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9 Dec 2009 : Column 78WH—continued

I will start by thanking the Burma Campaign, an organisation that operates with few resources, yet that punches far above its weight in ensuring that the issue does not move far from our agenda in this place. It does a sterling job in briefing MPs, peers and Ministers and ensuring that we return to the issue time and again,
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because it is too important to lose sight of. I also pay tribute to the work of people such as Ben Rogers at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which my hon. Friend has already mentioned, and Baroness Cox at the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. Together, those individuals and their organisations have been doing some extremely important work on Burma, specifically in relation to some of the ethnic groups, such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan people of eastern Burma and the Chin people of western Burma, on the border with India, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions. I also pay tribute to the Minister and the Government for their work and the steps they have taken in recent years to respond to the growing crisis in Burma. The Minister and I have shared platforms on the issue before, so I know from talking with him that he has a personal commitment to this, and I look forward to his remarks.

I make no apologies if I repeat some of the points and evidence that my hon. Friend gave in his contribution. It is absolutely right and vital that we keep coming back to the issue, both for the people of Burma, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions, and because it is a test for us and for the international community on how well we deal with the worst of the worst. The situation in Burma is a litmus test to show how serious the international community is in giving real meaning to the terms of the universal declaration of human rights, the anniversary of which we will celebrate tomorrow on international human rights day. Are we serious about seeing basic civil freedoms upheld for all peoples everywhere throughout the world, or do we just pay lip service to those things?

Let us be clear: with the military junta in Burma, as my hon. Friend said, we are dealing with the worst of the worst gangster regimes to be found anywhere in the world. The regime continues to have one of the worst records for imprisoning political opponents and for forcibly recruiting child soldiers. In fact, it has the largest number of child soldiers of any army in the world. It is waging a brutal war on its ethnic minorities. It is a regime that turned the humanitarian crisis that followed Cyclone Nargis into a near-genocidal catastrophe. It is a regime that has, time and again, laughed in the face of the international community and run rings around the whole succession of toothless UN envoys and special representatives.

I will provide more detail by discussing the proposed UN commission of inquiry on the crimes of the Burmese regime. Following the failure to secure a UN Security Council resolution two years ago, it is vital that that issue is a top priority for the UN. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on the proposal for a commission of inquiry, which is being pushed for in this country by the Burma Campaign and across the world by the worldwide Burma democracy movement.

In October, in a statement to the 64th session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, the UN special rapporteur on Burma described the human rights situation in that country as "alarming". He noted that

and that

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Would the Minister give a view on how best the proposal for a commission of inquiry could be taken forward and, indeed, whether he supports such a proposal? If he does not support such a commission, what alternative course of action are the Government pursuing at the UN to bring pressure to bear on the generals over their appalling record of human rights abuses?

Supporters of democracy are also pushing for a universal arms embargo on Burma, and stressing the need to build a global consensus to ensure that a true, universal arms embargo is imposed, which is now more necessary than ever. On 12 October 2008, the President of Timor-Leste, Dr. Jose Ramos Horta, added his voice to calls for a universal arms embargo on the Burma regime, stating that

A large number of countries have already signed up and support a global arms embargo, including the UK and many European countries. As far as I can see-the Minister can correct me if I am wrong-the British Government and the EU have stated that they support a global arms embargo but have taken few practical steps to secure it. Perhaps the Minister can set me straight on that.

I will move on to the detail of the recent reports by Baroness Cox, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred. Baroness Cox has just returned from a visit to Chin state and earlier this year visited eastern Burma and produced two excellent reports, which I strongly encourage the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for International Development to read in detail. Chin state is experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian situation and a famine caused by the flowering of bamboo and an infestation of rats, which has lead to serious food shortages and increased rates of morbidity and mortality. Children are not going to school, because they need to search for food or are too weak, and reports are coming through of entirely deserted villages and large migration flows of people into India, Malaysia, China and Thailand. At the same time, severe and grave human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated by Burmese military troops, who are dispersed across Chin state. There are reports of forced labour, torture, rape and the systematic refusal by the regime to provide anything like adequate health care. The result is widespread suffering in Chin state.

In 2008, DFID committed initial funding of £600,000, specifically to address the food crisis in Chin state. That sum was increased to £800,000 in March 2009, which we welcome. However, there is concern that in some areas, international funds for emergency food relief channelled through the UN Development Programme allegedly are being provided not as aid, but as loans that are repayable at rates of up to 200 per cent. If the Minister does not have the information to hand to respond to that point, would he write to me after the debate to assure me that more assistance will be provided to Chin state, and will he investigate the claims that in some areas, the UNDP is providing money in the form of loans charged at 200 per cent?

