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6 Dec 2007 : Column 346WH—continued

The final figures are not at hand, but I can provide a commitment in principle to increasing our funding to the Three Diseases Fund, which should give a strong
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steer. We will also increase our funding on education, livelihoods, refugees, internally displaced persons and, of course, cross-border groups—a matter echoed by all hon. and right hon. Members today. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked for explicit confirmation that we will increase support in those areas, and I say categorically that we will.

As far as we can in Burma’s restrictive political environment, we support people’s will to manage their own affairs at a local level. To help build the foundations for democracy, we are providing £500,000 over three years in order to help civil society organisations to organise themselves better. Furthermore, we are setting up a £3 million fund to support organisations that help people to have more of a say in local decision making—for example, on forest management, agriculture, education and health.

The recent spotlight has been on the urgent need for change at the centre of Burmese politics, for serious movement towards democracy, for national reconciliation and for an end to the repression that, sadly, we have witnessed in recent months. However, we must not take our eyes off the continuing conflict in eastern Burma and its terrible impact on those living there. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield gave a powerful and graphic description of some of the profound cruelty experienced by those living in and around Burma.

As many as 500,000 people in Burma are displaced. Some 100,000 of them are sheltering in areas torn and ravaged by conflict, and some 160,000 are living as refugees in Thailand. However, many more are living there without formal refugee status—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) and the right hon. Member for Gordon suggested that as many as 2 million people might have no formal status, because no one is aware of them.

The Committee argued that humanitarian assistance to people across Burma’s borders was necessary alongside aid provided from inside the country, and we firmly agree. Earlier this year, DFID allowed its funding to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium to be spent on emergency relief delivered from Thailand to displaced people inside Burma. We aim to continue that policy while maintaining a close overview of the effectiveness of the consortium’s operations across the border. That was a really important point alluded to by the hon. Member for Buckingham. As I announced yesterday, this year we will provide an additional £100,000 to help meet an immediate shortfall in the consortium’s funding. However, we do not consider the consortium to be the only fruit, as it were. There are other NGOs, and we are committed to engaging with as many as possible so that we can find the most effective ones.

In allocating our increased spending on Burma, we will consider carefully the best balance to strike between assistance provided from inside Burma, assistance provided from neighbouring countries and assistance for Burmese refugees living in those countries. We will take close account of the Committee’s recommendations as well as of the assessment of the needs of displaced peoples in eastern Burma, which is being completed by the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).

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The hon. Member for Buckingham spoke about the Shan Women’s Action Network. It is unfortunate that some NGOs have the impression that funding for them is out of the question. In recent weeks, we have had positive discussions with SWAN, in London and Thailand, about the sort of projects that we could fund, and we are having similar discussions with other groups. There is no objection to funding such groups, as long as it is for work that contributes to poverty reduction or humanitarian relief and as long as we can ensure the accountability that we would expect from other projects.

Allow me to summarise in lay people’s terms another important point that has been mentioned in relation to OCHA—whether it is really necessary to wait for lots of different reports before getting on with things. The question sounded much more articulate when the hon. Member for Buckingham asked it, but in essence that was what he asked. I do not believe that the two processes cannot proceed simultaneously. We do not have to wait for assessment reports before work is undertaken, but it is important that the reports be produced.

John Battle: I might be repeating the comments of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, but I have taken encouragement from the fact that things are not the same as 10 years ago. We knew about what happened recently because of mobile phone cameras, the internet and satellites. For repressed people, images will not be suppressed for long, and that gives a signal that there might be rather more change in the next few years. Rather than arguing about the head of a pin, I am looking forward to 2012 negotiations with a democratic Burmese Government on a proper partnership and budget support arrangement for development in Burma, with the Government led perhaps by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the meantime, I put it to the Under-Secretary that it is imperative not to allow any slackening of the rope after the summer’s events. The maximum pressure should be applied both nationally and internationally, including by campaigns through the Foreign Office with allies, so as to put pressure on the regime and to make the necessary breakthroughs. If we let things slacken so that there is no more than just a bit of an increase in the AIDS budget, we shall not do justice to the people of Burma.

