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Burma and Sudan

11.12 p.m.

Baroness Cox rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how their commitment to a foreign policy based on human rights is being implemented in Burma and Sudan.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, through an oversight the name of my noble friend Lord Moynihan is missing from the list of speakers. As I understand that he will sum up for the Opposition, and as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has withdrawn his name, I ask the indulgence of the House to allow my noble friend to speak for eight minutes in the gap.

I am most grateful to all noble Lords who are to speak this evening, and especially to those who spoke on Sudan last week. I apologise if this follow-on debate coming so quickly has caused some confusion. I tabled my Unstarred Question before that debate appeared on the Order Paper in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNair. I was unable to participate last week as I had longstanding commitments with the Ministers of education and health from the Russian Federation.

I begin by commending Her Majesty's Government for their principled commitment to develop a foreign policy based on human rights and by the position already adopted with regard to both Burma and Sudan. I wish this evening to provide more first-hand evidence of violations of human rights by the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Sudan and the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) in Burma.

My evidence on Sudan is based on first-hand experience of 15 visits, including five this year, to many different areas in southern Sudan; the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and eastern Upper Nile; and eastern Sudan between Kassala and the Red Sea. The areas we visit are those designated "no go" areas by the NIF, where the people, cut off from the United Nations and its organisations, and from the ICRC are bereft of aid and advocacy. I suggest that if the noble Lord, Lord McNair, were to visit these areas, he might come to rather different conclusions from those derived from visiting Sudan as a guest of the NIF.

The NIF totalitarian military regime seized power by force in 1989 and has declared a jihad against those who oppose it--Christians, Moslems and animists--and are fighting for fundamental human rights. Many Arab

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Moslems from the north, the majority of whom belong to opposition parties represented in the previously democratically elected government, have suffered arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, extra-judicial killings and other forms of repression. For example, on 3rd April the NIF disrupted the 29th memorial festival of Al-Sayid Ali Al-Merghani, blocking access to the celebration and using tear gas. Many people were imprisoned.

In other parts of Sudan the NIF's violations of human rights can be summarised under four headings: military offensives against civilians; the displacement of over 5 million people from their homelands; the enslavement of tens of thousands of black Africans; and the forced conscription of thousands of boys and young men into the government army. The NIF is waging a ferocious war against its own people in southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. It has received massive financial assistance from other regimes which support terrorism. For example, there have been recent reports of donations from Iran to purchase tanks, MiG fighters and chemical weapons. There are reports of bases being established for the manufacture of chemical weapons inside Sudan.

The Government deny that they bomb civilians, but I have spent hours in foxholes during the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians that have inflicted death and injury, terrorising them and driving them from their homes into the bush, desert or mountains where they have to scavenge for food with no access to water. They suffer from cold and have no shelter, clothes, blankets or mosquito nets. Earlier this year we were in the Nuba mountains. The Government continue to destroy villages as part of their publicly-declared jihad. Offensives by ground forces are accompanied by aerial attacks by low-flying helicopter gunships which hunt and mow down women and children. We met local Moslem and Christian leaders who described attacks on their villages, such as the one on Regife on 1st March when two elderly men were burnt in their huts, 370 homes were burnt, cows, pigs and poultry killed or stolen and all crops burnt. Over 4,000 people had to flee to the bush suffering severe hunger and cold. The enemy used two helicopter gunships on that occasion, killing and wounding civilians. Three churches were destroyed.

In other parts of Sudan many thousands of people have been driven from their homes. Many have to flee to government garrisons or so-called peace camps in order to try to survive. Christians are compelled to adopt Moslem names and practices to receive food and medicine. When we visited Bahr-El-Ghazal in May 1995 we discovered widespread slavery. For example, on 25th March Popular Defence Forces (PDF) attacked the town of Nyamlell killing 82 civilians, enslaving 282 women and children, burning dwellings and looting cattle and grain. We returned seven times and visited many other locations to obtain evidence of slavery. We have interviewed former slaves, slave traders and the families of people who are still enslaved. We have also interviewed PDF officers. We have taken independent journalists, including NBC Dateline, and accumulated an abundance of evidence to prove beyond doubt that chattel slavery is widespread and encouraged by the

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NIF regime. The UN rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, Dr. Gasper Biro, has come to the same conclusion. We estimate that there are tens of thousands of slaves in Sudan.

