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We cannot quite neatly separate the humanitarian issues from the political issues when we talk about the disaster in Burma of the past seven days. They are bundled up together. Indeed, I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is sitting on the Front Bench this afternoon, because I know that she takes a deep
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personal interest in the issue. Her presence serves as a reminder that the political issues are wrapped up with the international development issues.

Our hope is that we get a more effective and systematic humanitarian effort up and running. The aid getting through is nothing like enough to bring relief to the people of Burma. However, there is a bigger hope beyond that—that the tragic events of the past week will somehow lead to a new outlook, particularly on the part of the younger generation of Burmese rulers, who will come through when that group of ageing, corrupt and abhorrent generals finally has its day. As has been the case in other parts of the world, disasters have led to political reform. My hope is that once we get through the immediate humanitarian response, there will be a political sea change in Burma.

3.52 pm

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I apologise that I was not in the Chamber earlier. I was in another meeting and therefore missed many of the contributions from my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am sure that all issues have been covered, whatever I have heard so far.

As an immigrant from India, a neighbouring country, I understand the impact that the current disaster and previous political actions have had not only in Burma, but in neighbouring countries. I am glad that the Indian Government have taken initiatives to provide assistance to the Burmese people, although the current Burmese military regime has not accepted assistance and is creating blockages. It is important that the international community should not only take action to overcome the disaster and help the communities affected now, but ensure that political action is taken to bring forward a more democratic system in Burma; otherwise, the Burmese will continue to suffer not only from natural disasters, but from human disasters.

It is important that the international community should come together to ensure not only that assistance is given to the communities affected, but that the military regime over there is tackled. I am certainly glad to see that the Government have taken initiatives to offer support and will continue to work with hon. Members from all parts of the House to ensure that those people are helped. I will certainly support the Government on that point.

3.54 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for giving me the opportunity to sum up this debate.

Outrage has quite rightly been expressed at the climatic disaster that occurred on 2 May, Cyclone Nargis. We have heard speeches of despair and of outrage at what happened in Burma from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). Last, but by no means least, we heard the brief contribution from the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma). It was very nice to have his support in the debate today.

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Cyclone Nargis was a climatic disaster on a huge scale, the like of which has not been seen since the tsunami of 2004. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reckons that 1.5 million people have been affected in one way or another, including 1 million who have been made homeless and—depending on whom one believes—up to 100,000 who have died in the Irrawaddy delta and the Rangoon region. Anyone who has seen the pictures—described in such graphic detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley—of bodies floating in the water cannot fail to be moved and to feel desperate to help.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has already made clear, the sad, poor, egregiously repressed people of Burma lived in appalling conditions long before this climatic disaster struck. One third of them already lived below the poverty line, and one third of children under five were already malnourished. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said, 1.5 million oppressed people had already been forcibly moved from 3,000 villages in the Karen region and adjoining states.

It is hard for us to understand the junta, led by the generals, stopping aid getting in to save its own people. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West made an extremely good point when he said that 10 days had already passed since the disaster, and that disease would spread exponentially if this situation continued for another 15 or 30 days. That is what will happen if we are not careful. The climatic disaster, which was unavoidable, could well be followed by a second, humanitarian disaster, which is completely avoidable. It would be a disaster of hunger, thirst and, above all, disease. Without sufficient medicine, if measles, cholera and other killer diseases start to take hold, it will be very difficult to stop them.

A plea should go out from the House today to the Burmese generals, to tell them that the aid workers do not want to go into their country for political purposes, and that they want to go in purely for humanitarian purposes. When the Minister winds up the debate, will she tell us exactly what the current position is regarding the Burmese Government’s granting of visas? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley pointed out, it is a disgrace that Burmese officials went on holiday for three days to avoid giving visas to NGO workers.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield that it makes a welcome change to see the Chinese dealing with their own humanitarian disaster. Their Prime Minister was prepared to go to the site of the earthquake to see for himself what was happening and to reveal to the world what was happening. That is a welcome change from what would have happened in that vast country a year or two ago. I believe that the Chinese are changing. I also believe that they put pressure on the North Koreans to reach some kind of deal at the negotiating table. We know that many North Koreans were close to starvation, so it was not simply an issue of nuclear proliferation; it was a humanitarian issue as well. I believe that the Chinese Government recognised that fact. The fact that that the Chinese Government have, almost for the first time, given $5 million in aid to the appeal in Burma is also a welcome sign. In fact, that sum matches what little the Burmese Government have themselves given.

