Today, Burma's democracy leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will mark a total of 11 years under house arrest. It is therefore highly appropriate that the House should consider once again the current situation in Burma, the gross violations of human rights being perpetrated by its military regime, and the actions that Her Majesty’s Government can and should take to address the growing crisis there.
There are other factors that make this a particularly timely moment for hon. Members to have this discussion. Last month, the United Nations Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time and just last week the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, presented his report to the UN General Assembly. This debate has attracted interest from various non-governmental organisations working in the field and I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK, which, among others, have asked me to consider various research notes and pieces of evidence in preparation for the debate.
It is good to see the Minister for Europe here. I know that he will not be offended if I say that we were looking forward to the Minister for Trade, who also has responsibility for human rights, responding. Nevertheless, we look forward to what this Minister has to say.
I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that more than 90 per cent. of everything said from the platform in the party conference season is instantly forgettable, and I am sure that that applies equally to all parties. However, in Bournemouth at the beginning of the month I listened to one of the most confident, passionate and meaningful speeches I have ever heard in any political forum. The speaker was a 25-year-old Burmese woman called Zoya Phan, who used an appearance at our conference to make a heart-cry for her people and her country. Zoya spoke of how, at the age of 14, she witnessed a savage assault on her village by troops of the Burmese regime. She spoke of mortar bombs exploding, soldiers opening fire and of her family running, carrying what they could and leaving their home behind. She also spoke of her memories of those killed on that day and the smell of black smoke as her village was destroyed behind them. She brought questions to our conference and asked: why has it taken 16 years for the UN Security Council even to discuss Burma; why are there no targeted economic sanctions to cut the lifeline that keeps the Burmese regime afloat; and why is there not even a UN arms embargo against her country? It was Zoya’s testimony, more than anything, that made me ask for the debate. I would like to use my contribution to bring these questions and others to the Minister.
Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the past 11 years of her life in detention. Despite an overly optimistic assessment of the situation by UN Under-Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, who was permitted a brief audience with her in May this year, her detention was extended by a further year just days later. In addition to the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, there are more than 1,100 other political prisoners in jail in Burma today facing widespread and horrific forms of torture. Since December last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been forced to suspend all its prison visits due to the restrictions imposed by the State Peace and Development Council. Last December the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) published a report “The Darkness We See”, which details the different forms of torture used. Many political prisoners do not survive the harsh conditions and torture they face in Burma’s prisons. Another report, “Eight Seconds of Silence”, details the deaths of at least nine political prisoners since last year, and last week it emerged that another prisoner, Ko Thet Win Aung, aged 34, died in Mandalay prison. Will the Minister and his colleagues demand an independent investigation into the cause of death of that young man and make those findings public?
The date of 27 September this year marked the 18th anniversary of the establishment of the National League for Democracy in Burma. Yet, even at the same time as messages of support were sent to the NLD from politicians of all parties around the world, several leading dissidents in Burma, who had already spent many years of their lives behind bars, were re-arrested, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Gyi and Htay Kwe. What action is the Minister taking to raise the issue of those arrests with the SPDC and to secure the release of the prisoners?
Burma still has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world according to Human Rights Watch, and more than 70,000 children have been forced to join the Burma army. According to the human rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has interviewed former child soldiers who have managed to escape, those children—some as young as 10 or 11—are taken from bus stops, train stations or off the street while on their way home from school. I know that from previous answers given by the Minister for Trade that he feels passionately about the issue of child soldiers. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s most recent actions to challenge the regime on its use of child soldiers?
As if the suppression of democracy, the widespread use of torture, the imprisonment of people for their political beliefs, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers were not enough, the human rights violations perpetrated by the SPDC against ethnic nationalities, particularly the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amount, according to many analysts, to crimes against humanity and, arguably, genocide. Since 1996, more than 2,800 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed. That has been reported by human rights organisations for several years. Last week, in his report to the UN General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma acknowledged that figure for the first time.
It is estimated that more than 1 million people are internally displaced in the jungles of Burma. They are on the run,
“hunted and shelled like animals”,
in the words of one report, and do not have adequate food, medicine or shelter. This year, the number of internally displaced people rose further. In the SPDC’s biggest and most savage offensive against Karen civilians in almost a decade, more than 20,000 Karen people had to flee their villages. Reports from the Free Burma Rangers and the Karen Human Rights Group reveal horrifying atrocities, including beheadings, severe mutilations and the shooting of civilians at point-blank range. A nine-year-old girl was shot after seeing her father and grandmother killed.
It is essential that we see that campaign for what it is. The European Union and others in the international community have been, in my view, far too timid in the language they have been willing to use. They have described this year’s events as an offensive against the Karen National Union, which is the Karens’ resistance organisation. In reality, it was nothing less than a genocidal assault on the Karen people themselves. The vast majority of the victims were innocent, unarmed civilians who had nothing to do with the resistance.
Evidence of the widespread and systematic use of rape continues to mount and is documented in reports such as “Licence to Rape” by the Shan Women’s Action Network, and others by the Karen Women’s Organisation and the Women’s League of Chinland. The pattern is clearly that wherever SPDC troops are stationed, women are extremely vulnerable. A Kachin woman told Christian Solidarity Worldwide that rape is “very common” and that
“rape happens in every area where there is an SPDC army camp.”
The Kachin have a ceasefire with the SPDC, so rape cannot simply be dismissed as a consequence of “counter-insurgency” operations. Similarly in Mon state, where there is also a ceasefire, women are taken as sexual slaves for the army, as described in the devastating report “Catwalk to the Barracks”.
In his report of last week, the UN special rapporteur says:
“Serious incidents of sexual violence against women continue to be reported throughout Myanmar. Women and girls in ethnic minority areas remain particularly susceptible to rape and harassment by State actors.”
In light of UN Security Council resolution 1674 passed this year, which calls for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, what action will the Government take at an international level to bring the regime to justice for those crimes? Will the Minister assure hon. Members that in the debate at the Security Council in New York in two days’ time on resolution 1325 the UK will raise the situation in Burma and encourage others to do so? Will the UK call on the SPDC to bring an end to the system of impunity for grave violations committed by state actors, including rape and sexual violence?
On the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma, in September the Back Pack Health Worker Team—a group of extremely courageous medics who work in the conflict zones of eastern Burma, at huge risk to their lives, to deliver medical assistance—published a report called “Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma”. Its findings are an indictment of the regime and of the international community’s failure to respond. According to that report and a similar one published earlier in the year by Johns Hopkins university, Burma faces a dire public health crisis caused by the regime’s lack of investment in health care and its violation of human rights. Eastern Burma, in particular, is one of the world’s worst health disaster zones.