Christian Solidarity International (CSI) therefore developed a two-pronged strategy to try to reduce slavery. The first prong is Arab-Dinka reconciliation. We arranged a visit to the region by the Moslem religious leader Mubarak El Fadil El Mahdi and other prominent Arab leaders to meet local Arab leaders and persuade them to advise their people that this is not a jihad and it is in their interests to live in peace with the African Dinkas. Consequently, last dry season there were far fewer slave raids in that area.

We also discovered the possibility of redeeming slaves and reuniting them with their families for the price of two to three cows per slave. Since October 1995 CSI and other organisations have given enough resources to free over 700 slaves, and we have seen many happy family reunions. But the NIF has also pursued a policy of abduction and forced conscription of boys and young men into the government army, where they are compelled to fight against their own people. Those conscripts are usually put in the front line where they are among the first to die. It is estimated that many thousands have suffered this fate. There are no happy family reunions for them.

I turn briefly to Burma, where the SPDC regime continues to violate the human rights of many of its people, repressing political dissent and carrying out ethnic cleansing of minorities such as the Karen and Kerenni. The repression of courageous leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi is well known and widely condemned. Less well known are the government's military offensives against the Karen, which have driven them off almost all their remaining territory in eastern Burma. They are not even safe across the border in Thailand, where they are subjected to bombardment and ground attacks.

In Karenni state, SPDC troops have almost completely accomplished ethnic cleansing. Villagers have been forced to go to relocation camps. Some who have escaped have described conditions there as lethal: food inadequate, contaminated and possibly poisoned. Death rates are high and no foreign aid organisations are allowed to bring medicine. Their homes are mined, so return to the villages is impossible. Those who escape are killed on sight.

Karen and Karenni who are caught by SPDC troops suffer torture, slave labour and use as human minesweepers. Just two weeks ago I received a letter from one of my Karen friends. She wrote:

    "I stayed at my village until we had to evacuate in a hurry because of a SPDC attack in that area ... As I was the biggest person at home at that time I had to piggy back my paralysed grandfather for three days, from place to place, until we were able to cross to Thailand ... As I write this letter it is the end of the monsoon season and with this comes fear of attacks on our camps. Everyone is afraid".

I wish to ask the Minister three questions which relate to both Sudan and Burma, and one which is specific to Burma. May I first say how encouraged I was by her reply to the debate on Sudan last week. First, will the Government consider further measures to alleviate the

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suffering of civilians in Sudan and Burma. For example, will they press for open access by aid organisations to all areas of Sudan and Burma to ensure that life-saving supplies can reach all those who are denied them?

Secondly, until such time as those regimes allow access to all areas by aid agencies, will the Government consider more favourably giving resources to organisations such as CSI--I must declare an interest--which are prepared to reach people cut off from all other aid? Otherwise, many more thousands will suffer and die in the months ahead.

Thirdly, will the Government consider following the example of the USA in increasing economic pressure, trying to develop more initiatives for arms embargoes, and investigating allegations concerning chemical weapons?

Finally, with regard to Burma, will the Government raise the plight of the displaced Karen and Karenni with the Thai Government? While the Thai Government's willingness to provide camps is appreciated, there is concern over inadequate security for those camps, and a fear of forced repatriation.

I know that this debate will bring immense comfort to those people who are suffering so much. Whenever we have the privilege of visiting them, they always say that the fact that they know that they are not forgotten gives them the strength to continue to struggle to survive. I shall ensure that the Hansard report of this debate will reach them in the bush, the desert and the jungle. I know that they will derive great comfort from the assurance that they are not forgotten in this time of tribulation.

11.23 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, the noble Baroness is to be warmly congratulated on and admired for her consistent perseverance and determination in the matters that she brings before us tonight. I hope that it will be a little earlier on another occasion, but of one thing I am sure--we shall hear a great deal more from her on this subject. I believe that her persistence is beginning to make some impact. I hope that I am right in thinking that.

