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6 Dec 2007 : Column 326WH—continued

The tragedy for Burma is that it is rich in natural resources and has a potential for development that other countries would give their eye teeth for. However, the country’s resources are being exploited by the
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dictatorship simply to sustain itself in power, rather than to provide anything for the people in terms of economic, health or education benefits, or any of the normal perquisites of civilisation. The country is being developed with no regard whatever for the people.

We must also consider Burma’s neighbours. Clearly, the military regime is sustained by the fact that Burma can find customers for its resources abroad. It is therefore worth asking what China, India and Russia especially are doing. Will the Minister say what protests have been lodged against Russia’s plans to build a nuclear power station for the regime? The Government are worried about Iran, but I hear no protests about the fact that Russia wants to build a nuclear power station in Burma. How can India hold its head up as a democracy—the largest democracy in the world—and as a member of the Commonwealth while continuing to provide arms for the regime? What protests have the Government lodged and what engagement have they had with the Indian Government on the matter?

Finally, and perhaps most important, what discussions are the Government holding with China? Of the three countries I have mentioned, China is the one with which some degree of co-operation and understanding might be the most productive. Clearly, the Chinese want assets—oil, gas, electricity and water—for eastern China, and nobody can blame them for wishing to secure them from a close source. However, China also needs security of supply, so it must consider whether a military regime whose people are suffering and who are beginning to protest provides a secure basis for future supply, or whether it ought to apply pressure to ensure that the regime delivers some democracy, freedom and services for the people, to create a stability that will in turn provide future security for China’s investment in Burma. What talks are being held with China to that effect?

The Committee believes that there is scope for a significant increase in DFID’s in-country aid to Burma. We welcome the Government response, but we want them to go further. They must ensure that money goes to all the appropriate resources, whether in-country or out of country, where they can be reached and be effective. There must be no continuation of a debate that says we can do one thing and not another. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, we need to co-ordinate with other agencies to ensure that whatever we do is done most effectively and reaches the maximum number of people, and we should pile pressure on the junta to accept its responsibilities to the people whom it subjugates and represses.

In conclusion, recent events suggest that if we cannot prise the generals’ fingers off the levers of power in Burma, the 60 years of suffering might end in a bloody and awful denouement. In the meantime, we must do everything in our power to relieve the suffering of the Burmese people and to bring an end to a brutal and repressive regime.

2.54 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the debate, as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the report specifically and to highlight the desperate situation faced by the people of
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Burma that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) so eloquently described. It also allows us to remind the world that Burma is not forgotten here in the Houses of Parliament, or by many of our constituents, who express concern about events in that country.

I shall talk about a link between my constituency and Burma that I believe deserves wider publicity and from which some wider lessons could be drawn. Forthview primary school in my constituency has set up a partnership link with Hle Bee school in Mae Sot province in Thailand, whose pupils are drawn from Burmese refugees living in Thailand near the border with Burma. The partnership link is supported by DFID’s global schools partnership programme. It is a good example of how that programme provides a successful educational experience for pupils and students in the UK, who gain a wider awareness of other countries—in this case, the desperate situation faced by Burmese refugees in Thailand.

Because it involves a school in my constituency, I have taken a close interest in the link. If the Minister wants to see a good example of one of his partnership links in operation, I would welcome him to my constituency to have a look at the programme. Earlier this year, the head teacher of Forthview, Sheila Laing, who provides inspirational leadership for the project, visited Hle Bee on the Thai-Burma border. In October, Dr. Thein Lwin, a leading educationalist involved with refugees in Chiang Mai province, visited Forthview and spent a productive week in the school working with pupils, taking part in classes and other activities, and working in the wider community beyond the specific remit of the global schools partnership programme. That successfully highlighted the plight of the Burmese people to the pupils of Forthview and the wider community. The pupils have, on their own initiative, been selling orange ribbons to raise funds for their partner school in Thailand for the Burmese refugees, and they have raised considerable amounts in that way.

I wanted to put that example on the record and to bring it to the attention of a wider audience. It is an excellent link, thanks to the work of the pupils, students and staff, and it highlights what can be done under the global schools partnership programme. Certainly, I hope that the Department will be able to continue to support the link in future years.

