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9 Dec 2009 : Column 84WH—continued

9 Dec 2009 : Column 85WH

I would like to touch on the elections, the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the human rights situation, many aspects of which have been explored by hon. Members in some detail. I shall focus on what the response might be and what we and the rest of the international community might be able to do.

The most high-profile symbol of the corruption and anti-democratic and repressive nature of the regime in Burma is the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. We should bear in mind that her detention has now lasted 14 years-it is sometimes difficult to imagine such a huge amount of time-yet still she retains the faith, strength and ability to keep going. During that time there have been little false glimmers of hope. Burma's Foreign Ministry has told the Associated Press that the junta plans to release Dr. Suu Kyi from house arrest to allow her to organise her party before the elections in March 2010. But before we get too hopeful about that, we should remember that the regime has dashed such hopes in the past. For example, in 2004, the then Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung promised the UN envoy that she would be released, but in May 2007 her term of house arrest was extended for another year. It would be a fabulous outcome if her release were to be secured, but that is still in doubt. Even if she were released before the elections, there is still a huge challenge to face and a long way to go before Burma is anything approaching a democracy, because, as has been mentioned, the constitution would prevent her from standing for election even if released.

In preparing for such debates, I always find new information: in this case, horrific new information. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned, a quarter of the 440 seats in the Burmese Assembly are automatically given to the military. When I read that I could not believe the total brazenness of the regime's changing the constitution to reserve a quarter of the seats for the military junta. In this circumstance, people are left thinking, what chance is there for democracy unless there is wholesale change of the constitution?

The horror runs much deeper even than the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the difficulties with the constitution, because the number of political prisoners has more than doubled since the beginning of 2007, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 2,100 people are detained in 43 prisons and over 50 labour camps, where they are forced into hard labour projects. Anybody who speaks out against military rule is routinely locked up. There is no such thing as a free press. That shows us that, even if the junta follows through this time and releases Dr. Suu Kyi, that is little more than a token gesture to try to make the elections seem credible: it is not a commitment to democratisation. Having said that, we must still push for the junta to do that.

I now turn to the aftermath of the cyclone that hit in 2008. We need to remember the destruction that that caused: 140,000 people dead or missing, which is a huge natural disaster on any scale. But, of course, that natural disaster was compounded by the authorities' refusal properly to allow aid agencies to get in and do their work. I remember the debates in the House at that time and the indignation around the world about what happened. However, we have not heard the story of what has happened since.

Amnesty International has reported that, as recently as October this year, the Burmese authorities arrested at least 10 journalists and political activists for accepting
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relief donations from abroad for survivors of the cyclone, because more than 18 months after that devastation the authorities have not dealt with it. The aid is still needed, yet the regime continues to make arrests and lock people up for doing no more than trying to help those whose lives have been devastated by the natural disaster.

Mr. Evans: At the time of the cyclone, when the United States was sending aid, the regime preferred to see its people die while it repackaged some of that aid so that the people receiving it did not know that it came from the US. Does not that say everything that we need to know about the regime? It would rather see its people die than let them see where the aid has come from.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful intervention, with which I think all hon. Members would agree. It is almost inconceivable that a regime could be so heartless and so unbothered by its people's suffering. Burma still needs extra funding for new houses, cyclone shelters, livelihood programmes, water and sanitation-the basic tools of life-and education and health services. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Yet the funding has not properly flowed.

Only £75 million has been committed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations tripartite core group's post-cyclone recovery project, which is expected to cost £415 million. I congratulate the Government on the Department for International Development funding for the aid programme, which rose from £12.5 million last year to £25 million this year, and on the plans to increase it further to £28 million in 2010-11. In the context of difficult economic circumstances, that shows a commitment from this Government, but it is not enough on its own, which is why I am also pleased that they are encouraging other donors to increase their aid contributions.

Cyclone Nargis did not get the same coverage around the world as other disasters, such as the tsunami. Although the cyclone was prominent in our news media, it was not quite at the same level as the tsunami, because-this is a big aspect-journalists with cameras were not able to report freely in the country, so there was not the same number of pictures to accompany the story. The broadcast and print media are driven by pictures so Burma suffered doubly, because the public donations were not as high as they might have been had the natural disaster happened in a country where media coverage could have been greater. The Government aid programmes are even more important because of that.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was particularly powerful when he painted a grim picture of the repression of minorities, especially the use of rape as a weapon of war. The internal conflict between the military rulers and the minority ethnic groups in Burma has continued for the past 60 years, and the sad truth is that it is increasingly common in such conflicts that a frequent mode of attack is a systematic policy for soldiers to rape women and children.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women submitted a report on Burma to the UN General Assembly in November 2008 in which it expressed its

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It notes that the perpetrators have virtual impunity. Only a few cases have ever been prosecuted, and it reports intimidation of those who are brave enough to come forward even to complain. There is obvious violation of UN Security Council resolution 1820 on sexual violence in armed conflict. I am pleased that this year the UK co-sponsored Security Council resolution 1888, which led the council to appoint a special representative to tackle sexual violence in armed conflict. That is important in Burma and, sadly, in other countries.

