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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I say how pleased I am to have this opportunity to conclude our business this evening with a few remarks about the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi? She is rightly known and respected throughout the world for the quiet calm and the dignity with which she faces intolerable repression. She currently faces a process that, for the purposes of this debate, we will call a trial, but which, it is widely accepted, conforms to none of the recognised principles of natural justice that we would understand in this country.
I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to his new position. I welcome his appointment; we are delighted to have him here. As the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, may I say that we have always enjoyed a fruitful and close working relationship with his predecessors in the Foreign Office and with Ministers in the Department for International Development? I am confident that that relationship will continue under this Minister, whom I congratulate on his appointment. I wish him every success.
The charge facing Aung San Suu Kyi is that of violating of the conditions of her house arrest. If she is convictedwe might reasonably say when she is convicted, because the purpose of the trial is to obtain a further convictionshe stands to have a further five-year period of imprisonment imposed on her. The irony is that this imprisonment will be for the breach of a condition of her detention, which has already been declared illegal by the United Nations as a contravention of international law and of Burmese domestic law. This illegality heaped on illegality is a particular feature of Aung San Suu Kyis position, and of the loathsome regime by which she is being oppressed in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest on and off for 13 of the past 19 years. The process first started in 1989, when the martial law provisions of the time allowed for detention without charge or trial for a period of up to three years. It is a matter of public record that in the elections in 1990, the National League for Democracy, of which she is the leader, won some 82 per cent. of the available seats. That was a remarkable achievement, and an indication of the standing that she enjoys in her own country as well as in the wider international community. It is also a matter of record that the junta refused to recognise the results of the elections, and that at that point, it changed the rules to allow for her continued detention for up to five years.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detentionat that point she was under house arrestin 1995. She was placed under house arrest again, with additional conditions restricting her entitlement to travel, in 2000. I mention the restriction on travel because it is well known that as a consequence of those restrictions, she was unable to visit her dying husband in London for fear of not being allowed to return to Burma.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is it not an indication of the nature of the Burmese authorities that in the forthcoming trial of Aung San Suu Kyi on 12 Junewhich, as the hon. Gentleman has said, could lead to her imprisonment for five yearsthree out of four of her defence witnesses have been denied access to the court? The Burmese Government are producing 14 witnesses for the prosecution, yet she is to be allowed only one. Is it not even more shocking that members of the pro-democracy 1988 movement who are in jail are being denied adequate food? They are not allowed food parcels, and those who have severe medical conditions, including heart attacks, are not allowed any medical supplies. Is that not an indication of the nature of the Burmese regime?
Mr. Carmichael: It is. It is also an indication of the exceptionally unfair, ill-conceived process in which Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself. Speaking as one who previously practised as a court solicitor, I believe that it breaches just about every norm of international law. My only quibble with the hon. Gentleman is that I was told that the number of prosecution witnesses being produced was 16, compared with one defence witness, but the numbers make no difference. What is most obnoxious is the fact that the person standing trial is not being allowed to present her case.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman may be aware thatin 2003, I believeI visited the Karen ethnic groups in the Burma jungle. Does he agree that while the Government of Thailand should be thanked for their tolerance of the refugee camps just over the Thai border, they nevertheless have a major part to play in putting pressure on the Burmese junta to respect human rights?
Mr. Carmichael: Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a great deal of sympathy for the position in which the Thai Government find themselves. We occasionally hear reports of some activities within the camps that are a cause of concernfor example, the suggestion that refugees are being pushed back across the Burmese border. The point was made in discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for International Development earlier today that the refugees in Thai camps are not allowed to work, which is also a cause of concern. I have to say that it would be difficult for the UK Government to argue that point too vociferously, given that asylum seekers in this country are so rarely entitled to find paid employment.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The institutionalised inhumanity of the Burmese junta is reflected in the denial of Aung San Suu Kyis right even to use the telephone, and the frequent denial of her right to medical treatment. Are not those further examples of why, in the final analysis, multilateral action is vital if we are to give effect to the UN proclamation of the responsibility to protect?
Yes, that is absolutely the case, and it is fair to say that no country on its own can possibly hope to effect a solution to the difficulties currently facing the Burmese people. It has to be said, however, that the one power in the region that might have particular sway and influence is China. Clearly, that country is not
minded to promote democracy movementsfor reasons that largely speak for themselvesbut the opportunity for multilateral action lies in efforts made to influence China to bring a more benign influence to bear on Burma.
