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Westminster Hall

Thursday 6 December 2007

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]


[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2006-07, on DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border, HC 645-I and -II; and the Government’s Response to the Tenth Report from the International Development Committee, Eleventh Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 1070.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

2.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I can say on behalf of members of the International Development Committee that we are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to debate our report. Naturally, we think that all our reports are important and relevant, but this one is particularly timely. It is important for the House to understand that the Committee undertook an inquiry into the situation in Burma before the recent events took place. After all, the plight of the people of Burma has been serious and deteriorating for 60 years, but, clearly, what has happened since our visit has put into sharp focus just how desperate it is and how important it is that the world does everything that it possibly can to alleviate the suffering there.

Members of the Committee visited the Thai-Burma border in May. We met groups that work cross-border to try to support internally displaced people close to the Thai border but on the Burmese side. We also met exiled groups that were operating out of Thailand to support the Burmese people, and in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok, we met a variety of charities and non-governmental organisations that are involved.

As I said at the outset, Burma has suffered from 60 years of civil war—my lifetime—and 45 years of a military rule that is callous, inhumane and entirely destructive. We had the opportunity to visit one of the largest camps on the border, Ban Mai Nai Soi, and to speak to the refugees. Many told us of how they were subjected to forced labour and harried out of their villages and into the jungle.

The Committee spends a great deal of time discussing poverty, but the kind of poverty that was described to us in Burma is beyond comprehension. Poverty is often described as earning less than a dollar a day, but for the internally displaced people in Burma, it is earning and having nothing. They have no access to food, medical care, education, shelter or anything. They had to flee into the jungle and were constantly harried.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman refers to poverty in Burma. The poorest state in Burma is probably Chin, which is on the Indian border. Does he think that there is considerable scope, as Christian Solidarity Worldwide urges, for cross-border initiatives to relieve the poverty
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in that state, as well as to promote democracy and human rights, in the way that CSW and other organisations have done for such a long period?

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful for that intervention. Naturally, the Committee was not able to visit all the border sites, but the report does refer to the fact that there are refugees fleeing across the borders with India, Bangladesh and China. Obviously, there are displaced people in those countries as well. The answer is simple: we should support efforts to provide relief to people along any of the borders. There is evidence that more could be done on all fronts, but, clearly, the biggest pressure is from eastern Burma into Thailand, which is why the Committee went to that area. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is correct.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. He led my colleagues on the Committee and me in producing an excellent and timely report. Could I suggest to him that the poverty that we saw is not just about an inability to get resources to live on? The fact that people are displaced across a border means that they are in no place with no hope for the future. We saw absolute desperation driven by violence. I think that we sometimes underestimate poverty, which can also involve oppression, violence and statelessness.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course poverty is all those things. We saw poverty, but what we heard about was even more serious. We spoke to the people who had actually made it across the border and were receiving some kind of support in camps. Their situation was pretty bad, but the stories that they told of how they got to the camp and the suffering that they saw before they managed to get there were, as I said earlier, beyond comprehension—and, for many people, beyond endurance.

We were told by the support agencies about the completely brutal actions of the military forces. For example, we were told that the head people of villages were forced to kill their own families in front of the village or be killed themselves. They were then harried out of the village, which was destroyed. Women were subjected to continuous and violent rape and, after enduring all of that, fled for their lives, taking nothing with them. They survived on what they could gather in the jungle or what cross-border agencies could get to them until they managed to arrive at the camps, where we encountered them. It is important to acknowledge that providing aid across the border is itself a difficult and dangerous operation, but it provides an essential lifeline for the people in that area who have literally nothing.

We were told that villagers were forced into labour by the soldiers who destroyed their village. They were then forced to plant crops and work their own fields but were driven away into the jungle while the crops grew and matured. They were then rounded up and forced to harvest the crops for the benefit of the soldiers—none of the food went to the villagers. In such a situation, even the basics of subsistence are not provided, let alone things such as health care and education, which we regard as fundamental to even a rudimentary civilisation. In many cases, none of those things was provided.

