Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but there is also the moral point of view: how can people sleep at night when they know that they are helping prop up a regime that carries out the atrocities that we have spoken about? That regime can turn on a group of peaceful protesters and imprison, torture and kill them. Is that what those propping up the regime
29 Oct 2007 : Column 593
want to be involved in? As far as I am concerned, they should question their consciences on an hourly basis.

We have mentioned China, India and Thailand. They and all the other ASEAN countries are important; they all have a role in trying to convince the regime that its time is up and it is time to move on. I hope that none of those countries abdicates its responsibilities; it is important that they all use their influence in every way, shape and form with the junta and its hideous regime.

I understand that the ASEAN countries have been reluctant to suspend Burma from their group. What does the Burma regime need to do before those countries say, “Enough is enough”? I cannot think of anything worse that that so-called Government can do. The wake-up call is there; in the light of the fresh reports from Burma, I hope that the ASEAN countries will consider their responsibility not to involve themselves with the regime.

I mentioned the ’88 generation, which works a lot with civil society in Burma. It is right that we give aid that gets through to the Burmese people, but we should also give aid to elements of civil society operating within the country, which are trying to bring about change. It is important that we do that.

I shall finish by quoting from the letter sent by the ’88 student generation to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, on 16 October; it casts light on the situation. It starts by saying:

I hope that the United Nations will think long and hard about that letter and what it says the UN should do. I spoke with an artist from the ’88 group who was imprisoned for six and a half years. He was beaten and has been persecuted, but he loves Burma. He has married an English lady and is about to have a child. He wishes to return to the country, but he wants to see change there. That must happen. His spirit and that of the people in prison in Burma tonight will live on until the regime falls.

7.26 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I should like to start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made an extremely eloquent speech and has campaigned on Burma for a long time. I have had the privilege of coming with people from Burma to some of the events that he has hosted in the House of Commons and I applaud his continued efforts on that front.

My hon. Friend made one of the most important points of this debate. We are debating this issue today because it is topical and the television cameras have been broadcasting events in the past few weeks. Yet, as my hon. Friend said, the situation is nothing new; it has been going on for years. There has been repression in Burma year after year, and later in my speech I shall come to a suggestion that I would like the Minister to consider.

29 Oct 2007 : Column 594

Burma is important to us. I have spoken to constituents of mine who fought in Burma during the second world war. That period has been little mentioned in this debate, yet those constituents told me of the harrowing conditions that they suffered in fighting fascism and dictatorship in Burma. They do not want their struggle to have been in vain; they do not want us to allow the dictatorship to prosper.

There is a new consensus among our youngsters. Many young British citizens expect us to do something about Burma and want us to get involved. I have received a lot of letters from young constituents urging me to speak in this debate and wanting us as a country to do something. No longer can we say that Burma is a far-away country with little strategic value to us; that is simply not acceptable to our fellow British citizens.

One of the best things to happen when we were dealing with the awful oppression and Soviet tyranny in eastern Europe was the focus on human rights. The Helsinki agreement in 1975 was pivotal to ensuring that such dictatorships were held to account. For the first time, they were forced to acknowledge that human rights issues had to be at the core of discussions and of a civilised society. I am convinced that the Helsinki agreement in ’75 was a catalyst for the eventual collapse of dictatorship and oppression in eastern Europe. We need to work with our partners in the far east to undertake a similar exercise. Burma is not the only country in the far east that faces oppression—North Korea is another, and quite a few others treat their populations brutally. It is controversial to say this, but I genuinely believe that no matter what the Minister does now—and I very much urge her to take action—she and her colleagues will need to take some serious steps, with a long-term strategy along the lines of the Helsinki agreement, to ensure that such regimes in the far east realise the importance of human rights.

I should like to talk briefly about international co-operation. When I intervened on the Secretary of State, he said that it was unhelpful to compare the stances of China and India, but I disagree. It is very important to differentiate those two countries. China will not, in all likelihood, act in this matter. China oppresses its citizens in Tibet and there are many violations against its own people. I am therefore rather sceptical about thinking that the Chinese will intervene. They have said publicly that this should be resolved by the Burmese people themselves, they do not want to lose potential energy deals, and they provide funds and succour to the junta.

Gordon Banks: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the focus on Beijing is something that the western democracies should be drawing to China’s attention? In 2008, China will no doubt want to be the beacon of the world, and it cannot achieve that if it does not act in line with the responsibilities that the democratic and western world expects of it.