I shall speak only about Burma, of which I have some background experience and knowledge. I have affection for its peoples. I knew and admired Aung San. I have been shaken to discover that his daughter, Suu Kyi, whom I met when she was a delightful child, is being treated by fascist militarists of her own nationality with the same hostility as they applied to her equally brilliant father.

Aung San was murdered by his political opponents immediately after he and his anti-fascist Peoples Freedom League had been democratically and overwhelmingly elected to office. As Colonel Donnison, who probably knew Burma better than any other Englishman, wrote in his book:

    "Aung San and seven of the best and most dependable of his colleagues were dead, a loss from which Burma has not yet recovered, and from which it is probable that she never will recover".

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That was written in 1970, and I believe that the arrival of his own daughter on the scene means that Burma now has the possibility of recovering the democratic process. Indeed, it did recover it, but for a second time it was swept from them by military action. Of course, in 1970 Donnison was not to know that a person such as Suu Kyi would come along and that she, too, would be elected and deprived of office, this time, thank heavens, by military force short of murder but nonetheless disastrous for Burma and its people.

In the interim, Suu Kyi wrote a book entitled Freedom from Fear. It is one of the most remarkable I have read and I commend it to your Lordships. It is written with what is in the circumstances astounding objectivity and an absence of rancour which is remarkable. I was considerably impressed by Aung San and on this evidence I am no less impressed by his daughter. It is a tragedy that the world does not rush to the assistance of this brave woman.

Clement Attlee was perhaps the British Prime Minister who most clearly recognised the obligations to Burma of the departing imperial power. Let us hope that we have another Attlee. The new Government have not been short of sympathetic words, but there has been relatively little action. I am hoping that tonight my noble friend will tell us that the Government have plans for bringing further pressure to bear on the existing regime in Burma. The Government's support for trade with Burma has certainly been stopped, but trade continues without hindrance, let alone sanctions. Tourism halted for a while, but I understand that it is now resuming.

I wished to ask my noble friend to take certain action, but I cannot remember what it was. I am sorry to keep your Lordships waiting, but my papers are mixed up. I appear irrevocably to have lost them, but I remember what I wanted to ask my noble friend and I shall turn to that in a moment. Old age appears to have crept up on me.

I have offered no explanation of how, in 1945, a then obscure flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force came to be so deeply involved in the affairs of Burma at the highest level so that on demobilisation I made it my business to see the Prime Minister and confirm my friendship with Aung San in the Dorchester when he led the delegation which came here to negotiate the successful Attlee/Aung San agreement. Anyone who would like to have a little further information on the background may wish to know that I have an article in the current issue of the New Humanist, a quarterly publication, which is available in the Library.

As it is so late and I have apparently lost a page of my notes, I shall not delay the House further this evening except to say that this debate is important for the reasons which I have given and for further reasons which your Lordships may read about in that magazine in the Library. In my opinion, it is one of the most important guarantees that a government can give that they make themselves truly responsible for the welfare of people who have been within their influence, to make sure that they too share the kind of life which we ourselves are privileged to enjoy.

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11.32 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, it is entirely in keeping with the dauntless character of my noble friend Lady Cox that we should be addressing not one but two nearly intractable human problems--the Sudan and Burma--in one debate tonight. Because I still remember the great debt that we owe to the brave Karen people of Burma who fought the Japanese with us, I shall concentrate on Burma. Nevertheless, I wish to say unequivocally, having read the interesting debate on the Sudan initiated by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, on 1st December, that I continue to believe, with confirmation from the UN, that there is indeed widespread slavery and oppression in the south in areas which CSI has visited many times. Those were closed areas to which the noble Lord's official guides from the Sudanese Government in Khartoum obviously did not take him. Moreover, I am not surprised that he remained unaware of the true number of prisoners of the regime. I suggest that there is little to choose in inhumanity between the hostage taking which he admits and slavery.

If I am to judge by the wise speech of the Minister in that debate, I believe that the Government are right to view "the April Agreement with interest" but to remain unconvinced. Given the past experience of sanctions as they were tried in, for example, the long struggle with the South African regime, I do not believe that sanctions, which in any event are frequently broken, are effective alone in changing the minds of an authoritarian regime which acts by dogma. But they have a moral effect which should not be underrated. They send a message to the oppressed that they are not forgotten and the ANC in South Africa supported them for that reason.