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I congratulate our excellent ambassador in Rangoon, and thank him for all the work that he has done. I also thank the excellent and experienced DFID team. Of course, a good range of NGOs—Save the Children, Merlin, the International Red Cross and Oxfam, among others—are already on the ground, as we have heard. I praise what they have been able to do so far. It is not a question of whether enough money and aid have been given; rather, it is a question of allowing that aid to get into the country.

Much has been said—notably by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury—about the responsibility to protect. That doctrine, of course, was designed not for humanitarian or climatic disaster on this scale, but for genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes of humanity. We need to debate very quickly within the UN how to get a UN aid effort into the country, co-ordinating the NGOs and other unilateral and multilateral aid. It would be much better if, instead of bickering over how aid should be got into the country, the generals allowed the UN to take a lead on this subject. I hope that Thailand’s Prime Minister and the European commissioner, who I believe are both in Rangoon today, succeed in persuading the generals to open their doors, as it is hard to know how else we shall get a good lead on getting aid into the country.

However, as the Foreign Secretary has made out, we have to rule nothing in, and we have to rule nothing out. If the right hon. Member for Leeds, West is right, which I suspect he is, disease will become rampant in the next week, 10 days or so. Is the world going to stand by and allow that to happen? I ask the Under-Secretary to clarify what precisely the UN is going to do if that situation develops. She is trying hard to get a UN resolution, which must be the preferred route, but what are the UK Government going to do if, in a week or 10 days’ time, we still do not have it? What alternatives will she consider? That is a really important question for her to answer. It is also important that we ask neighbouring countries—our friends, China, India and Association of South East Asian Nations countries, which could put considerable pressure on the regime—to do more. It is wholly unacceptable for these people to be left to die.

As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk said in what I thought was a statesmanlike speech, only a trickle of aid is going in at the moment—two or three planes a day when what we need, as he said, is 35 planes a day. That is the scale of the aid needed. Will the Minister tell us whether she is establishing any form of forward bridgehead, which has been done in other humanitarian disasters? It seems to me possible for us to establish in some place a forward bridgehead of all the essential supplies rather than have them coming in from all over the world. They should be accessible in one place—perhaps one that is acceptable to the Burmese junta, such as Bangkok. We should consider what more we can do in that respect.

We also need to consider how to put Burma back together for the longer term. Once again, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West made a very perceptive point about that. Speaking as a farmer, I understand only too well how the sediment of the Irrawaddy basin has been washed away, altering the pattern of rice and other
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crop growing in the area for a very long time. The ground will become saline for many months to come, so the people will simply not be able to feed themselves. In view of the fact that 40 per cent. of Burmese rice comes from the Irrawaddy delta, a big effort will be required of the World Food Programme to deal with the problem, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said. We need to think about that now. How can we get a sufficient volume of food in? Assuming that we can solve the first wave of the problem by letting in humanitarian aid, medical supplies and emergency food and water, how are we going to deal with the second ongoing wave and keep the Burmese population alive and flourishing?

In conclusion, this is a humanitarian disaster that could yet get substantially worse. It is a harrowing experience to watch people die on our television screens every night. We, the UK Government and the world community must summon every effort we can muster from wherever it might come to try to stem this disaster. We have to impress on the Burmese regime that it is in their own and their people’s interest to stop this crisis and allow aid in. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how our Government are managing to procure that situation.


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day, on a Question relating to immigration.

The Ayes were 51, the Noes were 354, so the motion was negatived.

I shall also announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day on a Question relating to local government. The Ayes were 240, the Noes were 158, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division List s are published at the end of today’s debates.]

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Question again proposed, That the original words stand part of the Question.

4.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): This has been an important debate, which has attracted a good deal of passion, argument and discussion, because Members rightly feel strongly about the situation in Burma. Their concerns are shared throughout the House, and were expressed extremely well by, for example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb).

Let me reassure the House that the Government’s response to Cyclone Nargis is, and will continue to be, driven first and foremost by the need to provide help for the people of Burma. That means that our priority is the delivery of drinking water, food, shelter and medicine, and it means making every effort to minimise the spread of disease following the initial devastation caused by the cyclone itself. The Government have therefore earmarked £5 million for disaster relief. That is a starting figure, which we will review as more aid gets through, and—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has confirmed—it is in addition to aid that Burma is being given on an annual basis, which has recently been doubled.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Given the scale of the suffering in the Irrawaddy delta, the focus must obviously be on how to convey aid and relief to that area. However, as a number of Members have pointed out today, Burma was already suffering major humanitarian problems affecting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and others, many of them in areas not adjacent to the Irrawaddy delta. Can my hon. Friend give some reassurance about the levels of aid and the mechanisms that will allow it to reach those other areas? The spread of disease and other problems there will be equally great in a few weeks, if not in days.