The UK has a strong record on tackling violence against women, but I understand from a parliamentary answer that the Government are not putting forward a UK candidate for the new post and I would be interested to hear, today or later in writing, why, and who they will support. It is obviously vital that the special representative can put the matter at the heart of the international community, and ensure that it is, rightly, high on the agenda.

Dr. Pugh: On rape as a matter of policy, I have been told by people from the Karen community that the sinister ideological rationalisation is that the military rulers regard the tribes as troublesome and feel that by diluting the gene pool through rape and the creation of mixed-breed children they are doing their bit to progress ethnic cleansing. That is a particularly revolting rationalisation.

Jo Swinson: I agree. It is hard even to listen to such a rationalisation, and to hear that the individuals involved think that they are, as my hon. Friend puts it, doing their bit.

Going through the catalogue of horrors-that phrase was rightly used earlier-brings us to what our response should be. Within the international community there seems to have been some movement recently. Obviously, the Government have targeted sanctions against the regime at EU and UN levels, and my party has supported that. I echo the calls for a universal arms embargo, because there can be no justification for selling arms to such a regime.

Barack Obama has decided to try to engage with the military junta in a break from the Bush policy of isolation, but I do not know whether a specific event, other than the change of presidency, prompted that change in strategy. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed support for sanctions, but more recently has offered to co-operate in getting them lifted. Dr. Suu Kyi's conditions for agreeing to co-operate are not yet clear, but the commitment will obviously not be open-ended. It would be helpful if the Minister enlightened the debate on the conditions that Dr. Suu Kyi has specified, and whether the Government would agree with her if such progress were made, and review their approach to the regime. Obviously, if she, as an individual in the country, can achieve some progress, that might be an alternative strategy. I echo calls from hon. Members to use every diplomatic lever at our disposal to persuade India and China in particular, who have a strong influence in Burma, to put pressure on the regime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport made a powerful case for the UN inquiry, and perhaps it is even more powerful as it comes from someone who was previously a sceptic. I hope that the Government will support those calls.

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Bob Spink: As the hon. Lady is mentioning other countries, will she mention the two roles that Thailand is playing? One is a positive role in allowing refugee camps on the border, which is extremely good of it. It is trying to care for those people as best it can. On the other hand, it is trading with and propping up politically the odious regime in Burma. It is involved in some of the large and illegal infrastructure projects on ethnic people's land in Burma. There is tension in Thailand, and we must maintain pressure on the Thai Government.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes his point well, and although China and India are key players, we should not forget that other countries also play a role.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) asked whether we are serious about getting to grips with human rights issues, and the question is appropriate. Westminster Hall debates on foreign affairs are often depressing. By their nature, they tend to be about the world's problems rather than shining examples of good practice and success. Debates during the past few weeks have been on Iran, human rights in China, the death penalty, and Burma, so it is right to ask the question. Human rights abuses are so severe and, sadly, so prevalent throughout the world, that it is important to highlight them, and to ask whether we are doing everything we can. Having said that, we can be proud of some aspects of our record, and I give credit where it is due to the Government, but we should never stop asking the question.

The Government have a good record, and sanctions have been an important part of that. If things change in the country, we would need to review our strategy, particularly if the change in the US's strategy bears fruit. As many hon. Members have outlined, the human rights situation in Burma is dire, and it is vital that the Government use every tool at their disposal to put pressure on the Burmese regime to bring the awful abuses to an end.

10.27 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Hancock, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on raising this issue. He and other hon. Members who have spoken from both sides of the Chamber have a track record of raising the matter. Many of us feel the presence of the Speaker hovering over us. In a previous incarnation, when he was a troublesome and noisy Back Bencher, he had a distinguished track record of raising this issue and speaking out both in Parliament and outside.