Let me return to the history of Aung San Suu Kyis detention. She was released for a period, but subsequently re-arrested in May 2003 in the aftermath of a horrific attack on pro-democracy activists and herself in northern Burma. Seventy people were killed and more than 100 arrested. Aung San herself was held for a period of some three months in what was effectively secret imprisonment; at that stage, nobody really knew where she was or what she was suffering. Her house arrest then continued until 2007, at which point it expired. It was renewed for a further year until 2008, at which point, with a still further extension having been allowed, the UN intervened to clarify, if any clarification were needed, that the detention was a contravention of both international and domestic law.
It is interesting, although perhaps academic, to speculate on what might have happened if last month Mr. John William Yettawa US national, I am toldhad not taken it on himself to swim through the lake surrounding Aung San Suu Kyis house to break into the compound and remain there, giving rise to the charge she currently faces, which is breach of house arrest. That incident shows the Alice through the Looking Glass world that we are in when we deal with Burma. We have here one of the very few examples of a victim of housebreaking finding herself, rather than the perpetrator, to be the victim, or subject, of criminal proceedings.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) referred to health concerns. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being held in prison, as opposed to under house arrest, and those health concerns are real, substantial and widely held. It is said that she suffers from low blood pressure and severe dehydration. I know that the British embassy in Rangoon does what it can to stay in touch and to make itself as fully aware as possible of the circumstances in which she is being held, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on what the Government in this country understand her present medical condition to be.
I should also record the appreciation of many of us of the efforts of Mr. Mark Canning, the United Kingdom ambassador to Burma. He recently described Aung San Suu Kyis trial as a show trial. He has been allowed one days access to the courtroom.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is not only Members of Parliament here in Westminster who are gravely concerned about the welfare of Aung San Suu Kyi. Last night my local authority, Dundee city council, with cross-party support, backed a campaign to free this very brave lady. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the current trial is no more than an effort to ensure that she is incarcerated before the elections in Burma that are scheduled to take place next year?
I do, and I think that that view is held fairly widely. The history of Aung San Suu Kyis detention is a remarkable, albeit perverse, tribute to her strength, and the extent to which the junta truly fears the influence that she could have if she were left at
liberty. The irony is that while she may become physically more frail, politically she becomes stronger with every day that she passes in detention. We should be interested to hear from the Minister whether he has any information from Mark Canning on what he has been able to discern about the conduct of the trial from the limited access that he and other external monitors have been given.
an outstanding example of the power of the powerless.
That encapsulates rather nicely the point that I just made to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). The real tragedy is that while she herself is a remarkable woman who is widely recognised for her achievements throughout the world, inasmuch as she is a political prisoner she is by no means unique in Burma. It is estimated that there are some 2,100 political prisoners there, and the figure may be even higher.
It is clear that Aung San Suu Kyis detention is a political detention. There is no question of any criminality. There is also no doubt that the wish to keep her in detention is clearly related to the elections due in 2010. If we imagine the position from the generals point of view, we can well see why they would want to do that.
It is fair to recognise the strong and effective efforts made by the United Kingdom Government in recent years. I was particularly impressed by the words of the Prime Minister in his contribution to the 64 words project. We were all invited to offer 64 words in anticipation of Aung San Suu Kyis 64th birthday next Friday. The Prime Minister put it rather well when he wrote:
The clamour for your release is growing across Europe, Asia, and the entire world. We must do all we can to make this birthday the last you spend without your freedom.
cast serious doubt on the Burmese regimes willingness to be a responsible member of the international community.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): My hon. Friend mentioned the entire international community. While it may be no surprise that Russia is no champion of democracy and human rights, does he not agree that it is a great disappointment that a neighbour of BurmaIndia, the worlds largest democracyhas not only failed to provide adequate support for the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, but has actually given comfort to the Burmese regime?
Mr. Carmichael: Yes, I do. When speaking earlier about the role of China in the region, I was remiss in not referring to India, which could have doneand, indeed, can yet doa great deal more. I think it is fair to say that the further away a country is from the region, the more diluted its influence. India is part of the Commonwealth, as we are, and I hope that the Minister will do all he can to maximise the benefits from such links.
