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29 Oct 2007 : Column 606

Mr. Mitchell: Indeed, but the situation in Burma has not.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, debates such as this one matter outside the House. He spoke with great passion, as did others, about the importance of holding these debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) pointed out that the subject is of interest across all generations. I have visited sixth forms, as other Members will have done, and I know how right he is, because they care passionately about Burma and about dysfunctional regimes around the world which are repressing their citizens.

Although there is deep gloom in the House about the situation in Burma, there are also many heroes. One thinks of the almost impossible bravery of the monks and nuns whom we saw on our televisions in scenes that we had hoped had been dispatched to the last century. Their bravery was described with his customary eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). While we salute their bravery, we should also mention the bravery of many others who are involved in trying to bring these terrible circumstances to a conclusion. I think in particular of Mark Canning, the excellent British ambassador who is doing such a good job in Burma, and Charles Petrie, the United Nations humanitarian and resident co-ordinator, who is making a difference in extremely difficult circumstances. Those two deeply impressive individuals are serving their country and the international community at this critical time for Burma. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned Zoya Phan, and my hon. Friend mentioned Ben Rogers, who does such good and dedicated work in the area with Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The concerns expressed are many. They fall into three different but interlinked categories. The first relates to the extraordinary and acute levels of poverty that exist in Burma. It is a country of immense economic potential, with no external enemies, which has seen itself descend yet further into the mire of poverty while surrounding Asian countries have lifted hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. In a report circulated today, the Save the Children Fund calculates that children in Burma face the worst poverty in Asia. We know that 50 per cent. of its children lack any form of primary education. Various statistics have been given on health spending in Burma, but it is a fraction of what is spent in surrounding countries, and 16 times less than what is spent in Thailand. If hon. Members cast their minds back to the television pictures of protesters in Burma, they will recall that the people standing behind the monks were not student activists but middle-aged women who traditionally carry the burdens of families coping in many societies. They could no longer provide for their families, many of which are now living in circumstances of near starvation or starvation in Burma.

Many hon. Members spoke about people who are classified as internally displaced. For most of us, that means refugees in the country itself. I cannot find the words to convey the sense of fury and outrage that I felt when I visited Ei Tu Hta camp and which we should all feel about the situation in the camps on the border. They should be safe havens. Often when people seek refuge in refugee camps, they do so in somewhere
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that is at least temporarily safe, but the camps on the border are not safe. The Burmese army is terrifyingly close, and the squalor in the camps—again, so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and others who speak with authority having seen what is happening there—is truly horrific.

In that context, I am surprised and rather disappointed that the Government have not accepted in full the recommendations of the Select Committee on International Development’s excellent report. Indeed, they have rejected the most important ones. The Committee called for the current aid budget for Burma of £8.8 million to be quadrupled by 2013. Conservative Members have been calling for that since at least May 2006. The Committee concluded:

We agree completely with the Committee’s recommendation. If we are in government after the next election, we will implement that proposal in full and immediately.

Some hon. Members pointed to the level of aid in surrounding countries. I think that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) asked what it said about the priorities for British aid. It is interesting to note that compared with that £8.8 million, which was recently increased, Cambodia is receiving £12 million; Vietnam, a country that is storming out of poverty, is receiving £52 million from the British taxpayer; and China, which had a trade surplus last month of $24 billion, is receiving £40 million this year and, I think, next year. We do not think that that set of priorities is correct. We very much hope that the Secretary of State will look at them again to see what further assistance can be given to the people who are living in desperate conditions in the camps and to the other programmes that are being mounted, some of them by the British embassy in Burma.

John Bercow: I hugely welcome my hon. Friend’s clear and explicit commitment to increase support. For the avoidance of doubt, may I tell him that there is no issue of capacity constraint? The Select Committee looked at the issues, took evidence, studied the subject in detail and posed the relevant questions. As far as cross-border aid is concerned and the funding of democracy organisations to boot, they explained to us just what they could do if we gave them additional support. There is no doubt or mystique about that whatever.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee has produced an excellent report, compelling in its arguments for the reasons my hon. Friend makes clear. I urge the Secretary of State to look again at what more he can do to help.

Daniel Kawczynski: Russia, a rapidly growing country with huge oil reserves, has also received aid from the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State must look again at how international aid is spent so that countries such as Burma receive their fair share?