Mr. Malik: I often agree with my right hon. Friend: long may that last, and I certainly drink to his vision of 2012 for Burma! Let us hope and pray that that happens by 2012, if not before.

I referred earlier to the contribution of the hon. Member for Buckingham. In doing so, it was remiss of me not to pay tribute to his leadership on Burma. There are few hon. Members who have given as much time, energy and commitment as he has to Burmese issues. We do not always see eye to eye, but he is a convincing character, and his input on the debate on Burma has been pivotal. I pay tribute to him for that work and commitment.

The Committee made a number of recommendations about the treatment of development issues, including gender disparities, in the refugee camps in Thailand. DFID officials are following up on those in discussions with the Thailand Burma Border Consortium about our future support for its operations. We are also
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participating in a donor assessment and evaluation of assistance to the refugee camps, led by the European Commission.

As well as our support to TBBC, DFID is this year providing some £400,000 through faith-based organisations inside Burma to help provide basic health, education and livelihood assistance for displaced communities in eastern Burma. As the hon. Member for Buckingham stated, we will spend some £1.3 million on cross-border health programmes from China, and we will consider the case for expanding those programmes over the next three years. We do not discount working from any border, wherever we believe that we can make a positive impact on the lives of some of the most impoverished people in the world. Let there be no question but that we stand ready to look at all options and all borders.

As the right hon. Member for Gordon said, the Committee made important recommendations on the need for improved communication between providers of assistance working from inside Burma and those working across the borders. DFID is promoting contacts between those groups and we are stepping up our own efforts, in concert with the UN, to ensure that in-country and cross-border aid is as closely co-ordinated as possible. However, that will remain an ongoing challenge and we shall constantly consider how we can improve co-ordination and communication.

I am pleased to confirm that, in line with the Committee’s recommendations, DFID will consider applications for funding by non-governmental organisations that work to promote sustainable development and democracy in Burma. Those organisations may be based inside or outside the country. DFID officials have already begun discussions with NGOs about the sorts of project proposal that are most likely to fulfil DFID’s normal funding requirements.

As some hon. and right hon. Members will know, we have decided to increase DFID’s staffing in Burma. The number of people in our Rangoon office will grow from three to 10, and we have also strengthened the London team that works on Burma. We carefully considered the Committee’s recommendation that we should retain DFID staff in Thailand to monitor the border areas. For now, our assessment is that that work can be carried out most effectively from Rangoon and London. Senior staff from DFID’s office in Burma will visit the Thai side of the border, and there will be more frequent visits than in the past.

I spoke to Rurik Marsden this week, and he said that he had already visited five of the nine camps and will be able to promote better co-ordination between providers of assistance inside Burma and those who work across the border. Senior staff in London visit Burma and Thailand regularly to meet groups that provide cross-border support and those that lobby for change from outside Burma. The embassy in Bangkok will continue to work on refugee issues and on relations with the Thai Government, co-ordinating closely with DFID. I appreciate that people are becoming animated and are showing a genuine concern about the Bangkok office. I have listened carefully to hon. Members’ comments, and I commit constantly to reviewing the effectiveness of the new arrangements.

The recent protests by Buddhist monks reflected a deep frustration with the lack of democracy and economic opportunity in Burma. Change in Burma
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will require courageous political leadership, allowing a wide range of opinions and interests to come together to create a common view of the future, far removed from the narrow vision evident in the regime’s current road map.

Hon. Members have rightly talked about the role of Russia, China, India, and ASEAN partners. It is important to recognise that Burma is not a job just for the UN or the UK. Each country and organisation that can influence the situation needs to co-operate with others to make the impact that we all want. I was therefore heartened, as I am sure were all hon. Members present, by the UN Security Council presidential statement of 5 October on action on Burma, which is the first such statement that has been agreed. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, I think, expressed some disappointment at the ASEAN summit that took place on 20 November, at which the participants were not as vociferous and robust as we would have liked. The Foreign Secretary has met his Chinese and Indian counterparts and discussed their role in Burma. India is the world’s largest democracy, and we rightly expect more from it. We have reminded India of the need to ensure the integrity of EU arms embargos, and it has denied not doing so in the case of the helicopters.