In eastern Burma, the absurdly named State Peace and Development Council-they are brutal military thugs-continues to inflict gross human rights abuses
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on the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan peoples. In the so-called brown territories, human mine sweepers and forced labour are used. In many parts of the black areas, where there is a sustained military offensive by the Burmese regime, there is a shoot-to-kill policy and widespread reports of the torture and rape of civilians. There has been a large increase this year in the number of internally displaced people as a result of the military conflict. I understand that there are approximately 30,000 IDPs among the Karen people alone, hiding in the jungle in appalling conditions. Would the Minister update us on what steps he and his colleagues are taking to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those oppressed ethnic groups?

Is the Minister aware of the very difficult debates among the ethnic groups of Burma on how to respond to the forthcoming national elections? Should they participate or boycott them? They are loth to confer legitimacy on those elections by participating, but they are worried that by not voting they might lose the opportunity to provide evidence of vote rigging in future and that doing so will deny them any sliver of representation, however minimal, once those elections have taken place. Does the Minister agree that whatever decision those ethnic groups reach on whether to participate in the elections, the international community must not endorse the regime's sham elections and must lend no credibility whatever to the process? To do otherwise would be a huge disservice to the democracy movement in Burma and a massive setback for its ethnic peoples.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Karen, 30,000 of whom were displaced in the jungle. I have met some of those groups and seen the children walking three miles to carry water in old petrol cans. I met the elders and saw the conditions in which they lived, with no health service, no family planning for the young girls and no education. That really needs to be tackled by the international community.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The convergence of difficult humanitarian conditions with gross human rights abuses is creating a dire set of circumstances for the oppressed ethnic groups.

Moving on to the subject of political engagement, in September, the US Administration announced the outcome of their review of US policy towards Burma, something which many of us were watching closely. A general welcome, which I support, has been given to the noises being made by the new US Administration, but I have some questions which I would like to put to the Minister. I have read in detail the transcript of the report by Kurt Campbell, an official from the US State Department, on why there has been a slight change of tack on the part of the Obama Administration in respect of Burma. What does the Minister think that it has shifted? Has there been any substantive shift at all on the part of the Burmese regime which has led the US Government to announce that they are willing to engage in some form of political dialogue? What gesture or shift has there been by the Burmese Government? As far as I can tell, there has been none.

For example, there has been no release of political prisoners or move in the direction of improving the conditions in which Aung San Suu Kyi is held, let alone any talk of her being released. So what have the Burmese
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Government done to deserve the announcement that the US Government are now willing to engage in dialogue with them? The risk surely is that their status as a reprehensible pariah is slightly reduced by this shift on the part of the Obama Administration, and unless there is real toughness on the part of the international community, particularly the US Government, in upholding sanctions and being absolutely firm on the conditions under which they will engage with the Burmese Government, the Burmese Government will achieve an important gain.

Mr. Hoyle: The problem is that two members of the BRIC countries are the biggest countries that prop Burma up; that is where our difficulty is. Human rights in China are not different from human rights in Burma. What can we do about India and China? That is the big issue.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. China and India, particularly China, are hugely influential in discussions about the future of Burma. We must also consider the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has not been mentioned so far in this debate. I shall come on to it in a second, but first would like to conclude my comments on US policy.

My fear is that the US has changed tack slightly because of other regional issues across Asia, North Korea and China, and that Burma risks becoming part of a subset of a wider set of geopolitical issues and therefore does not receive the specific and dedicated attention that it deserves. We need to hold on to it as a human rights and humanitarian issue. It is not part of a subset of a wider range of geopolitical questions. I have said before in the House that we need a much more intelligent approach to ASEAN. Two years ago, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I was able to visit three ASEAN countries shortly after the ASEAN summit in which discussion of Burma featured heavily. It is clear that politicians and Governments in Asia do not have quite the same view of human and civil rights as we do, and that they do not see Burma in the same way that we do. It is important that while we engage with them and try to understand their position, they understand just how reprehensible the Burmese Government are in our view. If they want the EU to take ASEAN more seriously as a representative organisation for Asian economies, they need to understand that there are certain things that they need to fix within their club, Burma being one of them. I look forward to what the Minister and other speakers have to say.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you very much for a thoughtful contribution, Mr. Crabb.

10.4 am

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this important debate. I had not intended to speak at any length this morning. This is more a question of a few observations off the back of my chairing the all-party Burma group last week. The fact that I was doing it and not someone more exalted-for example, people such as the Speaker are very much involved in the all-party group-shows that there was a somewhat thin attendance. That was slightly disappointing.