“Chronic Emergency” claims that the situation is as bad as that in the poorest countries in Africa, yet Burma receives only a fraction of the aid and attention given to Africa. Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS have reached epidemic proportions. Infant mortality rates and deaths from treatable diseases are among the worst in the world, yet Burma’s regime, which spends more than 40 per cent. of its budget on the military, invests less than $1 per person per year in health and education combined. The World Health Organisation’s assessment of health care ranks Burma 190th out of 191 states. Only Sierra Leone has a worse record of caring for its citizens.
I appreciate that the debate continues about the most effective way to deliver aid to the people of Burma and undoubtedly we want to avoid channelling money through the SPDC. I do not intend to try to address here all the complexities of that discussion, but I shall raise one simple point. I am aware that the Department for International Development is in the final stages of carrying out a review of its policy on Burma. I welcome the fact that it has had that review and I look forward to hearing the outcome, but I hope very much that DFID will find a way to provide substantial and much-needed assistance to the more than 1 million internally displaced people who as yet have not been reached by DFID funds. Outstanding organisations, such as the Back Pack Health Worker Team, are carrying out life-saving work and deserve our support. There is a precedent, as I understand that four other Governments do fund such humanitarian groups. I hope that DFID will be able to join them.
I want to focus on current political developments, first within Burma and then internationally. Just two weeks ago, the SPDC began the final session of its national convention to draw up a new constitution for the country. I hope that the Minister will assure hon. Members that Her Majesty’s Government do not give the SPDC’s national convention one iota of credibility and that the Minister will recognise it for what it is—a sham and a desperate bid by a brutal military regime to rubber-stamp its own agenda and give itself a civilian face. The delegates at the national convention are hand-picked and threatened with severe penalties if they criticise the process. The NLD and the major representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities are excluded from the convention.
I understand that the SPDC plans to put the new constitution to a referendum. No one has any confidence that that will be a free and fair referendum. What plans does the Minister have to put pressure on the SPDC to invite international and truly independent monitors, not just on the day of the referendum but in the run-up to it? What hope does he have that there will be a proper period of public awareness raising, information, education and consultation, including freedom for groups to campaign for a no vote?
The SPDC plans to hold new elections following a referendum, only it does not want a rerun of its defeat in 1990, so it has ensured that the proposed constitution assures it of victory. One third of the seats in the legislature will be reserved for the military. The president must be someone with at least 15 years’ experience in the military, and the regime’s civilian militia—the Union Solidarity and Development Association—is expected to be used by the SPDC to contest the seats that are not reserved for the military. The USDA, it should be remembered, are the thugs who attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in Depayin three years ago. During that attack, more than 100 of her supporters were beaten to death. Is this to be the new face of Burma?
Does the Minister agree with the UN special rapporteur, who described the national convention as “meaningless and undemocratic” and added:
“It will not work on the moon. It will not work on Mars”?
Does he also agree that the only way forward for real change and national reconciliation in Burma is tripartite dialogue involving the SPDC, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities? The NLD and the ethnic nationalities have repeatedly stressed their willingness to talk. What action is he taking to push for meaningful tripartite dialogue?
Just over a year ago, the former Czech President, Vaclav Havel, and the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, commissioned an international law firm to assess the case for bringing Burma to the UN Security Council agenda. Their report concluded that there was an overwhelmingly strong case for doing that because Burma met all the major criteria for Security Council action. It recommended a Security Council discussion and a binding resolution that would require the SPDC to release all political prisoners, to open the country to international human rights monitors and humanitarian aid organisations without restriction or interference, and to engage in meaningful tripartite dialogue and a transition to true democracy.
Last month, a year after the report was published, the UN Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time. That followed two informal UN Security Council discussions on Burma in the past 12 months or so. I am aware that the United Kingdom, along with the United States and others, worked very hard to bring Burma to the formal agenda, and I wish to express my appreciation for the Government’s efforts and to welcome the successes that have been achieved so far. However, I also want to urge on the Minister the fact that the need for a binding resolution on Burma has never been greater. The recent discussion at the Security Council is a very significant step, but talk is not enough.
The UN special rapporteur recommended specifically that the UN General Assembly should call on the Security Council to
“respond to the situation of armed conflict in eastern Myanmar…where civilians are being targeted and where humanitarian assistance to civilians is being deliberately obstructed, and to call on the Government of Myanmar to authorise access to the affected areas by the Special Rapporteur, the United Nations and associated personnel, as well as personnel of humanitarian organisations and guarantee their safety, security and freedom of movement”.
Does the Minister support the special rapporteur’s recommendation? What action is the United Kingdom taking to bring about a binding resolution and to ensure the support of other Security Council members?
I shall conclude by considering other steps that the United Kingdom could take. I applaud the robust statements made in the past by the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, and I reiterate my gratitude to the Government for the efforts made within the UN Security Council to seek a stronger international position. However, I want to suggest additional steps that should be considered.
First, and with great respect to the efforts of the Minister for Trade, I want greater engagement in the issue of Burma at a higher level in the Government, both by the Prime Minister and by the Foreign Secretary. I recognise that there are many challenges on the international scene, but given Britain’s history with Burma and given the severity and the duration of the suffering of its people, I hope that they will give the situation a higher priority than they have done so far.
My hon. Friend makes a very telling, forceful and well-researched speech. He mentioned the Minister with responsibility for human rights, who has spent a great deal of time this year encouraging the new UN Human Rights Council to further its work. Does my hon. Friend agree that that council should perhaps take Burma as one of the first tests of its veracity and effectiveness in pushing the UN to develop the binding resolution that he talked about?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Secondly, the UK is the second-largest source of approved investment in Burma. Although most major British companies that previously invested in Burma have withdrawn, companies all over the world use Britain to invest in Burma via British dependent territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda. The Government could introduce legislation to ban investment in Burma from Britain or British dependent territories.
Thirdly, the Minister should consider ways to strengthen the EU common position when it is reviewed this year. Will he tell the House why, despite the common position to freeze assets held in Europe by listed regime officials, less than £4,000 has been frozen across all 25 EU member states so far? What action are the Government taking to address that in the EU?
The strongest feature of the EU common position is a limited investment ban, introduced in 2004. European companies are banned from investing in a number of named state-owned enterprises. However, on that list of named state-owned enterprises are a pineapple juice factory and a tailor’s shop, but no enterprises in the key sectors of oil, gas, mining and timber. The military regime in Burma is propped up by oil, gas, timber and gems, but surely not by pineapple juice.