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The situation on the border represents a huge dilemma for the Royal Thai Government, who clearly have a problem. They are concerned that, if they provide too much support, they will attract even more refugees and increase the burden. Nevertheless, they are not lacking in compassion. It is estimated that there may be 1 million or even 2 million Burmese refugees living illegally in Thailand.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman and Chairman of the Select Committee for his introduction to this important debate. Would he agree that the international community must do more and offer resettlement for refugees? Frankly, it is unlikely that many refugees will be able to return in the short to medium term, and the Thai authorities have been left with a truly dreadful dilemma, as they try to cope not only with the people in the refugee camps but the 2 million who live in Thailand outside the camps. Should not the international community do more and offer permanent resettlement in their own countries?

Malcolm Bruce: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady, but, in that context, we could also do more to help Thailand. We should all share its economic burden. Of course, many of the illegal refugees are gainfully employed, but there is the danger that they may be deported at any time. Clearly, that is not a satisfactory situation.

I entirely agree that other countries should be willing to help, although I believe that the hon. Lady would acknowledge that that in itself would create a dilemma if it resulted in taking leadership away from the camps—they have more to offer—and leaving the poorest and least-skilled people behind. There is a dilemma even in trying to ensure that a social structure is maintained.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I am following with care what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with everything so far. On the situation with the refugees—he may be coming on to say something about this—it is clear that we need to sort out our own co-ordination. As far as the UK is concerned, the Foreign Office is responsible for refugees and the Department for International Development is responsible for several things relating to internally displaced people. Equally, on an international level, the respective roles of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees need to be brought together in a much more consistent way if we are to do the right thing by the refugees.

Malcolm Bruce: I completely agree with that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the co-ordination of all kinds of agencies is an issue that comes up in almost every situation that the Select Committee investigates. It is certainly true in this context that more effective co-ordination would be of benefit to the refugees and displaced people.

The hon. Gentleman anticipated the point that I was going to make about the operation of DFID and the Foreign Office and the location of offices. We were a little surprised to arrive in Bangkok and find that the DFID office was in the process of closing. The decision,
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which had been taken some years ago, was perfectly understandable, in that Thailand is a middle-income country and DFID’s commitment is to poor countries. In that context, the Committee would not expect Thailand to have a DFID office, but the reality in Burma is that DFID has a serious daily responsibility to be in touch with the plight of people operating in Thailand to support people in Burma. We have asked the Government to reconsider their decision to operate entirely from Rangoon with no DFID staff in Bangkok. I do not expect the Minister to give a commitment to act on that, but I should be grateful if he at least undertook to look closely at the practice. I told the Secretary of State informally that my guess is that, if the groups that operate out of Bangkok were asked whether they are frustrated at the absence of the daily contact that they previously had, they would say yes and that they would appreciate a more regular contact.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): As a member of the Committee on the visit, I reinforce the need for co-ordination in Bangkok. Many organisations can freely co-ordinate their activities in Burma through direct aid and across the border only when they leave Burma. They must meet outside, because there is no way that they can meet and speak freely about what they are doing within the regime.

Malcolm Bruce: That is exactly the point. People were prepared to say things to us during meetings in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that they would not have been prepared to say in Burma. In that context, the Government say in their response to our report:

I suggest that a meeting every three months does not compare with daily contact, which is what happened before relocation to Rangoon. The Government continued:

The problem is that one does not know when to fly if one does not know what the issue is, and that comment demonstrates remoteness from the need to engage with groups in Thailand.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I shall return to this point if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Gale, but it may be helpful to say now that, as the Committee Chairman knows, the Conservative party strongly supports his point. We hope that the Government will look again at the excellent section of the report that argues that point, and we want to encourage the Minister, even now during our debate when he has his officials behind him, to consider whether he can change policy on that important matter.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful for that intervention and support. The Government should consider carefully whether they can continue to maintain the close links, co-operation and working relationship with groups operating in Thailand if they do not have a permanent member of staff or two based in Bangkok.

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We were, however, impressed with the work of the Foreign Office and the embassy in Bangkok, and we do not wish in any way to criticise that work, particularly in support of refugees. We believe that a DFID engagement is necessary in addition to, not instead of, the Foreign Office engagement. I hope that the Minister and the Department will think carefully about the decision that has been enacted and consider whether, in practice, they need to revisit it. I hope that they will do so, because we are not convinced that the close relationships that were maintained before the office closed can be continued under these arrangements.