The link with the school on the Thai-Burma border has been made possible also by the support provided and work done by the Burma Educational Scholarship Trust. The trust is an Edinburgh-based charity that seeks to improve access to quality tertiary education for students and learners from Burma, both those living in exile in the UK and other countries and those living on the Thai-Burma border. The charity has educational policy practice links through the teacher training for Burmese teachers programme and the migrant workers learning centre programmes in Chiang Mai, and it has supported the schools link in my constituency. The trust wants to extend its work with schools and with the secondary and tertiary sectors in the UK, and it has just successfully developed a partnership with Newbattle Abbey college near Edinburgh, where two refugee students so far have benefited from a residential access course.

That is an example of the many ways in which we can support the people of Burma on the Thai-Burma border and here in the UK. It is the kind of work that I hope a
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flexible approach to DFID funding will continue to support, both in the UK and on the Thai-Burma border.

John Battle: My hon. Friend and others may recall that in the 1970s, when there was a military dictatorship in Chile, the Labour Government of the day made arrangements that when people came to Britain as refugees, they were made welcome and allowed to stay. I am sure that he must have experienced, as I and others have, that when Burmese refugees arrive in Britain, they often do not have paperwork that specifies their origins, their date of birth and so on. Would it not be better if we had support not only from DFID but from the Foreign Office to ensure that refugees from Burma are made welcome in Britain so that we can work with them?

Mark Lazarowicz: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is precisely the sort of comment that was made to me by the people involved in the Burma Educational Scholarship Trust in Edinburgh, who talked about the difficulties often faced by Burmese refugees here in the UK.

I have highlighted the work done by the organisations and links in my own constituency. It is the sort of work that should be encouraged and replicated elsewhere in the UK. Obviously, the Minister cannot give any off-the-cuff commitments to support particular projects today, but I hope that he will look favourably on the work being done by those organisations. If he cares to visit my constituency to see some of this work in practice, I will be very happy to make the necessary arrangements.

3.1 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). I welcome the debate and support the conclusions of the report undertaken by the Committee, of which I am proud to be a member.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on his presentation of our findings. Moreover, I thank all those who made our visit a seamless success. A terrific Committee operation was undertaken before, during and after our visit, and that contributed to the success of the work.

Let me start by laying out the context for this debate. The egregious abuse of human rights of the long-suffering people of Burma has become ever more widely known, not least since the truly despicable catalogue of events in September. In contrast, the incidence and depth of the poverty of the people of Burma are relatively less familiar to people in this country and around the world. Yet there is, of course, a crucial link between the abuse and the prolongation and exacerbation of poverty. It is that set of phenomena—extreme disregard for human rights on the one hand and truly breathtaking poverty and destitution on the other—that offers the backdrop to the decision to launch the inquiry in the first place, and to the work undertaken on and the findings produced by our report.

Let me focus on those two phenomena. Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country of the world, the use of human minesweepers, religious
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persecution, the incarceration in conditions of quite unspeakable bestiality of thousands of political prisoners, excruciating water torture and the wanton destruction of more than 3,000 villages across eastern Burma over the past decade and more are all part of the institutionalised savagery that has caused the military junta of Burma to stink in the nostrils of decent people across the globe. Yet how many people appreciate the extent of the poverty, which is endemic and pervasive in Burma, from which millions of people suffer? I suggest that there is still a considerable ignorance of its extent.

Let us remind ourselves and inform others for the first time of the scale of the problem with which we, as policy makers or attempted influencers of policy, have to contend. A third of the people of Burma exist—I will not use the inappropriate word “live”—on less than a third of a dollar a day. Half of all children in Burma do not manage to get through, and therefore benefit from, five years in school. One in 10 of the children of Burma dies before they reach the age of five. Since 1990, 80,000 women and children have been trafficked from Burma to Thailand, as documented and testified to by the International Labour Organisation and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.

On top of that, 340,000 people in Burma are living with AIDS. That is the scale of the crisis that faces us. I put it to hon. Members that it is no disgrace, but it is something of a regret on my part, that because of the very proper focus on and preoccupation with sub-Saharan Africa, of which this Committee, the Government and the House can be proud, there is a tendency sometimes to disregard, to underplay or simply to remain ignorant of the fact of the simultaneous co-existence of peoples in other countries outside sub-Saharan Africa who endure poverty on a comparable scale.