Fourthly, DFID provides no financial support for Burmese pro-democracy and human rights groups that are operating in exile but which carry out vital work in documenting and disseminating information—groups such as the Shan Women’s Action Network and the Karen Women’s Organisation, which have helped to bring the issue of rape to the attention of the world; media organisations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television stations, which broadcast news to Burma and provide an essential source of information; and democracy organisations such as the Government in exile, the National Council of the Union of Burma or the trade union movement. If developing democracy and civil society is to be a priority, why does DFID not fund such work for Burma?
Finally, it is becoming increasingly obvious that what is occurring in eastern Burma, particularly to the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amounts to more than just the counter-insurgency that the SPDC claims. The crimes of widespread rape, forced labour, mass displacement, torture, the use of human minesweepers, and the destruction of villages, livelihoods and lives surely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is a strong case of genocide or attempted genocide to be considered. I note that one definition of genocide provided by the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, in article 2(c), is:
“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Genocide does not have to involve the destruction of a whole race; nor need it even entail mass killing.
Earlier this month, when the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the Minister responsible for human rights, by way of a written parliamentary question, about whether genocide was being committed inside Burma, the answer expressed no view. At the end of June, the reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), was that
“there is currently insufficient evidence to establish that the intent to commit genocide exists.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 173W.]
I should like to ask again whether, in the view of Her Majesty’s Government, the Burmese regime is committing genocide. Does the Minister agree that there is a need thoroughly to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide or attempted genocide? If so, what action are he and his colleagues taking?
In describing the situation in Burma I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the regime’s legacy of fear and suffering. I have not, for example, described the use of forced labour. Nor have I detailed the lack of religious freedoms that blight the lives of Christians and Muslims alike in Burma. However, it is clear that across the full range of basic human rights the Burmese dictatorship systematically restricts, denies and undermines the freedoms that should be enjoyed by all peoples in Burma. In his book “The Case for Democracy”, Natan Sharansky describes the differences between freedom societies and the societies that he calls “fear societies”, which are ruled by regimes that deny freedoms to their peoples and suppress human rights. A community of free nations throughout the world will not, he says, emerge on its own:
“It will require both the clarity of the democratic world to see the profound moral difference between the world of freedom and the world of fear, and the courage to confront fear societies everywhere.”
We have a duty to confront, in the ways that I have described, the fear society that has been imposed on the people of Burma by the regime there. I close with the words of Zoya Phan, who spoke at the Conservative conference three weeks ago. She said:
“Promoting human rights and democracy is not imperialist. It is not a cultural issue. It is everyone’s business.”
We need to use our privileged position in the UK to make the situation in Burma the urgent business of the international community.
I am grateful, Mr. Olner, for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I pay heartfelt tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who offered the House the most passionate, insightful and spine chilling exposé of the reality of life for millions of people in that beautiful but benighted country called Burma. It is right that the House should have the opportunity, 11 years into the continued incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, to debate these matters with a view to the formulation and promotion of a still more active Government policy to try to improve the conditions of life in Burma.
Extra-judicial killings, rape as a weapon of war, brutal water torture, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of human mine clearers, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country in the world, and the daily, systematic razing and destruction of villages in their thousands, throughout eastern Burma, all point to the institutionalised bestiality of one of the most appalling Governments on the planet.
I believe that all the people of Burma are dehumanised and continue to suffer on the most breathtaking scale as a consequence of the wholly illegitimate Government who tyrannise each and every one of them. I am mindful, however, of the very particular circumstances and plight of the ethnic nationals to whom my hon. Friend so movingly referred. I speak of course of the Karen, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Chin, the Mon, the Arakan and the Rohingya peoples, to name just a few of the groups that daily experience the most egregious abuse of their human rights.
In that context, I express my personal gratitude and that, I suspect, of a number of right hon. and hon. Members, to two organisations that make a distinctive contribution in reminding the world of the plight of the people of Burma. I refer, of course, to the Burma Campaign, with which I am well familiar and with which I have closely co-operated in recent years as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Burma. I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is well aware of that organisation, too. The Burma Campaign is fantastic. Whenever I think of it, I call to mind the three musketeers, united in vigorous and committed campaigning for a better future for that country. I refer, of course, to Yvette Mahon, Anna Roberts and Mark Farmaner. They are superb campaigners and deserve tribute to be paid to them in the House.
The other organisation that is very much to the fore in highlighting the abuse of human rights in Burma is Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I want to acknowledge the sterling contribution made by Ben Rogers, the advocacy officer for Burma and south-east Asia, who has made about a dozen visits in recent years to the Thai-Burmese border to meet, and to hear the harrowing personal testimonies of, those who have suffered under the wilful abuse of a destructive regime. Those organisations continue to fly the flag for a better future for people who are suffering grievously on a daily basis, with scant protection and precious little active help—something that cannot be right, and must change.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister for Europe here today. I recognise that he has, in former capacities, regularly had to listen to me speak on this subject. When he was Leader of the House, I often called for such debates. It may be a relatively trying experience for Ministers to endure the phenomenon of any Member regularly pontificating on a subject, but I make no apology for doing so, because I believe that the State Peace and Development Council is one of the worst and most tyrannical regimes in the world, and that, although now and again it receives adverse coverage, that happens on far too limited and sporadic a basis. We need a focus of critical attention and determination to secure change, if there is to be any prospect of delivering that in the foreseeable future.
I have three proposals—none of which is original, and to all of which my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred, but each of which is vital to the prospects of trying to get a better deal for the abused citizens of Burma. The first is to secure UN Security Council intervention in Burma. I point out to the Minister the fact that that cause commands substantial cross-party support. I tabled early-day motion 902 on the subject last year, with the support of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)—not to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I think that subsequently we were joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When last I looked, less than 24 hours ago, that early-day motion had commanded the support of 320 Members of the House. From all the major and some of the minor parties, support has been forthcoming.
Given that Ministers are not in a position to sign early-day motions, and that the same prohibition applies to members of the Government Whips Office and the whole payroll vote, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, that puts in context the scale of support that we enjoy. There are probably only 500 right hon. and hon. Members at most who are in a position to sign early-day motions, and we all know that some colleagues prefer not to sign any such motions for fear of being asked to sign more than they would like. It is therefore telling testimony to the strength of opinion and deep sense of frustration that we feel, and our earnest conviction that something better can and should be done, that the support of 321 colleagues has been secured.
The adoption of Burma as an agenda item by the UN Security Council on 15 September was a welcome advance, and the subsequent discussion on this important subject on 29 September was a still more welcome advance. The Minister should know me well enough by now to know that I am not grudging in offering praise, so I am more than happy to put on record in explicit terms similar sentiments to those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire: I have been struck by the sheer passion and conviction with which the Minister for Trade has advanced the case for human rights in Burma since he took over his new responsibilities.