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Baroness Cox, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and I were there. In addition, there was a contingent of Karen people who had come to inform us about their plight in a touching way. There were people there who, in the course of giving testimony, broke down in tears as they described not general events but events that had happened specifically to their family. It was a difficult time for MPs, but I am glad to say that today there is wider representation, and I am sure that all MPs, whether able to be here or not, fully recognise the awful plight of the Burmese.

I would like to relate to the Minister how the people who came to see us the other day have an almost touching, slightly naive faith in what we can do for them. They treasure democracy, they are exiles in this country, and they are aware of the huge and manifest difference between their plight in Burma and their situation in the UK. We might grumble about our country from time to time, but they certainly do not.

Their purpose, and the purpose of the meeting, was twofold. One was to verify the charges against the Burmese Government through eloquent testimony. I pay tribute to Baroness Cox who, from her own experience and reports that she has prepared, was able to amplify and add to that. The Burmese people listed on an individual and collective basis things that hon. Members have already spoken about such as the use of forced labour, the displacement of people, the use of rape as a policy instrument, the malnutrition and all the other awful effects that follow consequently. That has been done umpteen times in this place, in the media and throughout the world.

The other object of the meeting was to show a way forward, and I have to say that at first I was slightly sceptical about it. The main burden of the meeting was to put across the idea that a United Nations inquiry stimulated by activities at Harvard Law School could do some positive good and be a small step forward. One may think that that is a somewhat doomed strategy because one knows that, in the world of realpolitik, the Chinese and Indian Governments and many other interests in south Asia have little interest in taking the Burmese issue head on. In fact, I voiced some of that scepticism while chairing the meeting, because I thought that people needed to recognise what could and could not be done. However, they impressed on me the idea that the activity by itself, if done on an official basis through the UN, would not be futile, because evidence against previous serial abusers of human rights such as Saddam Hussein and Milosevic has often been collected prior to their apprehension, downfall and conviction. That kind of evidence and inquiry has a horrible habit of coming back to haunt the culprits-the people who currently are, or feel that they are, safe and secure. That is one positive reason for getting on with an inquiry.

A second positive reason is that the people who suffer genuinely want official international recognition of their suffering and the abuse of power and human rights. The victims genuinely want that, and certainly the people who I saw last week wanted that, even if it did nothing other than to declare that recognition and announce it to the world, thereby ensuring that nobody could be in any doubt about it.

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The third reason why the strategy might do some good-I would take some persuasion about this, and people may have more than one view about it-is that perpetrators, even people who are in a secure position in their country, backed by their own military and currently in charge, do not welcome international condemnation. They do not like the idea simply because, in the back of their mind, they know that there is insecurity attached to all power and that, at some point, whether in the Third Reich or other regimes, the chickens can come home to roost.

So there are four practical things that we can do for the people of Burma, and there is a range of people for whom we need to do things. The Shan and Karen people have been mentioned, as well as pro-democracy people in the cities, the monks and so on. Those things are fairly obvious and the Government can do all of them. They can continue to support sanctions, although I am not optimistic about that as a strategy to change the nature of events, because of the influence of China and so on. We can do our utmost-we hon. Members are doing so today, I guess-to publicise the issue to try to get a bit of media attention for what is surely an intolerable situation. But as the campaigners themselves mentioned, the press are fickle. The strange thing about suffering is that if it goes on and on and is always there it does not get reported, although it is all the worse for being so perpetual.

Thirdly, we can put pressure on India through the Commonwealth, as the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned in his intervention. India genuinely has a part to play here and we should not exonerate it from its responsibilities. India has its own human rights issues, as does China, but it surely cannot play its current role and be seen as totally supportive of human rights. India must do more to assist the people of Burma, if only because it gets the outfall of that problem-the refugees coming across its border and into parts of that country that are deprived and cannot stand extra burdens imposed on them.

Fourthly, we must press for the United Nations inquiry, on which we want an answer from the Minister today. I was sceptical about that inquiry and did not think that it would necessarily do any good, and I can see all the problems that it could incur with other members of the UN, but pushing in that direction is a step forward. Even if I did not think that, the people I spoke to a week ago thought so, and that is one good reason for doing it.

I hope that our Government will take all those four steps.

10.11 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Mr. Hancock, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this debate, which is timely, as he said. It has been an interesting debate, as debates often are in Westminster Hall. In particular, real value has been added by those hon. Members who have brought to bear their personal experience of talking face to face to the individuals who have been living with the consequences of this horrible regime. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

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