It is a matter of historical fact that Burma has suffered from a disproportionately low aid budget over decades under British Governments of both colours—I am not for one moment making a partisan political observation. When both Conservative and Labour Governments have been in power, the problem has been grotesquely under-recognised. For example, Burma receives an aid budget that is approximately a quarter of that afforded to Zimbabwe. That budget does not remotely compare with that of its neighbours, which provide suitable comparisons, such as Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. An aid budget, until amended and uplifted, of $2.40 per person per year is frankly an insult to the suffering of the people of that beautiful but beleaguered country.

On the aid budget, I want to say at the outset that I am in a positive spirit. It is proper to appreciate progress, and I pay tribute to the Government for announcing the doubling of the aid budget. Unquestioningly and without hesitation, I say that that announcement on 29 October was an extremely welcome move, and the Secretary of State for International Development is certainly entitled to claim credit for it, but I cavil somewhat at the choreography of events in recent times. The right hon. Member for Gordon made an extremely pertinent point: it is not immediately apparent to me why it was necessary to issue a relatively downbeat governmental response that gave the impression of cocking a snook at the Committee and having a less than full respect for our work or findings, and then, only a matter of days later, to make this announcement for all the world as though
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it were something that the double-first brains of the Department for International Development had, entirely of their own initiative, devised. However, I do not want to dwell on the point any longer. Suffice it to say that the Committee approves of what the Government have done. If the Government accept the logic of the doubling and that leads to a quadrupling, at which possibility the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) himself hinted during the course of DFID questions yesterday, we would have good reason to offer not two but three cheers.

John Battle: The Committee is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for championing Burma and ensuring that we compiled a report. We thank him for that and for the pressure that he applied. However, I am sure that he agrees with me that there is always a dilemma. It is easy to say “give aid”, and for the Government to give aid. However, when a country moves to dictatorship, we then meet campaigns saying “withdraw the aid”. The real difficulty is ensuring that that aid reaches the people who need it. It is not always possible to go through Governments or even to get NGOs in, so we might have to look internationally, collectively and much more imaginatively at how we support the poor in Burma, rather than simply saying that Government programmes will do that, because they cannot.

John Bercow: The right hon. Gentleman has made a perfectly valid point. If we are to double the current budget by 2010 and to hold out the reasonable prospect of quadrupling it by 2013, which is what the Select Committee recommended and what Her Majesty’s Conservative Opposition are committed to delivering, it is right that there be much more transparency, concern about accountability and satisfaction in our own minds that mechanisms exist to ensure the effective, efficient and cost-efficient delivery of aid that is, after all, available only courtesy of the British taxpayer. I therefore accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said on that front.

I want now to focus on three points of particular interest in a report that deserves commendation. First, one hot issue of debate in the Committee and between different witnesses was whether there should be an increased focus on delivering cross-border aid. I make no secret of the fact that I have long been a partisan of the view that there is great scope for increasing cross-border aid and that it would be quite wrong for Britain unilaterally to depart the scene on the frankly unsatisfactory ground that other countries were delivering cross-border aid and that it was therefore not necessary for us to do so. Given our strength in the area, the importance that we attach to the issue and the pronouncements that have been made about Burma in recent months by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, not to mention by the Secretary of State for International Development, it would be absurd if we simply abdicated responsibility and said, “Well, others can do something.”

We should increase resources to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, but we should also recognise that other organisations are involved in delivering cross-border assistance. When we listened to the witnesses, there was
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a strong current of opinion to the effect that much more could be done, if more resources were provided. That is particularly true of the delivery of health services and immediate medical relief, but it would also assist education and the provision of materials and, in some cases, teachers.

Cross-border assistance should therefore be a priority in the period ahead, and I was disappointed that the Government response suggested no real sense of urgency on the part of Ministers and did not even contain a clear declaration of intent to increase cross-border aid. Instead, the Government took refuge in the argument that a UN OCHA assessment was being done, pending the completion of which it would not be appropriate to commit further.