The last Westminster Hall debate on Burma was in December 2007, but the matter has been raised during other Westminster Hall debates-for example, the debates on China and the west in October, on India in May, and on human rights in December 2008. On 9 June there was an Adjournment debate on the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is not just a stand-alone issue; it has a thread in other areas. It is important to understand that the context is not just the suffering of the Burmese people, but the wider issue of human rights.

As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, anyone who discusses foreign affairs and UK policy may become depressed that so many countries are carrying out the most horrendous crimes
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against their own ethnic people or their ethnic minorities. That applies on a much smaller scale in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Tibet of course, and a raft of others. The issue that we must address as parliamentarians and in terms of the Government is what we can realistically do to bring pressure to bear on regimes that do not respond easily to outside pressure to modify or, hopefully, to stop their behaviour.

I am conscious of one other element as far as Burma is concerned. We governed Burma for a period of 80 or 90 years, so it might be that we have a moral debt. Many of us have not forgotten that during the second world war, many Burmese people suffered horrendously under occupation. Many of those ethnic groups who are the most persecuted, aided the Commonwealth armies, hid British and Commonwealth troops who had been left behind, and faced the most horrendous consequences for what they did. There is an additional moral imperative.

Let me touch briefly on a number of issues, some of which have already been raised by colleagues. First is the question of the US policy review. The Americans have carried out a major review on how to engage with Burma, which I suggest is part of a wider Obama strategy of trying to engage with a whole raft of regimes, of which Iran is another example. However, that does not mean that all other elements should not be used as well. The Obama Government have concluded-quite rightly-that the idea that one should not engage directly or indirectly with a regime is a false position in which to be. It does not use an important weapon that a Government have at their disposal-that of diplomacy.

The Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, told a Senate hearing:

The Americans are not prepared to ease sanctions without seeing some degree of progress, but as a number of colleagues have asked: how do we define that progress? What type of US engagement will be pursued, and how will the US ensure that it is co-ordinated with the rest of the international community? Perhaps the Minister can clarify that, because the international approach is crucial.

That brings me to the role of the United Nations. Last week, the UN announced that the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, will become head of the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. He will assume that position on 1 January next year, and his replacement is currently being sought. I do not know whether the Minister can give us information on any name that might be in the frame.

The military junta failed on a number of occasions to give Mr. Gambari a visa. He managed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during one visit to the country, but interestingly, she refused to meet him on a later occasion. There has been considerable criticism of Mr. Gambari on the grounds that he did not have a sufficiently robust attitude towards the Burmese regime. Over the past 40 years, there have been 40 visits to Burma by UN envoys.

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend is being very measured and diplomatic in his description of Mr. Gambari's effectiveness. I was not aware that Mr. Gambari had been appointed to a role in Darfur. How much optimism
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does my hon. Friend have for the work that Mr. Gambari will do in Darfur, given that he was such a manifest flop during his work in Burma?

Mr. Simpson: I do not know whether it is an insult or a compliment to hear that I am being measured. Perhaps I am doing my Sir Humphrey act. If I were a Foreign Office mandarin, which I am not-although I probably look like one from the 1950s-I would say that Mr. Gambari is going to be "challenged" in Darfur. There is no doubt about that. I agree with my hon. Friend: it is an amazing appointment given Mr. Gambari's demonstrable failure to engage with the Burmese regime. That does not mean that another UN envoy would have no trouble in engaging with that regime, but most independent observers regard Mr. Gambari's work there as a failure. I hope that whoever is appointed as his successor will be more robust in dealing with the regime.

What further discussions have representatives of the UK Government had with Aung San Suu Kyi following her meeting with the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, on 9 October 2009? What opportunities are there for engagement between the UK Government and representatives from Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League of Democracy, in advance of the 2010 elections?

A number of colleagues touched on the 2010 elections, and it has already been pointed out that the new constitution guarantees the military one quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of the new national Parliament. The UK Government have strongly criticised the planned elections. Earlier this year in answer to a written question, a Minister stated:

-that has a wonderful sound of 1984 to it-

It is clear that the 2010 elections planned by the military junta do not represent genuine progress towards democracy. Will the Minister outline the conditions that the UK Government think are necessary for a credible election process? How can we measure those in the forthcoming months?

A number of colleagues have mentioned EU sanctions. Will the Minister assure us that existing EU sanctions will not be relaxed until clear progress is made by the Burmese regime, including an end to human rights abuses and the oppression of minorities? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that existing UK sanctions on the import of timber and gems from Burma are enforced, and not violated as is currently the case? That is only a small part of the sanctions, but it is important and involves members of the regime personally.

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