Ann McKechin: Will the Under-Secretary also stress in his conversations with the Indian Government the need to assist the refugees who are based around the Indian border, particularly as the incidence of malaria is at its worst in that part of Burma? India needs to recognise the danger to its own residents as well as to the refugees who are streaming there.

Mr. Malik: I can certainly give that assurance, and we will raise that important matter with the Indian Government. When we get a response, I shall share it with my hon. Friend.

Russia, too, has caused some concern, and rightly so. We are informed that it is using civilian technology and building not a power station but a small research reactor. Naturally, we have made people aware of their international obligations, not least in the context of the non-proliferation treaty.

The international community has made it clear that the Burmese regime must take meaningful steps towards real reform and reconciliation. In recent weeks, there has been an unprecedented statement from the UN Security Council, a strengthening of EU sanctions and visits to Burma by the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy Professor Ibrahim Gambari and the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. A little progress is being made, such as the opening of discussions between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi, but there is still a long way to go.

I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work being done by Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and officials in keeping up the diplomatic pressure on the Burmese regime, which is critical. On 15 October, EU Foreign Ministers toughened sanctions, targeting timber, precious metals and gems. As I did in the House yesterday, I shall share a conversation that I had with our excellent ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning. He told me that the sanctions were biting and that the No. 1 crony in the regime is feeling the pain,
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because Air Bagan, which that person owns, was forced to shut its Singapore accounts and might well close in the coming weeks.

The hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned the Prime Minister’s initiative, which is about not minimal change but profound, lasting, seismic change. He also helpfully mentioned that I had signed some of his early-day motions in the past, and if my ministerial role did not prevent me from doing so, I would sign many more of them. For the record, I have never found anything that he has said to me menacing in any shape or form.

If real progress is made on political reform, the international community should be ready to support it. That is why, in October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated discussions among global partners and leaders on the possible shape of international support, should concrete and verifiable steps be taken along the path to national reconciliation and political reform. The international community stands ready to help the economic reconstruction of Burma, using aid, trade and debt relief.

Doubling our humanitarian assistance will enable us to provide further vital support to the Burmese people as they endure the repression and economic mismanagement of the military regime. Their real potential and the full support of the international community can be realised only through the political and economic reforms that Burma so desperately needs.

I thank the International Development Committee for its extremely helpful report. I, for one, look forward to working with it in the coming weeks, months and years. I am not adversarial by nature, and I hope that we can continue to work in the consensual manner to which we have become accustomed.

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4.35 pm

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Under-Secretary for the tone and detail of his reply. Many of us feel encouraged that the Government are not only making pledges but working actively to fulfil them practically on the ground. He has given us a number of indications of that, which fill us with considerable confidence and optimism that it will make a difference.

I listened carefully to what the Under-Secretary said on the office in Bangkok, which showed clearly that the matter has been considered. All I ask is that he keep it under review and that, if it becomes clear that the organisations that operate from Thailand feel that they are not getting the contact that they need, the Government will be prepared to transfer a member of staff to Bangkok to ensure that they do. I took it from the tone of his comments that the Government would be prepared to do that, if it were to prove necessary, but I ask him at least to keep it under review.

The Committee is very appreciative of the Government’s response, and we look forward to seeing the changes in action. Many of the groups that the hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned, which are active on the ground, must be encouraged that they will have a partnership with DFID in the future that they have perhaps not had before. The consequence of that will be that many more of the people of Burma who are in need of our help will actually receive it. That is the fundamental objective, and we all hope that international pressure will make the people who run the appalling regime understand that their days are numbered—they cannot be tolerated much longer. The people of Burma are entitled to a proper, civilised society, and we shall do everything that we can to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Five o’clock.

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