This, however, is not just a matter for Britain. We need wider support, so there is relationship building to be done. A coalition has to be established and other people have to be brought on board, but we have to run fast to stand still. We simply cannot afford to rest for a moment; we have to keep going and seek the support of other countries at every turn. We should not be remotely afraid of the possibility that some of them might resist our approaches. Let us name and shame those people within the United Nations who represent their national interests or perverted priorities and somehow think that the behaviour of the Government of Burma is unexceptionable and does not warrant the attention of the Security Council.
The report commissioned by Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel, which was provided by the American law firm to which my hon. Friend referred, demonstrates beyond peradventure that the regime substantially meets all the relevant criteria for consideration for UN Security Council intervention. I would far prefer a binding Security Council resolution, but I confess that if we have to put up with a non-binding resolution in the short term, that is better than nothing, although we need to send an explicit, unmistakeable signal to the regime that it is, frankly, a leper at the moment.
Burma is a pariah state within the international community and its behaviour is unconscionable. If it entertains even the remotest future ambition, which it entertained unsuccessfully in the past, of being allowed the chairmanship or presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations, it will have to bring about a massive step change in its behaviour. There can be no automaticity in its promotion to a position of jumped-up political importance that its conduct manifestly does not warrant. So, we need to keep going. I would like there to be an arms embargo and substantial UN sanctions against the regime. I do not say that that will be quick in coming, but we should press for it.
My hon. Friend was right to highlight the alarming phenomenon of the substantial investment in Burma through what I would describe as a circuitous and underhand route. Those resources—to the tune of approximately $1.4 billion since 1988, so far as British territories are concerned—are without question serving to prop up the sadistic, brutal, fascistic, military dictatorship. On 2 October, the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme highlighted that important phenomenon using disturbing evidence to support its thesis.
I appeal to the Minister in the most strenuous terms to consider the Government imposition of a ban on the use of such territories for the provision of investment to the regime. Such investment is not helping the people of Burma and it is not assisting the ethnic nationals who are belaboured by the regime. It is simply putting a pot of gold into the vaults of the banks that are controlled by the Government of Burma, who have no legitimacy and should not be there in the first place.
As my hon. Friend persuasively argued, the Government of Burma are using 40 per cent. of their national budget to finance the military while subjecting the country’s people—their own citizens—to appalling indignities, while expenditure on health and education combined is less than $1 per person per year.
The notion that our territories, however inadvertently and with no malice aforethought, should be used to channel resources to a regime that behaves in that way is unimaginable. Although I understand why widespread attention is given to other important issues of public policy in the international sphere, I make a heartfelt plea for the shifting of Burma from the back of Ministers’ minds to the front. Let us put it on the agenda and keep it there. I reserve considerable contempt for the behaviour of Total and Unocal in propping up the regime.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s powerful plea for cross-border aid for the people of Burma. It saddens and angers me greatly that British annual funding to Burma in the form of humanitarian aid amounts to only £8 million a year. I understand, although I am ready for correction if the Minister wants to offer it, that that budget is to be frozen next year, even though the egregious abuses in Burma are piling up on virtually a daily basis. The plight is not diminishing; if anything, it is being exacerbated. The conditions of life in Burma are not radically dissimilar to those of large numbers of people in sub-Saharan Africa. A greater priority should be attached to funding.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the position of Thailand is important in the cross-border aid equation. It has tolerated camps for internally displaced people and refugees on its border, and it employs some of the people who are displaced from Burma, so there are many things for which we can praise and thank Thailand, but does my hon. Friend agree that it must address two issues? First, it must be more free in enabling aid to cross the border. Secondly, it must look carefully at certain Thai individuals who are senior in the Thai community both politically and economically, who are becoming involved in the acquisition of lands in Burma that belong to the ethnic races of Burma, not people in Thailand.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I agree with him on both counts.
I want to draw to the Minister’s attention what I suspect must be an inadvertently misleading statement, not to the House, for that would not be in order, Mr. Olner, but in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2006 annual report on human rights, because it is relevant to the debate. At page 42—a page with which I am sure you are closely familiar—it states:
“Bilaterally and via the European Commission, it”—
that is the Department for International Development—
“helps fund the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, an NGO providing food and other support to Burmese refugees in Thailand and to internally displaced people in Burma.”
However, my distinct understanding is that the British contribution to that consortium is provided explicitly on the understanding that it will not be used to provide cross-border humanitarian aid. That statement’s wording is therefore manifestly misleading in offering a contrary impression. I hope that cross-border assistance will be provided as a result of the reconsideration of policy, because 1 million people are suffering in the jungle.
Too many people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little done to help them, and that must change. Of course we require pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy, but there is a proper place for a healthy dose of idealism to boot. Narrow, selfish and destructive commercial considerations have held sway for too long, and it is time to proclaim with a degree of passion that respect for human rights and democratic values must take precedence over the reckless and destructive pursuit of filthy lucre. I hope that the Minister has something useful, interesting and forward looking to say on that point.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and the spokesmen for the two Opposition parties, I should say that this is an important subject, and hon. Members have raised some important questions. Therefore, they should give the Minister adequate time to respond and remember that the debate will conclude at 12.30 pm.
Thank you, Mr. Olner. You need have no fear about me. I shall be quite brief, given the great difficulty that I shall have following two such passionate and eloquent speakers on a subject such as this.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this important debate. Indeed, I myself had a debate on this very subject in 2003, so I do not come new to the issue. I am saddened that, despite lots of talk, there has still been no real action by the international community since then. I hope that this debate, and the Government action that should follow from it, will act as a catalyst to bring about the international action that is so necessary. The international community must take stronger action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.
I am sorry that the Minister with responsibility for human rights is not here, but I entirely understand that he is engaged elsewhere and that that was inescapable. Given that he is not here, however, we could hardly have a better Minister with us than the Minister for Europe. He is a good man, he listens carefully and he will take the message of this debate back to his Department. Indeed, he needs no message from us, because he is already aware of the terrible abuses committed by the evil regime in Burma. He is an excellent man and I am sure that he will do a good job today.
The continued detention and brutal treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners is an offence against any concept of civilisation, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire explained, the United Nations Security Council must take action to bring about change. Indeed, as our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) explained, that will perhaps be a first test for those involved.