The Government have acknowledged that support for refugees and cross-border organisations, and in-country support for the Three Diseases Fund and the civic society group, are not mutually exclusive, and we had a considerable debate about that. We had the impression at one point that the Government were arguing that cross-border support was something that other people provided, and that DFID and the Government had an advantage in providing in-country support. I should like to make it clear, as I am sure would the Committee, that we commend DFID’s work in Rangoon and want it to do more of it, but looking at the problem of Burma in its entirety, we do not believe that we can do that without providing support for cross-border agencies and exile groups at the same time. It is not an either/or matter; the approach should be dual-pronged.

In the light of developments since our visit, will the Minister tell us by how much, for example, the funding of the Three Diseases Fund can and will be increased and whether it is still possible to work with civic society and faith groups in-country in the wake of the recent clampdown? How closely supervised are DFID staff, and how restrictive is the supervision by the junta Government and their officials? Were any of DFID’s key partners inside Burma directly affected by recent events? Those constraints and problems are being confronted on the ground.

I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement on 29 October that aid to Burma will be doubled from £9 million to £18 million by 2010. I also welcome the fact that that will be reviewed and could lead to the quadrupling of aid, which our Committee called for, on the same time scale. Although, not surprisingly, there has been some concern that the Government should go further and faster, it is fair to say that they have responded positively. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) looks rueful, and no doubt he will explain himself, but we asked for a quadrupling of aid. The Government have not ruled that out and have immediately doubled it, so it would be churlish to deny that that is a positive response.

A small matter of Committee sensitivity is that it received the Government’s response to our report on 15 October, and in response to our call to quadruple aid they said:

A week later, they announced their decision to double it and that they might further increase it subsequently. It would have been good for parliamentary relations if they had acknowledged the report and the response to it, rather than implying that they had made a spontaneous decision unrelated to anything that was going on. We shall claim the credit anyway.

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James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I hope that the Minister was listening and that, when he finally accepts the full recommendations and quadruples aid, he will commend the Committee on its work.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful for that intervention. There is a serious point, because the Committee worked extremely hard and made serious recommendations. It is gratifying when the Government accept all or part of those recommendations, but Ministers seem to be reluctant to acknowledge that they are responding to parliamentary pressure. It would be a virtue if Ministers welcomed that and publicly acknowledged it, but perhaps that is for the future.

John Battle: I would like the right hon. Gentleman to emphasise one point. Aside from the increase in funds, the business of the Three Diseases Fund is crucial, because 70 per cent. of the population are at risk from malaria, and Burma now has the third highest HIV prevalence in the whole of south-east Asia. Moving on from our report, I suggest that DFID and other international donors should start to look at alternative mechanisms for tackling the three diseases. We saw from the maps that were presented to us that there is no way that their present strategy will cover people’s needs.

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I certainly hope that the Department will provide more detail on how it is using the extra money to scale up delivery of those services. I agree with him that a stronger and deeper infrastructure is necessary for that to happen. The point is that the Burmese Government—if one can call them a Government—spend almost nothing on health care and provision and, as the Committee has discovered from looking at aspects of health care in other parts of the world, if there is no health service infrastructure it is extraordinarily difficult to provide even the most basic treatment. Nevertheless, the evidence is that the Three Diseases Fund has been successful in reaching at least some people, and it would be worth the Government explaining in more detail how they propose to extend it to reach more people more quickly.

In the present situation, development in Burma is virtually inconceivable; all we are offering is absolutely basic aid. When I say that development is inconceivable, I mean that it is inconceivable as long as the country is under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship that holds normal human values in contempt and cares nothing for the people of Burma, still less for the ethnic minorities in the country. Some of those who participated in the recent protests—since the Committee visited the area—have said that they are now so poor and so repressed that it is worth dying to change things, because life offers so little. A question hangs in the air: is change likely as long as the junta is in power? Is there any prospect of change from within? I say to the Minister that—obviously, in co-operation with the Foreign Office—every effort must be intensified to bring that brutal regime to an end.

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