Ann McKechin rose—

John Bercow: That line of argument is not satisfactory, but before I explain why, I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Ann McKechin: I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that one central body co-ordinates aid in Burma and cross-border work. It is also vital that the UN is the primary body involved in organising and carrying out the mapping exercise, given that some donors, such as the United States of America, which is a major donor, do not operate in Burma and that only a few donors, including the UK, operate within the country’s borders. I fully accept that the UN needs to get its act together quickly and that all sides in the international community should be putting the maximum pressure on the UN to ensure that the mapping exercise is carried out without delay, so that we can all make proper, efficient decisions about what to do with our donor money.

John Bercow: I may be mistaken, and time will tell, but I have a feeling that the hon. Lady will not have to wait long. My expectation is that the results of the mapping exercise will be forthcoming very soon. A little bird tells me that the work has been undertaken, although, even then, I confess to a tinge of disappointment. My expectation was that the mapping exercise would be country-wide and that those undertaking it would take an overall, holistic view of the delivery of cross-border aid, including the requirement for it, the capacity to deliver it and the efficacy with which it could be delivered, perhaps by using a comparison of the other mechanisms that might be available. My impression so far is that it has been not a full piece of work, but a relatively partial one, and I am not certain whether it will consider the issue for all the borders, which would be a great pity. The Committee’s report was, of course, on DFID assistance to Burmese internally displaced people and refugees on the Thai-Burma border, but the lessons that we drew from what we learned are potentially of wider application to people living on, or in close proximity to, other borders with Burma and not just the Thailand-Burma border.

I am therefore a bit worried about the issue of cross-border aid. The Government have been hesitant and neurotic about it, and there has been a ready supply of excuses for inaction and inertia. The Government have
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tended to say that they have a comparative advantage, deploying what one might almost consider an economist’s justification for their policy priority, which is not validated by a study of the facts on the ground. Moreover, there has been an inclination in Government circles—this might be in the ether or reflect a characteristic of some officials, rather than a conscious decision by Ministers—to play down the number of people who could potentially benefit from the delivery of cross-border aid. There has been a move to say, “Well, of course, there are only about 100,000 people—that’s only about nought point whatever per cent. of the population of Burma.” That has given the impression that some people want to rubbish the notion of cross-border aid, which would be a thoroughly misguided position to take. The truth of the matter is that some people are in extreme poverty and their security is at grave risk, and they can be reached only by the mechanism of cross-border aid—in-country assistance will avail them nothing. That is the first point. If the priority is to help most of those who have least, which should presumably be a defining characteristic of DFID’s responsibility, we should focus on such people irrespective of their numbers.

There is a tendency to think that we are talking simply about internally displaced people, but a substantial number of people in Burma are not internally displaced; they live in their original, perhaps long-term homes, but they are on the edge—they have absolutely nothing, which, as the right hon. Member for Gordon said earlier, is characteristic of many people in Burma. Such people cannot eat, cannot drink, cannot access health care and cannot get to school—by whatever yardstick we choose to measure poverty, we would have to say that they are genuinely destitute. I therefore hope that we will help them and that there will be an announcement soon.

If the UN OCHA report does not cover the whole of Burma, I hope that the Government will not for one moment consider arguing that further studies at multilateral or other levels, conducted over several months or even years, are required before a policy decision can be made to extend the principle behind the delivery of cross-border aid over the Thai-Burmese border to other borders. There is a pressing need for cross-border assistance over the India border into Chin state, and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his seat, rightly referred to the privations of the people in that state, and he was right to highlight that phenomenon.

I went to the India-Burma border with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the company, notably, of Baroness Cox of Queensbury and the Asia advocacy officer for CSW, Ben Rogers, from 14 to 21 September. Hon. Members should be in no doubt about the extent of the difficulties faced by people in, or fleeing from, Chin state. Some estimates are that 70 per cent. of the population live below the poverty line. Thousands of people have fled Chin state and are now living in Mizoram in north-eastern India and a good many have gone elsewhere. Those who continue to reside—not in anything approximating to safety—in Chin state, definitely need assistance. Given that, just as there is capacity to deliver aid across the border from Thailand, there is capacity across the border in India, I hope that we can do that work. There are backpack health worker teams, which are to be congratulated on their work.

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