I have been in the Burmese jungle and met the people there. I have seen the horrendous, brutal and inhumane treatment that they have suffered and I honestly believe that they are suffering what is probably a successful attempt at genocide. I have sat with children in the jungle villages and seen girls sent out in the mornings to walk miles to carry back fresh water in old jerry cans and plastic containers. I have seen children with no access to education, health care or any of the normal things that we expect to be available, particularly to young girls passing through puberty. I have a photograph with me of myself sitting with children in the jungle in Burma and I was deeply moved to meet such people and to see their plight. What really offends me, however, is that after all this time, there has been no real action, even though lots of words have been said, and people are still pouring out their souls. Nobody is prepared to step in and take action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.
I have one simple question for the Government. Will they be more proactive? Will they stop talking about their good intentions and take action? Actions speak louder than words. For instance, there is still a strong—
I will. There is still a strong suspicion that the investment that supports this nasty regime is being channelled through British dependent territories such as Bermuda. The UK Government have the legal power and ability to act, but they have not yet done so. They claim that no new investment is in the pipeline and that action is therefore unnecessary, but I hope that we all agree that that position is insupportable. First, there is such a lack of transparency that the Government cannot know whether there is new investment. Secondly, even if there were no new investment, strong action by the Government now would send a clear message to the regime, to the world and to companies. Perhaps we should have a policy of naming and shaming companies such as the French oil giant Total and Orient Express, that tacitly support the evil Burma regime and its human rights abuses. The time for turning a blind eye has ended—we now need action.
Thank you for calling me for the first of the summations, Mr. Olner. In the light of what you said about the obvious need for the Minister to respond in some detail, I shall not detain hon. Members for longer than necessary.
I pay genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for his speech and for securing the debate. I share his observation that there are many forgettable moments at all party conferences, but something occasionally stays with us. It is often a speech that is made by a visitor to the conference, or perhaps by somebody from another part of the world, which shines a light on a part of the world that would otherwise not necessarily be illuminated. I was interested to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s experiences, and he does the House great credit by giving us the opportunity to debate the issue.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is a masterful performer in the House. He was extremely eloquent and laid out in great detail the challenge facing the British Government and other Governments right around the world.
It is often observed that the House is not at its best when it is consensual because hon. Members rush to be part of the crowd, to go along with the herd and to ensure that they do not stand out for particular attention. In those circumstances, errors are sometimes made, and hon. Members need to speak out against the consensus and put the contrary point of view. That is often the case when legislation is being formed in the House. However, there are times when it is useful for us to speak with one voice right across the political parties, and the main occasion when that is of benefit is when we talk about our values.
If we leave aside for one moment the political parties’ differences over their policies, manifestos and platforms for the general election and boil the issue down to what brings us all here in the first place, we see that it is a shared belief in the virtues of liberty, freedom, democracy and tolerance. We want not only to see those values prosper and flower in the United Kingdom but to see what we in the House of Commons and the Government can do to ensure that they are spread more widely around the world and that the many people who do not enjoy the systems that we take for granted can benefit from them in the future.
I shall not go over ground that has already been covered at length, but Burma’s record is particularly shameful and grotesque. Statistics show that there are well over 1,000 political prisoners in the country, most, if not all, of whom routinely suffer torture. The hon. Member for Buckingham paid tribute to two organisations, the Burma Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I would also mention Amnesty International, of which I am a member. At school, we were encouraged to support it once a week with a letter-writing campaign; it was voluntary, but lots of the pupils participated. We were given a prisoner of conscience on whom the school was focusing, and we all wrote handwritten letters to the Government of the country concerned. It taught me at quite an early age about values. We ought to believe that individual citizens, let alone parliamentarians, can do something and have some responsibility for the plight of people in countries far from the UK. Amnesty is an organisation that I continue to admire immensely.
Let us consider the rest of the Burmese record, which has been touched upon—systematic rape, 1 million people forced from their homes, and child soldiers. The human rights record is grotesque, but it is worth adding that the regime fails on any other criterion. The Government might say, “Well, our human rights record is not something we are proud of, but look at the quality of life and the material wealth that our citizens enjoy.” I would not accept that as an answer, but I could see that some might wish to make that case. However, the statistics for Burma show that it fails on every count. One in 10 children die before their fifth birthday, which is an extraordinarily high rate of infant mortality. As has been touched on, Burma is second to last—191st out of 192—in the world league table as ranked by the World Health Organisation. We have heard that less than $1 a year is spent on health. The figure that I have seen is that Burma spends less than 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product annually on health. The figures are shocking in terms of both the material, physical and other well-being of the people, and the human rights that remain absent from their lives.
What can we do about it? It is widely accepted that the situation requires attention. I want to give some credit to the Government. As I began by saying, I do not think that this is a point of conflict or that the Government seek to frustrate the ambitions of hon. Members in all parts of the House. We may wish that the Government had greater ambition, but we are in no way seeking to disagree with their general intentions or other ambitions. They have made some progress, and I echo the calls that others have made for the United Nations to play a large part in bringing it home to the Burmese regime that its standards do not accord with those of the international community as a whole.
Specifically, the Government have a duty to examine investment that goes from the United Kingdom or through United Kingdom organisations into Burma, because no regime can survive in the medium to long term without some sort of financial input. I join others in condemning the actions of Total and others who have invested with an absence of ethical consideration. If the Government are able to put pressure on France and other Governments who may be able to exert influence on such companies, they will have performed a useful role.
Although I, too, lament the absence of the Minister with specific responsibility for human rights, there is one upside of having the Minister for Europe in his place. If the European Union serves any purpose, it is surely that we can speak as one with 25, soon to be 27, voices and say that we have a shared set of values—liberty, democracy, freedom and tolerance, which I touched on earlier. That voice is heard all the more clearly for being echoed right across the continent and being not just a British voice. It is appropriate that the United Kingdom, given its history in Burma, is able to lead the European Union and other powerful nations on our continent, including France, in bringing pressure to bear on the Burmese and ensuring that they realise that it is not possible to split the civilised nations of the world into those that have more or less antipathy towards them. We share a common and deep hostility to everything that they are doing.
Given that Total, the French-owned oil business, is responsible for propping up the regime to the tune of somewhere between $250 million and $400 million a year through its unethical investment, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the rest of the European Union should, in concerted form, come together to name, shame, denounce and humiliate the French Government for their outrageous collusion in the regime’s unethical practices?
I will indeed, Mr. Olner. I was about to bring my comments to a conclusion, but I echo the comments that the hon. Member for Buckingham just made. Shame is a great feature of foreign policy in respect of human rights. I understand, as do all hon. Members, that there are limits to the practical impact that the British Government can have. I sometimes sympathise with Foreign Office Ministers, who are urged by Members to make good the wrongs of the world in every single nation. However, shaming the Burmese Government, the French Government and those associated with propping up the Burmese regime could be an important instrument for change.