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Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

That brings me to Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders, particularly from the students of ’88. The junta is incredibly fortunate to be dealing with the leadership of the quality of Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Professor Gambardi found to be focused and committed. He said that she understood not only the political but the economic task ahead in Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley talked about the students of ’88 and I would like to mention Min Ko Naing, one of its leaders, who, along with others, has always opposed any form of violence. The junta is fortunate because these are clear leaders with a good vision of leadership who understand that one needs to look to the future and not to the past. They are not interested in revenge and retribution and they understand that it will be a complicated battle in Burma to get the military into its rightful position and the politicians into theirs. They understand that democracy will take time but that there has to be a road map to reach it—not the bogus one beloved of the junta, which will take something like 100 years to complete, but a proper road map that puts the military into its correct place. If one looks at the difficulties with the Darfur negotiations in Libya, where it is so difficult to get a leadership that can speak for the opposition, one sees that the junta in Burma is indeed fortunate.

The junta appointed Major-General Aung Kyi as the interlocutor with Aung San Suu Kyi. He is rated for his abilities and has clear influence within the regime, which means, we hope, that he will be able to open up the negotiations. As the Secretary of State has said, if these negotiations can take place and a road map is agreed—if the regime is serious—a huge range of things that the international community can do in those circumstances becomes a possibility.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): My hon. Friend keeps focusing on the positive things that one can do with negotiation and providing extra aid, but does he agree that it is absolutely crucial that we use the international banking system to continue to put the financial squeeze on a regime that relies on dollars and euros to trade in oil, gas and gems?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is right and I will come to that point. It is clear that international pressure has had some beneficial effect. In particular, China has been immensely helpful, engaged both in New York and in Burma, specifically in respect of Professor Gambari’s visit. China is clearly deeply dismayed by the instability across its border in a country with 2.5 million Chinese nationals. Like others, I have been to see the Chinese ambassador to Britain, and the tactic of the Government and others of encouraging the Chinese to use their immense influence appears to be paying some dividends. We should welcome that.

Along with others in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), I am surprised that India, the largest
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democracy in the world, has not felt it right to do more than it has done so far. I hope that the Foreign Office and the Secretary of State will do all they can to encourage the Indian Government to play a much greater role.

The role of Thailand has been mentioned. It is a key funder of the regime, not least through the purchase of gas from the Yadana and Yetagun gas fields, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the regime, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made clear. Thailand, too, has a role and is escaping international scrutiny that should be directed towards it.

The UN can do more. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, we think that the Secretary-General should make it clear that this matter is of such importance that he, too, will go there in the near future. We urge the Government to underline that point. We need a resolution requiring meaningful talks with the democracy movement and the sort of road map that I mentioned.

As numerous hon. Members have said tonight, we need a comprehensive and mandatory arms embargo. China, India, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and ASEAN countries are suppliers of arms to this illegitimate regime and they should cease being so.

We greatly welcome the EU travel ban against Government Ministers and cronies that has been in place for some time, and the smart sanctions that are being devised and deployed against the junta leaders and their assets. That is an important development of sanctions policy, which we strongly support. We welcome the extension of sanctions to timber, logging, precious metals and gems. They are small areas of the economy from which the regime gains disproportionate benefit. It is right to target those areas with sanctions. They do work, as has been pointed out. Air Bagan, the internal airline—owned and run by the regime’s number one crony, Tay Za—has had to suspend its operations to Singapore because its bank accounts have been closed down. The reason for that is that all banks have such strong links to the United States that the danger to their image and business of their continuing such banking arrangements is too great. That is an example of the international community working effectively to bring about sanctions that really do hit the regime.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend mentioned image, which is very important. Does that not underline the merit—if not the imperative—of naming and shaming companies that trade with Burma, because if they are publicly exposed they will have to calculate whether the ill-gotten gains are worth the damage from other quarters? They might judge that it is simply not worth it.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend yet again makes an extremely good point; it is relevant to the decisions made by the banking community that I have just described.

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My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was the only Member to raise tonight the interesting question of the International Criminal Court. In his speech to the UN General Assembly of 25 September, the Secretary-General said that

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, has made the same point. In response to the crisis in Burma, the Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that

The Foreign Secretary said that the regime would be “held to account”. The EU has called

In the light of those statements and the dreadful catalogue of gross violations of human rights amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, are the Government considering working with other Governments to request the UN—through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special rapporteur, or a commission of inquiry or other mechanisms—to carry out a thorough, complete and independent investigation into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, with a view to bringing a case to the UN Security Council for referral to the ICC? If so, what resources will the Government, through either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, commit to enable such an investigation to be conducted properly? Does the Minister accept that it is essential that such an investigation is not limited to the events of recent weeks, but that it covers the full scale of human rights violations in all parts of Burma over many years?