In the Sudan, I believe that we should always be ready to talk but we should not be prepared to accept at face value formulae and "peace agreements" which are not acceptable to those most concerned. We should be doing all we can to secure access for UN human rights monitors so that the truth can be widely known and for aid to be administered by the NGOs and not the Khartoum government. We have a particular standing because the contingent countries, Uganda and Kenya, are members of the Commonwealth and not least because we are dealing in Khartoum with a government who, there is good reason to believe, are allowing Iraq to make chemical weapons on their territory. They have some way to go to convince the world, especially neighbouring Egypt, that they are a benevolent regime.

Very similar problems arise in the case of Myanmar or, as we have known it, Burma. The ruling group recently changed its title but not its spots. So I shall continue to call it SLORC. We, the European Union, and the Americans, have moved over the past few years from attempting to convince the regime that it made sense to allow democratic political development and to pursue a programme of opening up to economic development. We have moved to the imposition of economic sanctions. Since 20th May this year new US investment is forbidden. On 24th April the EU removed Burma from the generalised list of references--GDS--and our own Foreign Secretary announced that Burma would be excluded from the Asia-Europe (ASEM)

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summit in London in April as part of the EU's policy of sanctions and because of Burma's record of extensive drug trafficking.

However, the ASEAN powers' decision to admit Burma with Laos and Cambodia to ASEAN, growing Thai-Burmese economic co-operation, the statement of Dr. Mahathir, the Malaysian Prime Minister, that discrimination against Burma is discrimination against ASEAN, together with the long-standing links between Ne Win and the Indonesian leader, all go far to ensure that Burma will not feel particularly threatened. Further, Burma is joining the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand economic co-operation unit, Bist-ec. We have to accept the harsh fact that the Asian countries, like China, resent the West's efforts, as they see it, to impose alien ideas of humanitarian rights upon them.

So what can we do? Here is a country which has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but which presses children into the army, and a country which relocates whole Karen and Shan populations. In central Shan state since March 1966 over 100,000 people from 600 villages were moved into 45 relocation sites where they found neither shelter, food nor medicines but were pressed into forced labour and left to live on roots and leaves. In a further relocation drive, 12,500 were moved in March this year.

Because my noble friend Lady Cox has told us so much about the sufferings of the people, I shall concentrate on what might be done to help them. I suggest that HMG could start by making the strongest representations both to the Thai Government and to the UNHCR to end the absurd system under which the latter has no presence on Thailand's borders but has to require those fleeing persecution in Burma to make their way to Bangkok where the UNHCR conducts its screening procedures. Most fear, with some justice, that they will be arrested and returned to the border before they ever reach Bangkok to attempt to establish refugee status determination.

We should advocate a strong UNHCR presence at the border and protection for the camps from attacks by SLORC forces. Thailand does not, I believe, impose such restrictions on UNHCR at the Cambodia and Laos borders and it is painfully clear that growing Thai-Burmese common economic interests may account for the fact that a refoulement and "voluntary repatriation" have for some time been the order of the day, especially for the Shan. Refugee camps are now designated as temporary shelters, and the shelter provided is deliberately temporary: it will not survive a rainy season.

In May this year 430 Shan were escorted to the border by Thai troops and "repatriated" to Burma as they were no longer categorised as "fleeing fighting". It is of course a considerable burden on Thailand to receive such large numbers of refugees, but what is the UNHCR doing? It should insist upon being free to carry out its mandate of care at the point of entry and to prevent or, at the very least, most strongly denounce forced repatriation - refoulement! By March this year the UNHCR director for Asia and the Pacific had not visited

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the new camps on the border. The UN is trying, under the new Secretary General, to order its affairs better. I urge the Minister to take up in New York the recommendation made in the UN's own programme for reform issued in July this year: first, to achieve greater co-ordination and oversight in the development assistance area; and, secondly, to "institute a major restructure of secretariat machinery responsible for co-ordinating humanitarian assistance". What the UNHCR is doing, or rather not doing, in Thailand for a whole population fleeing from Burma should be at the top of the agenda. I believe that this Government have the will and the commitment to put it there.

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