I shall conclude with a brief observation. One of the strands of foreign policy on which the British Government can make a big difference is the pursuit of human rights. When the Government came to power nine and a half years ago, they talked about having an “ethical foreign policy”. Most people would accept that, in practice, foreign policy must balance a number of considerations—a fact touched on by the hon. Member for Buckingham. On occasions, it may not be practical to have an entirely unsullied ethical foreign policy, even if it is desirable. The ethical dimension to foreign policy in relation to countries such as Burma and North Korea, whose values so clearly violate those that we hold dear, is an extremely important strand of British foreign policy and one that would find great favour among all our citizens. I urge the Minister to pursue it with vigour.
Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Mr. Olner. Following your strictures, I shall of course curtail my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) has brought a moving subject for debate before the Chamber and he introduced it in a statesmanlike manner, which is a great tribute to him. I had not heard him speak at any length before, but he is a new Member of the House who will clearly go a long way, and I congratulate him on his speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made his customary speech—well crafted, statesmanlike, moving and extremely knowledgeable. I expected as much, given that he introduced such a debate in this Chamber on 15 June 2005. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) had to keep his remarks brief, but he is very knowledgeable on this subject. He has been to the area, as have I and other Members. I have been right up to the Thai-Burmese border, and have met and talked to people who crossed the border, seeing their desperate plight, so I was interested to hear of his personal experiences. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, also made his customary well-informed contribution.
On 19 June, the Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated her birthday. She has spent far more than half her past 17 birthdays in the prison of home detention for the unpardonable sin of winning a landslide victory in an election against Burma’s military junta in 1990. For five decades, the regime has sustained itself through brutalisation and human rights abuses, resulting in one of the most brutal regimes in the world. As my hon. Friends have said, if there ever was a case for UN action, this must surely be it.
The State Peace and Development Council—I believe that the renaming was done on the advice of an American public relations company—is clearly exactly the opposite of what it purports to be. Abuses have taken place in respect of opposition politicians, and I was particularly sad to hear of the recent death in prison of Thet Win Aung, the pro-democracy activist. I was also sad to hear of the death of Aung Hlaing Win, who was also a pro-democracy activist. The coroner’s autopsy report showed that he suffered 24 injuries, but when his family filed for a wrongful death case, the judge barred admission of the coroner’s autopsy report and instead upheld the police report on the cause of death. That is the sort of thing that happens under that vile regime.
As my hon. Friends said, the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Burma is spreading to neighbouring countries, especially along the drug-trafficking routes. Burma is one of the world’s largest producers of opium and, more recently, amphetamine-type stimulants.
I read some of the horrific reports on human rights abuses, and heard about the experience of some of the people I met in Burma. My hon. Friends mentioned many of those, but one of the most shocking is the rounding up of children to become child soldiers. We should pay specific attention to that.
My hon. Friends also mentioned horrendous abuses against ethnic minority groups. During 2005, many senior Shan leaders were arrested and last November eight were given prison sentences, some of which exceeded 100 years. In other words, they will never be let out of prison. Many of them were imprisoned merely for where they lived, not for having committed any offence.
Since last year, the regime has pursued what can justifiably be classified as ethnic cleansing against the people of northern Karen state. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office report describes the widespread destruction of villages, instances of killing, torture of civilians and the displacement of up to 16,000 villagers, with more than 2,000 refugees arriving at camps on the Thai border since January 2006.
The United States Department of State estimates that there are more than 500,000 internally displaced people in the country and more than 500,000 refugees living in India, China, and Thailand. The number of undocumented Burmese refugees living in Thailand alone is estimated to be in the millions, and growing. More than 100,000 additional refugees have crossed into Thailand since April or May because of the Burmese army’s offensive against the Karen and other minority people.
What can be done? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, I pay tribute to the Government where tribute is due. They have pushed hard in the European Union for stronger measures against the regime. However, Burma does not receive the priority it deserves, given the scale of abuse. If the Minister feels strongly about those abuses—he will tell us that he does—why have the Government not imposed unilateral investment sanctions against the regime? I shall come to investment in the regime, but it seems to me that propping up the regime through trade is a key area where it has benefited and one that we can do something about.
Following the 1990 election, the regime was vulnerable because the economy was in ruins. It was opened to foreign trade at that time and the resulting influx boosted revenue for the regime’s military spending, which now makes up almost half Government spending. It was only in the mid-1990s that Burma’s democracy movement started calling for economic sanctions after witnessing how trade and investment were helping the regime rather than the people and helping to entrench military rule. There is no legal barrier preventing European or Asian companies from investing in or trading with the Burmese dictatorship. The regime survives through foreign investment, and the National League for Democracy has asked the world to cut lifelines that keep that regime alive.
My hon. Friend referred to the Burma Campaign’s dirty list, which is a list on its website of companies that do business, or have subsidiaries that do business, with the Burmese regime. I looked at the list in detail yesterday, and there are some big and surprising household names on it. I do not want to name and shame them in this debate, but it is possible to contact every one of those 79 companies—I challenge the Government to do so—and explain to them what they are doing in propping up the regime. If they had a little explanation, many of those companies would stop trading with that vile regime.
Some companies are big offenders. Total Oil is probably the biggest and probably contributes about $400 million to the regime. It is possible to persuade big companies not to trade with the regime; the Government persuaded British American Tobacco to do just that. It probably trades in more countries than any other international company, yet it was persuaded not to trade with Burma because of its regime.
How can Britain help, unilaterally and with its partners in the EU? EU sanctions are slow in coming because European Governments have not yet reached agreement. EU members are committed to a common foreign policy on Burma, but if one country—for example, France—opposes such action, no progress can be made. The FCO report on human rights proudly boasts about the actions that the EU has taken to counter the Burmese regime, but those actions are in no way as strong as those taken by the American regime. Why?
President Bush signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act 2003, which restricts the financial resources of Burma’s ruling military junta and bans the importation to the US of any products that originated in Burma. More importantly, the American Government backed those actions with tough penalties. Anyone who violates the orders risks a fine of up to $50,000 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and companies risk a $500,000 fine. Why have the British Government not persuaded or tried to persuade the European Union to take such tough action?
As I said during an intervention on my hon. Friend, the new United Nations Human Rights Council must surely look at Burma as one of its first actions. There cannot be many regimes as vile in terms of human rights. It is invidious to make comparisons, but I can think of only a few: perhaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. There are not many other regimes with a Government as abusive of human rights as Burma’s. If there were a test for the new Human Rights Council to show that it is working properly, it should start by calling for a proper UN resolution, whether binding or not.