Meg Munn: I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. When I was in Thailand I spoke to people about the aid going to camps on the border. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also visited the area and the camps, and has given a commitment that we will keep the situation under review.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Meg Munn: I need to make a bit of progress.

HMS Westminster will arrive off the Burmese coast tomorrow. We do not yet know what role the ship and its crew will play in delivering humanitarian aid, but it is sensible to move it closer to where help is needed. Aeroplanes are now arriving with help funded by the United Kingdom Government. The problem is that the Burmese regime is controlling the time at which each international flight can land in the region.

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One Member—I cannot remember who it was—asked earlier about contributions from the European Community. The European Community Humanitarian Office is contributing €2 million, and the European Commission has pledged €5 million. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain have already made commitments, and I am sure that other European countries will do so as well.

I think that most Members on both sides of the House recognise that Burma is facing one of the biggest humanitarian challenges since the tsunami. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has described the gravity of the situation. We agree that a disaster of this degree requires the attention of the whole international community: individual states, individual NGOs, but above all a United Nations-led civilian mission. We are all extremely frustrated and appalled by the attitude of the Burmese Government in denying the international community’s relief workers access to the areas affected by the cyclone. The crucial question for this debate is how, faced with the intransigence of the Burmese regime, we can best proceed in order to help the Burmese people. As the Government have already stated, we are not ruling out any particular action at the moment.

Dr. Julian Lewis: On behalf of Members who have been present for all or most of the debate, may I ask why the Government feel it necessary to oppose the Opposition motion, given that there is such unanimity of view across the House?

Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman will just wait, I will come to that point.

We have a desired option: to convince the Burmese Government to think again and open their country to the humanitarian workers who have the expertise to co-ordinate the aid effort. The first duty of any Government is to protect the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. Instead, we hear that the Burmese leadership is refusing even to take the telephone calls of the UN Secretary-General—a Secretary-General who is pledging help. The international community is committed to helping any country, of any size or importance, when its people suffer a humanitarian disaster. The Burmese army simply does not have the experience, knowledge or logistical capacity to co-ordinate a relief effort of this magnitude. Indeed, few countries would have that.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is it not a scandal that in the midst of this crisis the Burmese regime proceeded with its sham referendum? Does my hon. Friend agree that it was a sham referendum, a sham consultative process, and not the kind of action that will build the democratic civil society that Burma needs if it is to be able to deal with the problem it currently faces, and its other underlying problems over the long term?

Meg Munn: I completely agree. We said at the time that the referendum was a distraction. It should not have gone ahead, and the fact that it did gives the clearest sign that that Government are dangerously distant from the reality of what is happening in their country. We have, of course, always had our concerns, but a referendum conducted in those conditions has to be of dubious credibility.

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Let me say a little more about what our Government are doing to persuade and lobby on this issue. We know that preventing deaths through persuading the Burmese authorities to work with the international community to deliver aid and assistance is the best way forward. We point out in all our contacts with the Burmese regime and other Governments in the region that this is a humanitarian situation, and that it is not political—that at present we are interested not in the political situation, but in giving humanitarian aid.

John Battle: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Meg Munn: I am sorry, but I need to make progress.

The crucial factor in any natural disaster is the response of the Government. If a Government care, make plans and organise a response, people will survive; if not, they will die. That is why we continue to back the plan to persuade the Burmese Government to provide unfettered access for aid workers, whether through the UN or through countries in the region, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West has said. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), are in the region seeking to persuade people there. We are convinced that the most effective way to deal with this tragedy and to save lives is to persuade the Burmese authorities to accept the help coming from the rest of the world, and to do so through intensive and urgent diplomatic activity, and particularly through targeting countries with influence over the regime.

China has been mentioned, and it is in a key position both to influence the Burmese regime to open up and to facilitate practical support on the ground. China has publicly called for aid to be let into Burma, but it can do much more to persuade Burma to allow more international workers on the ground and direct distribution of aid to the delta region. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Chinese counterpart yesterday, pressing on the subject of the regime’s unacceptably slow response. China and other UN Security Council members have been asked by the UK to discuss the serious situation in Burma.

The Association of South East Asian Nations Foreign Ministers will meet on Monday, and we have been lobbying them to help improve this situation and to put pressure on Burma to increase the number of visas granted. There has been some increase, but not as much as is needed.

The Opposition raised the issue of a forward bridgehead. We have discussed with countries such as Thailand what they can do to address such issues. I do not want to spend too long on the subject of air drops, which has been discussed. We have not ruled anything out, but I think that hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), have set out the problems that might result. The scale of the disaster requires a full international civilian operation, like the ones we saw after the tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, and for that we need the co-operation of the Burmese authorities. That must remain the principal focus of our efforts.

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