Daniel Kawczynski: I entirely concur. However, there are two different beasts. The Chinese Government must be approached differently, although very strongly, from the other ASEAN countries. We talked about Burma’s borders with India, Malaysia and Thailand. Last week, I spoke to the Malaysian Foreign Minister in preparation for this debate. He expressed a willingness
29 Oct 2007 : Column 595
to try to put pressure on the Burmese Government but was frustrated by the lack of action by other ASEAN partners in working constructively together on this. We should put pressure on the Chinese but at the same time work on the other ASEAN countries.

I want to make a brief criticism of the aid situation.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Before my hon. Friend moves on to that new area, does he agree that the letter quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was reminiscent of nothing so much as the despairing broadcasts of the patriots in the Hungarian uprising in 1956? Does he also agree that the scenes of oppression that were witnessed were reminiscent, as regards China, of nothing so much as Tiananmen square? If we carry those parallels further, both regimes, having suppressed revolt, went on to loosen up the degree of repression, with beneficial results. Does he think that that might yet be reflected in Burma, providing that we continue to make enough of an outcry?

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, I completely agree. What is happening in Burma is tantamount to what happened in Budapest in ’56 and what happened in other eastern European countries. We must keep up the pressure on these dictators.

John Bercow: On the subject of there not yet being enough of an outcry, may I put it to my hon. Friend, with absolutely no disrespect or pejorative intent towards the Minister, that it is imperative that from now on these matters are raised at the highest level—by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others—precisely because it sends to the regime the signal that we accord these matters the appropriate priority and it should take its cue from that?

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and entirely agree with everything that he has said.

In the past, our Government have promised an increase in aid if there is genuine reform. Of course, that is ridiculous, as the junta has no intention of reforming in any way. That is why I am pleased that the Secretary of State announced that regardless of reform the Government are prepared to increase aid from £8.8 million to £18 million per annum by 2010. However, international statistics show that a country in Africa that is comparable to Burma, with similar levels of poverty and population, would receive £80 million in aid. I still believe that, as other hon. Members have said, £18 million is nowhere near enough to help this country, facing the crisis that it does. I do not understand why the Minister feels that the increase to £18 million is sufficient when comparable countries in Africa receive four times that amount, and I hope that she will explain that.

I support what other hon. Members have said about the importance of supporting a UN arms embargo. That is absolutely essential. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised the very important issue of British companies that are dealing with Burma. We import £26 million-worth of products, which I find shocking. The least that the Minister can do is to assure us that all the regime’s assets have been frozen, or will be frozen, and that she will do something with regard to the £26 million of imports that British companies are bringing into our country. Interestingly, the Treasury refuses to name British companies, citing confidentiality, but I understand
29 Oct 2007 : Column 596
that the Secretary of State could have the information released if he deemed it in the national interest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said, it is in the national interest to know which British companies are dealing with these barbarians. I certainly do not want to purchase anything that has been brought from that country under these circumstances. We need to know what these products are so that we can boycott them.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) made many good points, but the one that resonated particularly with me concerned the Burmese soldiers. Those soldiers seem to be prepared to shoot their fellow citizens, and that is the only thing that sustains the regime. How can they shoot their fellow Burmese—their kith and kin? Having watched the revolution in Romania in 1989, I remember that what really did for Ceausescu was the army’s refusal to shoot on its fellow Romanians—that is why that despot fell. I hope that Burmese soldiers will eventually disobey orders and not shoot their fellow citizens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) gave a very important message when he said that events in this Chamber eventually percolate down to people on the streets of Burma.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): My hon. Friend is giving an excellent account to which I have listened with care and interest. He seems to be making the same case as my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Buckingham (John Bercow)—that the only way in which this matter will be kept at the forefront of popular imagination is if this House ensures that it is debated and considered carefully and regularly, for it is a mix of political, diplomatic and economic pressure that will ultimately force the Burmese Government to relent in the interests of decency, democracy and justice.

Daniel Kawczynski: I entirely concur. I very much hope that more Members of Parliament will join my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham—I am not a one-man fan club, but he does do an awful lot—in highlighting this subject and demanding that the Government give more time for such debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said that what we say in this House seeps through to the country in question. I, too, genuinely believe that what we say in this House will somehow be heard on the streets of Rangoon and in the other towns. My message to the soldiers is this: put down your guns and cherish your brethren, and do not prop up these brutes any longer.

Mr. Evans: I wanted to re-emphasise the fact that what is said gets through, even to people in prison—even to those isolated in solitary confinement. Somehow or other, people are able to get the message through, and it is important that they continue to do that work.

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, I absolutely agree.