It is often argued that the Chinese would not support a UN resolution against Burma, but observers in Thailand say that the People’s Republic of China was dismayed by the arrest of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and is now looking for ways to restrain the State Peace and Development Council. China is deeply affected by the flow of refugees, disease and drugs. Furthermore, Burma’s uncontrolled logging is damaging China’s reputation in the World Trade Organisation, which it is doing so much to enhance and protect.
In May, China closed the China-Burma border to all timber trade. It is extraordinary that when China can do that, the 79 companies on the dirty list include many British companies, which are importing Burmese teak to this country completely unfettered and unhindered. Members of the Burmese army are reportedly responding by attacking Chinese migrant workers—hardly behaviour likely to endear the Burmese regime to Beijing.
A Security Council resolution is the most achievable diplomatic tool to build a policy consensus among countries interested in resolving the Burmese problem. Among other things, the resolution should call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a programme for national reconciliation that includes the National League for Democracy, immediate and unhindered access to all parts of Burma for UN relief agencies and other international humanitarian organisations, a timeline for compliance, and punitive sanctions if the SPDC fails to comply.
The UK should be in the vanguard in pushing for those efforts and trying to build a consensus in the Security Council. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said that
“we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 1042.]
If his words are to mean anything, we must ask the Minister what actions he is pressing the EU, the UN and any other international organisation to take to put pressure on the Burmese regime. That regime is vulnerable to international pressure, but it is even more vulnerable to economic sanctions.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the disturbing situation in Burma and the various issues that have been raised so well in today’s debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, and the other hon. Members on making clear in their speeches and interventions the understandable depth of concern that is felt in the House and in this country about the grave situation in Burma. I and the Government share those concerns, and I assure hon. Members that the United Kingdom will remain at the forefront of efforts to secure a safe, democratic and prosperous future for the Burmese people. They have suffered for far too long.
I shall set out in detail the Government’s views on the situation in Burma and respond to as many points as I can. Hon. Members will have read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights Report 2006” that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs presented on 12 October. Burma is one of the 20 countries of major concern highlighted in the report, and one of only two addressed by my right hon. Friend in her foreword. Many of the issues raised today are considered in greater detail than I can cover, but hon. Members have described vividly and accurately the continuing abuses of human rights committed against the Karen people and the National League for Democracy. This year there has been yet greater pressure on those groups and further arrests of student leaders. The situation is made even more difficult by the denial of access to all Burmese prisons for independent monitoring organisations for almost a year.
It has been argued that the targeted abuse of ethnic groups could amount to genocide. It is clear that large-scale human rights abuses are taking place, so my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for investment and foreign affairs, discussed the human rights situation in Burma with Juan Méndez, the special adviser to the UN Secretary General on the prevention of genocide, on 27 June. We remain in regular contact with Juan Méndez, and we have offered him whatever political or practical assistance he needs to complete his work. My right hon. Friend has invited him to return to London in November to discuss those issues with interested Members of Parliament. Knowing the consistency of many Members, I am sure that they will take up the opportunity.
Many hon. Members asked what the United Kingdom was doing. We must recognise that the influence that any single country like the United Kingdom has is necessarily limited, making it even more important to work in partnership with others. There is nevertheless valuable work that we can do and are doing in Burma. We are one of only four European Union member states to have an embassy in Rangoon. Our embassy plays a vital role in communicating information to us. It also gets our messages across to the Burmese Government directly. Mark Canning, our ambassador in Rangoon, conveyed to the Burmese Home Minister only yesterday our concerns about recent abuses, as he has done with a range of senior interlocutors since his arrival.
The embassy is in regular contact with the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups inside Burma, including the ethnic groups, and it has come in for some sharp criticism from the regime for its activities. The embassy provides funding for grass-roots development and capacity-building projects throughout Burma, in addition to the Department for International Development larger programmes.
We do what we can to strengthen civil society within Burma, while recognising that those people and organisations who choose to associate with us are taking considerable risks. It is therefore a long-term and low-profile effort, and we try not to politicise what we are doing or to seek public acclaim, for obvious reasons that I hope hon. Members will understand.
In addition, the British Council is respected in Burma for its pivotal educational role. It is improving the skills of Burmese teachers of English. It offers access to a library of 30,000 uncensored books, newspapers and journals, the BBC World Service radio and the internet. It all helps to increase the knowledge and skills that will one day help democracy take root.
We have taken a lead in helping to relieve the suffering of the Burmese people. On 10 October, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development announced that the United Kingdom would contribute £20 million to the newly formed three diseases fund to help fight TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS in Burma. The UK was instrumental in setting up the fund together with five other donors.
Hon. Members have referred to internally displaced people in Burma. DFID provides assistance to conflict-affected people in that country through the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing some £500,000 a year. Our health, education and rural livelihood programmes include within their geographical remit conflict-affected regions to which internally displaced people have been relocated. We also support grass-roots civil society projects specifically aimed at internally displaced people in conflict-affected areas.
We are providing humanitarian assistance through the Thai-Burma border consortium to help Burmese refugees in Thailand, with funding of about £1.8 million over three years. The United Kingdom also provides support through its contribution to the European Commission’s ECHO fund for the Thai-Burma border consortium. It totalled €5.5 million, or £3.7 million, in 2006, representing the highest per capita amount that ECHO funds for any refugee programme in the world.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. I understand what he has just read to the Chamber, but does he accept the point that I made that the Government’s funding for the Thai-Burma border consortium is specifically for the purposes of helping on the border, but the British Government have stipulated that it should not be used for the provision of humanitarian aid in-country? Will he acknowledge that, and can he see why many of us feel that it is wrong?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have praised in the past for his consistent and determined efforts on behalf of the people of Burma, does not recognise the valuable work that is being conducted on the border to help the very people about whom he is properly concerned. Recognising that the project is a European Commission scheme and that legal limits affect our ability to work with partners through the Commission, I hope that he will accept that the work is valuable, even though it does not go as far as he might like and cross that border to assist inside the country.
I hope also that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members accept that we judge it best to work in concert with other international organisations such as the European Union, because our influence is thereby strengthened. It is a much more effective way of working than unilateral action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is reviewing a cross-border project, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman writes to him in the manner in which he has expressed his views so well today, his contribution to the review will be taken very seriously.
I have made it clear that the UK’s direct influence over the regime in Burma is inevitably limited. We have nevertheless vociferously expressed our outrage at major breaches of international human rights law. Hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. He summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 15 June to set out our concerns in detail. In case the message was insufficiently clear, my right hon. Friend subsequently sent a letter to the Burmese Foreign Minister. A copy of that letter is in the Library, and it includes a reference to child soldiers.