All of us underestimate the power of the ICC in such circumstances—Members will remember the discussions that took place in New York last year with President Bashir of Sudan, which showed of what deep concern the workings of the ICC were to him and his regime. That enables us to make it clear—as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham and for Buckingham have made clear in the debate—that we will hold to account the individual soldiers who take part in brutality and repression in Burma today. Just as the regime is able to use photographs to identify the protesters, so the international community is able to identify the individual soldiers in the regime and make them accountable for their actions. We need to be clear that that is what the international community intends to do.

It is easy to be pessimistic about what has gone on in Burma and the likely course of future events, but I submit to the House that the events over recent weeks are different from those that took place in 1988. In 1988, it was a long time before we knew that more than 3,000 people had been massacred by this regime, but now, partly because of the internet, we are able to know what is going on in real time. Despite the efforts of the authorities in Rangoon, they have been unable to shut down the internet and we know what is happening.

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This regime will not be able to put the cork back into the bottle. Protest might not come back on the streets in quite the same way in the next few weeks, but the junta has done huge damage to its power structure by attacking Buddhism. So many monks have been locked up and beaten that as, inevitably, they are released and trickle back into their community, there will be fury at how they have been treated. Indeed, over the past weekend, graffiti has been appearing on the walls in Rangoon saying “Than Shwe killer”. That is an example of the change that is taking place in Burmese society.

Let the whole international community determine that this time things in Burma will be different. I want to end with a quote from the end of a good report just published by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium:

8.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): This has been an excellent and important debate. We have rightly heard a lot of anger and passion expressed, as well as concerns from both sides of the House and hon. Members from all parties pressing for change. Many powerful speeches have described the situation, none more so than those of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) related this issue to what is happening at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and that is enormously important, because parliamentarians across the world should be talking about this. Last week, I visited Singapore’s Parliament and I was reassured to hear its parliamentarians asking their Foreign Minister many questions about the situation in Burma. I am also told by the Malaysian Foreign Minister, whom I met in the UK last week, that the same thing is happening in the Malaysian Parliament.

An instructive exchange took place last week at the UN General Assembly Third Committee. The special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, gave an initial briefing on the recent crackdown and his assessment made for grim listening. In response, the Burmese delegation said that the country had returned to “normalcy.” The truth, of course, is anything but that. Thousands remain detained in appalling conditions; despite the relaxation of the curfew, night-time arrests continue; and the show trials have begun.

This debate has been useful in underlining how strongly this House, and indeed this country as a whole, feels about the ongoing situation. It has sent a clear signal to the Burmese regime and the Burmese people that we will not forget and we will not turn away.

I pay tribute to the very many public campaigns, both here and abroad, that are keeping Burma high on
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the international agenda. A number of hon. Members have referred to them. The plight of the Burmese people has united people within the Government and across UK-based and global non-governmental organisations in an unprecedented way. It is vital that we keep up the momentum.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) rightly recognised the work done by our ambassador and his staff in Rangoon, and I, too, pay tribute to the enormously important role that they are playing. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have a long and deep knowledge of Burma and the Burmese people. I have therefore not been at all surprised at the quality of analysis that we have heard tonight, and I will seek to respond to as many of the points that have been made as possible.

In response to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I shall outline the next steps that we would envisage in a reconciliation process in Burma. The regime needs to establish a genuine process of national reconciliation, including maintaining regular contacts with Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her state-appointed interlocutor; releasing from custody key opposition figures, so that Aung San Suu Kyi can consult them; and fully opening the door to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and allowing him to stay in the country as long as he needs to do so and, if he wants to, to establish a permanent presence there.

Hon. Members were right to identify that, although the vast majority of Burmese people are denied the most basic human rights, it is the ethnic groups, particularly those in the conflict and border areas, who suffer worst of all. The reports almost beggar belief: villages destroyed, women systematically raped, prisoners tortured, children forced into the army and civilians used as human minesweepers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said, any political process will need fully to involve those ethnic groups, which make up nearly a third of Burma’s population. Their role will be as central to reconciliation as that of the pro-democracy civil opposition. They are unlikely to embrace any political agreement that does not incorporate the demands broadly shared across all 120 separate ethnic groups: the protection of cultural identity, the equitable control of natural resources and a degree of political autonomy at state level. Ensuring that the interests of ethnic minorities are properly engaged will be vital if stability is to be maintained in a democratic Burma. I had the opportunity to meet some Karen refugees in Sheffield on Friday when I was in my constituency, and I heard directly from them how they feel that it is important that their situation is recognised in any future reconciliation.

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