I would like to end my speech by saying that, with a view to this debate, I looked at BBC coverage from 1988 and compared it with the 2007 media coverage —my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley
29 Oct 2007 : Column 597
referred to the role of the media. I found a vast improvement in the coverage by the BBC, and other channels, of the brutality of what is happening in Burma. That is partly because viewers are more interested in what is going on and consequently the BBC and others are making sure that they report on it. I applaud the BBC’s coverage of the past few weeks, and I urge it to do whatever it can to ensure that British citizens are kept abreast of what is happening in this brutal dictatorship, to show great support for our Burmese friends who are struggling in this campaign.

7.41 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. Perhaps I shall not bring to it the same detailed knowledge and passion we heard from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—and others, in case he thinks that I am the second member of his fan club here today. Anyone listening to the passion and detail with which he described events could be nothing but moved. It illustrated why it is important to have such debates in this place, and leads me to one of the reasons why I wanted to take part.

Since becoming a Member of this House a couple of years ago, I have found that despite all the cynicism we might have about this country, which is sometimes engendered by our own behaviour in the House and by the comments of journalists and commentators, the letters I receive and the lobby groups I meet at Westminster make it clear that this country and its Parliament are often a beacon of hope for oppressed people throughout the world, shining for them and showing them that people in a democracy care about their plight. Sometimes in the darkness of their oppression they can feel that they are forgotten, so it is important that we are having this debate today.

The debate is also important because, just as Parliament is a beacon of hope to those people, it is a cause for concern to oppressive regimes. They know that the spotlight that shines from such debates, and the actions generated by them, will ensure that their dark deeds are exposed and that the sort of activities in which they engage against their own citizens will not go unnoticed. I wanted to take part in the debate for that reason. Moreover, Members from England, Scotland and Wales have spoken, and I want to make it clear that representatives from the whole United Kingdom see this issue as one of concern.

The abuses of the Burmese regime have been well highlighted, illustrated and documented in the debate and I do not want to take up time by adding to that. However, I welcome the outline given to us at the start of the debate regarding the Government’s actions. Although many Members expressed reservations about the effectiveness of those actions or how far the Government have gone, it is nevertheless important that we take the issue seriously as a country, and put pressure on the United Nations and directly on the regime to give hope to those who find themselves oppressed.

As a result of that pressure, we are seeing more concerted action, whether it is from Australia, which is
29 Oct 2007 : Column 598
now taking action with regard to the bank accounts of some of the members of the regime; Japan, which used to be supportive of the regime and has now withdrawn investment for the building of a university; or the United States, which has taken action with regard to visas, bank accounts and the purchase of gemstones.

One thing that strikes me in all this is that even as the sanctions were announced, the regime in Burma was arresting more people. It is still refusing the Red Cross access to prisons. New reports are coming out of further abuses of prisoners, and the regime is so confident that it can ride out the storm that it has even announced the latest auction for the sale of gemstones, which could net it somewhere in the region of $100 million—a very important source of foreign currency at a time when economic pressure has been put on the country.

One of the reasons why such things are happening is that although actions have been taken and sanctions have been imposed by the countries I mentioned, the countries that can really bring pressure to bear on the Burmese regime have not, to date, shown that they disapprove in any way. I can understand why the Chinese, for example, might feel that they have some economic justification for not leaning too hard on Burma. They rely on Burma for fuel; 40 hydroelectric power schemes are financed by the Chinese, 17 oil and gas fields are being exploited by them and a 1,500-mile gas and oil pipeline is being built. They also want naval bases and other monitoring stations on the Indian ocean. The ASEAN countries have behaved in exactly the same way. There is a certain irony in the fact that, at a time when monks were gunned down and protesters arrested, the Indian Government were in Burma, signing a deal to explore for oil and gas. It would appear that the economic interests of India, which needs fuel for its economic development, have overcome its desire to see justice done for the citizens of Burma.

There is a salient warning for us in all of this. I spoke in a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Burma a couple of weeks ago, and I commented on the role of the Chinese. It was reported on, I did an interview, and afterwards a Chinese friend said to me, “It is very good that you stand and condemn the Chinese Government for their attitude towards Burma. But look at Europe. Look at yourselves and ask whether Britain and Europe, when it is in their economic interests, do not turn a blind eye to some of the human rights abuses in the countries with which you trade?” Indeed, hon. Members have made that point already. Why will the Government not name those companies that trade with Burma, so that citizens of this country can decide whether they want to trade with those companies?

For a long time, the French, because of their oil interests in Burma, lobbied to have that country admitted to ASEAN and tried to stop sanctions on oil and gas investment. Only recently, it made available more than $400 million-worth of currency through deals to the Burmese regime. I should like the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to say when she replies to the debate whether she believes that EU sanctions have been somewhat softened by the reluctance of France, because of its economic interests, to see strong pressure applied to Burma.

Next Section Index Home Page