My right hon. Friend also released a statement about Ko Thet Win Aung, a 34-year-old Burmese student leader and political prisoner, who died in Mandalay prison on 16 October. The European Union, at our specific suggestion, will make representations about that terrible case.
Hon. Members also made considerable reference to UK policy on trade and investment, so it might assist them if I set out the precise position. The Government have a long-standing policy of discouraging British firms from trading with or investing in Burma. We offer no support whatever to companies wishing to trade with or invest in Burma. British companies that inquire about trade with Burma are informed of the grave political situation, the regime’s atrocious record on human rights and the country’s dire economic prospects. We hope that that clear indication represents what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, asked for.
What the Minister has just said rather indicates that the British Government are reactive and passive on trade involving British and British-associated companies. I was hoping for a little more proactive policy and that the Minister might contact all 79 companies and point out the dangers and difficulties that they are causing for the Burmese people.
I had hoped not to contradict the hon. Gentleman too much, but he referred in his speech—I hope not casually—to the “many” British companies on the list. I cannot identify the many British companies and neither can the Burma Campaign. I would have a little difficulty trying to contact companies whose names I do not know.
I have made clear the Government’s position on the companies by which we are contacted. We clearly do not have the same obligations relating to non-UK companies as we have to UK-based companies. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when companies contact the British Government for advice and information, we give them a stern indication of our attitude towards trade and investment in Burma.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that the same phenomenon applies in his constituency. May I make the Minister an offer? If I write to those companies in my constituency to advise them to cease that trade, will he replicate my effort and use all the authority and grandeur of his office to bolster it by also writing?
If the hon. Gentleman or any hon. Member provides information, it will be looked at and, if appropriate, action taken.
I emphasise that the figures that have been bandied around are largely those published by the Burmese Government. They appear to us to be seriously misleading, because they do not represent current investment. They seem to include all investment over a period of more than 10 years, and investment by UK companies is included even if they pulled out of operations in Burma long ago. Hon. Members referred to British American Tobacco, whose investment appears still to be included in the figures being supplied by the Burmese regime. The real figures are much lower. In 2003 the Department of Trade and Industry recorded the UK foreign investment flow into Burma as less than £500,000. As far as we are aware, the figures relate to only three companies.
I was about to deal with that point, as it has been raised on a number of occasions. We see no evidence that large-scale investments are reaching Burma via British overseas territories-registered companies. That has been specifically examined, as hon. Members have raised the matter, but I shall ask for it to be examined again. I certainly recognise the point.
The Government’s argument is that because successive regimes in Burma have isolated themselves and their country from the outside world, there should be concerted international action to persuade the Burmese military to relinquish power and improve the human rights situation on the ground. We are therefore determined to promote an international response, and there are three main channels through which we can encourage change—the UN and its various organs and agencies, the EU and the Asian region.
The United Nations rightly plays a vital role in Burma and we welcome the efforts of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan to promote political progress and secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. We look to the current and future UN Secretaries-General to keep up the pressure for change in Burma. There are indications that the Burmese regime still recognises the authority of the United Nations, and we therefore encourage the UN to deliver clear messages on the need to cease attacks on ethnic groups, release prisoners and implement a genuine process of national reconciliation. We agree that the UN Security Council has a key role to play in keeping up the pressure for change and, with UK support, the US succeeded in having Burma added to the Security Council agenda on 15 September. The first formal debate took place on 29 September, and the US has indicated that it wishes to table a resolution on Burma. It can certainly count on our continued full support. The forthcoming visit to Rangoon of UN Under-Secretary Gambari will be important in shaping the views of Council members. Burma is slated to be one of the first countries considered by the newly established Human Rights Council. We and other EU partners fully support early action on Burma by the council.
The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has worked hard since his appointment in 2000 to catalogue the regime’s dire record. Despite not having been permitted to enter the country since November 2003, he has provided the international community with a comprehensive and objective report on the situation inside Burma. His last report to the Human Rights Council on 27 September makes sobering reading. We encourage him and any successor to continue that important work and we hope that the newly formed Human Rights Council will take early action in response. The Government support strongly the special rapporteur’s reports and recommendations, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, called in his letter of 5 July to the Burmese Foreign Minister for processes to be made genuinely inclusive and democratic. A copy of that letter is in the House of Commons Library.
Within the European Union we have taken the lead in promoting a strong line. All member states acknowledge Burma’s dire human rights record, but I recognise that there is a range of views on whether increased pressure or engagement is the right policy to pursue. Nevertheless, we have supported the adoption and gradual strengthening of the common position, which now includes a range of targeted sanctions aimed at those who implement or benefit from the regime’s policies, while avoiding increasing the suffering of the Burmese people. The common position and the sanctions that it contains may not go as far as some want, but it is an effective compromise that unites the 25 member states around a policy that is broadly right, rather than allowing each member state to pursue its own approach. A divided EU without a common position would be good news for the regime and bad news for our objectives.
Other agencies have a similarly significant role to play. The Burmese regime continues to use forced labour in a number of areas and we therefore welcome the decision of the International Labour conference in June to demand
“tangible and verifiable action from Myanmar”
to address that problem. Faced with the threat of tougher sanctions, the Government of Burma have made small but perhaps significant concessions, and we hope that the International Labour Organisation will keep the spotlight on Burma until forced labour is eradicated.
While the military regime may appear impervious to foreign criticism, we acknowledge that it has taken some care to maintain its relationship with ASEAN and with its neighbours, China and India. Yet even within ASEAN there are signs of frustration at the slow pace of reform in Burma and an increasing focus on the standards of government expected of its members. We will continue to develop a dialogue with our ASEAN friends so that they, too, encourage Burma down the road to democratic reform and a proper respect for human rights.
As has been mentioned, two of Burma’s most important neighbours and trading partners are China and India. In the medium term, their policy of engaging with the regime is driven by strategic and economic interest, but we hope that we can persuade them that their long-term interests will be better served by fostering peaceful change than by perpetuating the present unsustainable position. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade has raised the matter of Burma’s human rights failings with representatives of the Chinese, Indian, South Korean and Japanese Governments. It will be difficult to convince all our partners in the region to modify their approach, but until the regime in Burma adheres to its human rights obligations, we shall continue to work patiently with those who have influence over it. Japan’s recent change of stance is evidence that attitudes are slowly shifting.
There are sadly no quick fixes to the appalling situation in Burma, much as we might like there to be. The Government are committed, by using all our international human rights instruments, to working closely with the UN and other partners in conveying clear messages to the regime, to continuing to work for improvement in the human rights situation in Burma and to help the Burmese people. I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on assisting in our work on doing that.