When the Minister replies, I hope we will hear a bit more about what the Government are doing to build the broad international coalition that we all think is necessary. I hesitate to use the phrase when Aung San Suu Kyi is convicted when we are still in the process of the trial,
as it offends my sensitivities as a lawyer, but such is the nature of this exercise that we have to be realistic and acknowledge that she will be convicted: the prospect of acquittal is so negligible as not to be worthy of consideration. What measures do we anticipate taking in that event? It seems to me that there is an obvious response: to build this broad international coalition, particularly for an international arms embargo. Everybody seems to support such an embargo, but no matter how strongly they do that, it never seems to happen. Within the European Union, will the UK press for a travel ban to be extended to the prosecutors and judges who have been responsible for this sham of a trial?
In essence, those are our concerns. I know that the Government remain committed to bringing democracy to Burma. I hope that, whatever happens to Aung San Suu Kyi, she will not be left to suffer in vain, and that everything that happens to her will only serve to redouble our determination to bring democracy to that beautiful but benighted country.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this Adjournment debate on this incredibly important issue, and on the responsible yet passionate way in which he made his argument from a very informed perspective. I also thank him for his generous congratulations on my appointment to my new post; I regard it as a tremendous honour to be a Minister of State in the Foreign Office with responsibility for the middle east, Burma and other similar issues. I am in day two of the job, so I hope Members will be tolerant as I respond to the best of my ability. May I also assure the hon. Gentleman that I intend to work very closely with his all-party group, and indeed with all all-party groups who have an interest in my new portfolio of responsibilities?
A number of Members are present who have consistently raised issues in relation to Burma over a long period, and I believe that the cumulative pressure from Members in all parts of the House does in the end make a difference in international opinion. There are doubts about how much that impacts on the regime, but it is important that the House continues to offer oxygen in terms of the political situation and political realities in Burma. I therefore congratulate all Members who take an interest in these issues on continuing to bring them to the Floor of the House.
As Members are aware, in the early morning of 14 May Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested simply for not reporting an intruder. Her trial on these absurd charges began on 18 May. The hon. Gentleman gave a different analogy, but in effect a prisoner is being prosecuted apparently because the prison guards were asleep on the job. Our ambassador in RangoonI noted that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his leadership on these issueshas reported the following:
Its difficult to see anything but a guilty verdict...these trials tend to be pre-scripted. All decisions of any significance in Burma are made by the ubiquitous higher authority.
The generals will want to make sure Suu Kyi is unable to play a role in the elections next year.
So the betting is on a sentence that extends her house arrest well into 2010 or beyond.
I have no information on the medical condition of Aung San Suu Kyi. I shall inquire into that and write to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall try to find a way of making other hon. Members aware of the current situation, particularly in relation to her mental and physical health.
I am proud that the UK has led, in many ways, the international response to this outrage. We have spoken to EU leaders and members of the UN Security Council. Burmas neighbours, including China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, are in no doubt that they have a critical role to play and need to use their influenceI reiterate that call in this debate. I wish to pay tribute to the tremendous work done by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), when he held this portfolio. He spoke up at the meeting of 45 Asian and EU Ministers in Hanoi only last month and he did not pull any punches. He said that the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi were baseless, he called for her to be released, along with the other 2,100 political prisoners who are detained in Burmathose are the ones we know ofand he asserted that without her and other opposition leaders the 2010 elections would simply not have any credibility in international eyes.
In Hanoi and in Phnom Penh, my predecessor spoke directly to Burmese Ministers to urge them to take positive steps to restore democracy. As hon. Members will be aware, and as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned, the UK is taking action within the European Union. The Prime Minister intends to raise the issue of Burma at the June European Council. On 19 May, the Foreign Secretary discussed further steps that the EU should take in Brussels, and our officials continue to work with EU member states on tighter measures that target the regime. The Government believe that further measures, including financial sanctions, will increase pressure on the regime.
May I return to the comment that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about Aung San Suu Kyis health? We believe that she is not in bad health, but she has severely limited access to medical staff and we do not have any further information. She is, as ever, a remarkable womanwe would all accept thatand we believe that she is well enough to defend herself appropriately during the course of these proceedings, however unfair and unjust we know them to be. That is the best information we can offer at the moment, but I am certainly willing to provide any further information that I can get to him.
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