We believe 2015 could be the most significant year in Burma’s modern history. The elections on 8 November are a litmus test for the reform process that started in 2011 and the most important democratic opportunity Burma has had in more than 50 years. Successful, credible elections would represent a huge step in

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consolidating an historic transition from dictatorship. They would bring an enormous amount of good will from the international community, and would be a true legacy for all those whose efforts have taken the country this far.

That is not to say that we should make any presumptions about them. We do still have serious concerns. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) reminded us, the constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in Parliament and bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for the presidency. There is a rising trend of Buddhist nationalist rhetoric, which the hon. Member for Walsall South referred to and which has been used for party political purposes. There is the disqualification of parliamentary candidates from Burma’s Muslim minority and the disfranchisement of the Rohingya community, despite our strong protests. There are the arrests of activists and candidates for engaging in peaceful protests and social media posts, for example Patrick Kum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandi Tun, which raise particular concerns about freedom of expression. There are also reports of inaccuracies and omissions in the voters list, as well as problems relating to advance voting.

The British Government have worked very hard to make the election process as robust as possible. We have funded the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ work with Burma’s election commission, we are providing £1.5 million to train 5,000 national election observers, and we are contributing towards a substantial EU election observation mission. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and the hon. Lady asked about independent observers and particularly the role of elders such as Mary Robinson. We are supporting the EU observation mission and there are already various other international observers either there or scheduled to be there, not least from the Carter centre, which I believe is involving Mary Robinson as part of its observation mission.

As I have repeatedly made clear to the House, the elections will not be straightforward, and the vote itself will not be “perfect”. Ultimately, it is for the people of Burma, and their political representatives, to decide whether the elections are credible. We will look to them, as well as local and international observers, in assessing the credibility of the vote.

The world is rightly watching these elections intently, but I also personally remain extremely concerned, as do many Members on both sides of the House, by the appalling situation of the Rohingya. I was determined to return to Rakhine during my third visit to Burma in July. As the monsoon rains began to fall, I saw how desperate the situation remains for so many. Indeed, I was struck that for some of those housed in what were after all supposed to be temporary camps the situation has appreciably worsened since my last visit in 2012. I sensed some of the desperation which led increased numbers to attempt the extremely dangerous journey from the Bay of Bengal earlier this year, and I saw yesterday’s tragic report by Amnesty, and no one could fail to have been moved by the harrowing images in today’s Times, which are a reminder of the risks of this happening again. We have pressed the Burmese Government repeatedly on the question of the basic needs of the Rohingya: security, humanitarian access, freedom of movement and a pathway to citizenship. I set out our concerns again in September in New York with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

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The hon. Lady asked about the United Nations monitoring mission in Rakhine. There will be another UN resolution in New York this autumn, and we will again support a strong resolution to extend the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma. I also attended the UN Secretary General’s partnership group on Burma, which was once again chaired by Ban Ki-moon.

We must of course remain conscious that tackling Rakhine will be one of the biggest, most complex and sensitive challenges facing Burma’s next Government. We already provide significant practical assistance to all people in Rakhine state, including more than £18 million of aid since the violence of 2012, and that will remain a priority for us. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) has been closely involved in that, and I am pleased to see him in the Chamber this evening.

On the issue of human rights, we are clear that many serious issues remain to be addressed and that, in some areas, the human rights environment has deteriorated over the past 12 months. We welcome the release of thousands of political prisoners under the current Government, but we remain concerned by the continued arrest, detention and sentencing of political activists. We are also concerned by the estimate of a minimum 180 people remaining behind bars at the end of August 2015, with 450 more being detained under repressive laws and awaiting trial following arrests throughout 2014 and early 2015. I raised these issues with the Minister for the President’s Office, Aung Min, when I was in Burma in July.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of Phil Blackwood in the context of human rights. Mr Blackwood travelled to Burma on a New Zealand passport, so this is rightly a New Zealand lead, and it is they who are discussing case handling directly with him. However, I met Mr Blackwood’s cousin on Monday, along with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who is in his place. Our ambassador has raised the case directly with the President’s office and I have committed to doing so again at the appropriate moment. That would also provide me with an opportunity to raise the case of the other gentleman the hon. Lady mentioned, Mr Niranjan Rasalingam.

During my visit in July, and again in New York in September, I pressed the Burmese Government on a number of human rights issues in addition to the elections

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and to Rakhine. On the issue of preventing sexual violence—the hon. Lady recounted some harrowing stories in that context—I was delighted to launch the international protocol on preventing sexual violence in conflict when I was last in Rangoon. I made it clear at that time that real progress was critical.

The hon. Lady raised again the issue of our engagement with the military, which has been raised in several debates in the past few months and years. Our focus is to encourage it to take its rightful place as a modern military in a democratic system. We are not providing any combat support or training. Yes, we use our engagement to raise our real concerns about issues such as sexual violence and child soldiers. I raised the issue of child soldiers with both the northern commander and the commander-in-chief. If we want the military to play its part in the reform process, it would be a mistake to think that we can achieve that simply by isolating and criticising it. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has visited some of the courses we have run, is of the same mind.

We welcome the signature last week of the nationwide ceasefire agreement by the Government and eight of the ethnic armed groups. A huge amount of effort and compromise from all sides has gone into that. Further work will be needed to ensure that the remaining groups sign up to the agreement and begin the comprehensive political process to turn it into a lasting settlement. We remain very supportive of this work. It will continue right through to the other side of the election, and it will confront whoever wins the election.

We must not forget that, despite such reverses and the continuing open sore of Rakhine, Burma is in a very different place from where it was at the start of the reform process in 2011. I firmly believe that engagement remains the best way to encourage the forces of moderation. Although the reforms are neither perfect nor complete, they have improved the lives of millions of ordinary Burmese. It is clear, with the forthcoming elections, that Burma is at a crossroads. This is the time for us to hold our nerve and to hope that, through the elections, Burma can set itself on a path to a better future. I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to set out the Government’s view once again. Let us all hope that the events of the coming weeks work out in favour of the Burmese people.

Question put and agreed to.

5.26 pm

House adjourned.