as we have heard tonight, it should by no means be the only one. Thailand must also accept responsibility as a primary funder of the military regime by its purchase of Burmese gas. India is another country that must live up to its responsibilities in the region. Its uncritical relationship with the regime is very disappointing and I hope that recent representations made by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will assist in moving the Indian position. India is the largest democracy in the world, and economically supporting such a repressive regime must be made to embarrass politicians in India.

The international approach is so vital. The protesters know that the regime will not relinquish power at the behest of the Burmese people alone. The leaders have no interest in the people and never will. The real drivers of change and reform must be Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic political opposition and the ethnic groups in Burma. The protesters need to know that their voice is having an impact on us here in the west. As the protesters speak directly to us they are saying, “We are here. Look at what is happening. Please help us.” Those people and indeed the world are watching this Parliament today to see that we are doing everything in
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our power to bring these atrocities to an end and to send the strongest and clearest message to Burma that this action will no longer be tolerated.

We all know that we have strong colonial ties to Burma and I am sure that many in the Chamber will, like me, have had family stationed there, and that places an additional responsibility on the UK to seek a resolution to the current problems and to ensure Burma’s future.

But before I bring my remarks to a close, I want to talk briefly about the role of Aung San Suu Kyi. This remarkable woman has spent 12 years under house arrest as she has watched her country descend into chaos. We debate in this Parliament about whether 28 days’ detention without charge is acceptable, yet this woman has been held hostage for 12 years and her only crime has been a desire to make Burma a better place in which to live. Her struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia, and indeed the world, in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression and serves as an example to others around the world. Her name, along with that of Mahatma Gandhi, will echo through time as a leading light of non-violent protest in support of human rights. I am sure that many in this House will join me in looking forward to the day when she gains her rightful place as the leader of Burma.

John Bercow: I am incredibly grateful because the hon. Gentleman not only makes a very good speech, but has also proved to be highly generous in giving way to me. What he says about Aung San Suu Kyi is absolutely right. Will he further agree with me—she is undoubtedly the world’s greatest heroine today—that the regime in Burma has no moral entitlement whatever to say, “Yes, we will meet her, but on condition a, b or c?” The regime that is guilty of ethnic cleansing, of war crimes, of crimes against humanity and probably of genocide should agree unconditionally to meet someone who is far greater than any of them will ever be.

Gordon Banks: No one would disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

I hope that the regime will come to realise, if it does not already, that significant movement is urgently required and that the international community will not tolerate the continuation of recent atrocities. I also hope that the focus on Burma in this House tonight will play its part in creating the momentum required to bring about the necessary change and end the rule of that repressive, barbaric junta.

7.10 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is a privilege to participate in this debate, which is rightly full of passion—there have been some excellent speeches.

Everyone in this country, never mind in this House, was repulsed by the pictures from Burma, where people who were complaining about their plight and the starvation and poverty levels under which many of
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them were living engaged in peaceful protests. They wanted their view to be known, and they were joined by monks, who are revered by the people of Burma and who live among them. The people wanted peacefully to demonstrate against what they saw was wrong, but they were beaten, arrested and persecuted. A heavy hammer came down on anyone who dared to speak against or threaten the regime, which has existed for far too long.

We must remember how hideous the regime is. I mentioned earlier in the debate James Mawdsley, who visited that country. Many Christians live in Burma, and they are persecuted—for example, they cannot move about as we can here, because the multiplicity of faiths that we have here is simply not allowed in Burma. James Mawdsley was distributing Bibles, and he was arrested and put in prison, which shows what sort of regime we are discussing.

One reason why we can see what is going on at this juncture is the bravery of journalists, some of whom have visited Burma under cover. They have reported what is going on in that hideous regime, and it is important that they continue to do so. We are grateful for the risks that they take and for the work that they do.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been mentioned many times. She has experienced 12 years of illegal detention, and she is an iconic figure who personifies the fight and struggle of the ordinary people of Burma to be free. She is the only imprisoned Nobel peace prize laureate in the world. Glenys Kinnock MEP never spoke a truer word when she said last week:

Aung San Suu Kyi is a beacon of light in that country. She has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to liberty. She has been likened to Gandhi, because of the way in which she has peacefully sought to promote what everyone in this country takes for granted.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned parliamentarians in Burma who are now sitting in prison, and we must remember our responsibility as parliamentarians to them. Sometimes people ask what is the point in having yet another debate about yet another country in the House of Commons and in having yet another march—there was a march through the streets of London only a few weeks ago, when people showed their solidarity with the people of Burma. Today, a veteran of the 1988 demonstrations, who went to jail for six and a half years, explained to me that the message that they are not forgotten will get through to ordinary people in Burma and to people who are languishing in jails in Burma today. When people marched through the streets of London, people also marched throughout the world. That has not gone unnoticed, and it will give people in Burma succour and strength to know that we are thinking about them and the conditions in which they live.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important that the Karen, the Karenni and other ethnic minorities, who have suffered appallingly at the hands of the regime, should take succour from the fact that we have not forgotten them?

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Mr. Evans: One of the merits of this debate is that we can share our experiences, such as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has had first-hand conversations with those who have been persecuted by the regime, and those of people in our constituencies—and that message will not stay only in this House. We know that the Government are listening to us tonight, and they will also listen to what the people of Burma are saying about what they feel should be done. I will discuss what the protesters, both in 1988 and of a few weeks ago, want to see us do.

John Bercow: Pursuant to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), it has perhaps been under-mentioned that cultural genocide against the Karen, Karenni, Chin, Shan, Mon, Arakan and Rohingya peoples is a fact of life in that country. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) aware that a particularly obnoxious form of human rights abuse is now being practised in Chin state, where the Government of Burma are deliberately promoting the sale of industrial-strength alcohol and targeting it at women in particular with a view to damaging health and wrecking another ethnic minority? Is that not a further example of despicable behaviour?

Mr. Evans: Everyone agrees that we are discussing one of the worst regimes in the world—it has some stiff competition. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has said that there are complex cultures in Burma, and the situation is not straightforward by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that various sects and groups of people who live in Burma are persecuted is deplorable. My hon. Friend has mentioned that the crematoriums are working overtime in order to destroy the evidence of what the regime is doing. However, if the regime thinks that it is going to get away with it, it should think again, because it will not get away with it.

Many of the people who were involved in the 1988 campaign against the regime have come forward again during these protests. The one thing that cannot be extinguished is the spirit of the people, who are fighting for liberty—their lives may be extinguished, but the campaign goes on. The campaign will go on in Burma until the hideous regime is removed.

Dr. Julian Lewis: One organisation that has not been mentioned so far is the International Criminal Court. Given that the court was set up specifically to deal with war crimes and that it exists on a standing basis, which means that a special organisation would not need to be established, is it not possible to indict before the International Criminal Court the perpetrators of the atrocities of which we have heard so much?

Mr. Evans: It is certain that those people must be brought to justice, and there is a mechanism by which that can happen. I hope that the Minister has listened to my hon. Friend and will see whether anything can be done to advance that cause, which would send the right message to the people of Burma in their struggle for freedom.

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As I have said, Aung San Suu Kyi is iconic; there are no two ways about it. She is a leading figure who acts as a focus for people around the world, in showing determination, not giving up and continuing the struggle in conditions of repression. We must remember that she is not alone; others in Burma are also continuing the struggle. I want to draw attention to two activists, both leaders of the ’88 generation of students. They have each spent 14 of the past 19 years in prison for daring to stand up to the junta.

Htay Kywe managed to spend several weeks on the run following the most recent protests. During that time, he issued statements calling for the release of other human rights activists and pointed out human rights violations that had been committed. He was one of the signatories of an open letter that took up the Burma issue with the United Nations Security Council; because of that, I am worried that he is likely to have been particularly badly treated following his arrest on 13 October. The second human rights activist is “Jimmy” Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent campaigner who went into hiding last month. His wife Nilar is still on the run. They have a four-month-old baby. Those brave men are being held in atrocious conditions, and if the past is any indicator, they will be tortured—without access to a lawyer, on trumped-up charges and with the prospect of years in prison.

Clearly, we need to keep up the pressure on the regime. Stiffening up the United Nations resolution has been mentioned. I was involved in the Inter-Parliamentary Union discussions in Geneva not long ago, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley; Burma was debated as an emergency resolution. Clearly, there was competition from those who wanted to debate Iraq, but we felt that the resolution on Burma was far more urgent.

I sat on the committee that considered the resolution asking for arms sanctions against the country. That anybody should be trading arms to Burma in this day and age defies reason. Furthermore, why would anyone want to trade with that country? Any money helping to prop up the regime—whether pound, euro or yuan—is blood money, and we must crack down on it. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley said that 143 countries were represented at the meeting, but on the committee there were representatives of China and India, and getting our resolution through, as we finally did, was not always easy. That resolution from the IPU Geneva conference is hard-hitting and I hope that the Minister has seen it. I also hope that it will be taken on board as a demonstration of how many parliamentarians throughout the world wish action to be taken against the regime.

John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a wider principle? As a general rule, dictators make bad business partners. If someone feeds the monster, it could end up devouring them.

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