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Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

The whole country will have been deeply disturbed by recent events in Burma. The brutal suppression of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations across the country, including beatings, killings and arbitrary detentions of monks and civilians, has been deplorable. The Government are committed to working with all international partners in the search for an inclusive political process to bring reform in Burma.

Historical background

The human rights situation in Burma has long been a cause for concern. The military has ruled Burma since 1962. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently suppressed by the military. Multi-party elections in 1990 were overwhelmingly won by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. However, the military regime refused to implement these results.

Aung San Suu Kyi has remained under house arrest since she and her supporters were attacked in May 2003. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner has spent 12 out of the last 17 years under house arrest.

The military regime continues to rule by decree and controls every aspect of society. It severely restricts freedom of expression, information, assembly and movement. Members of opposition parties are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention. Before the recent demonstrations there were already some 1,100 political prisoners in Burma. Forced labour, arbitrary killings, the use of child soldiers and systematic rape, unlawful detention and displacement have all been commonplace.

The human rights situation deteriorated in 2006 with further harassment of political opposition and attacks on ethnic groups.

Recent Developments

In the middle of August popular protests began against rises in fuel prices of up to 500 per cent.—a measure that had severe implications for the already impoverished Burmese people. The protests were swiftly followed by arrests of pro-democracy activists. The UK condemned the actions of the regime and called for the immediate release of those detained. I expressed the UK's solidarity with the protesters and warned the regime that it would be judged by how it responded to this peaceful movement.

In late September the demonstrations grew rapidly in size, led by large numbers of Buddhist monks. These demonstrations were peaceful and orderly. On 20 September Professor Ibrahim Gambari, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, briefed the UN Security Council in informal session, a development which I welcomed publicly, while expressing concern for the peaceful demonstrators. On 22 September demonstrators were permitted to walk past the house in which Aung San Suu Kyi is being held under house arrest. As the crisis developed, the Prime Minister and I issued a number of statements and spoke to many of our international counterparts urging against repression and calling for reconciliation. After the Prime Minister had written to the UN Secretary General and the President of the EU expressing concern, the EU issued a statement on 25 September warning that it would not hesitate to impose strengthened measures against the Burmese regime if they resorted to violence; and there were further informal Security Council discussions on 26 September.

As we now know, the response of the regime—which it tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from the outside world - was one of violence and brutality. The security forces turned their guns on unarmed demonstrators. We do not know for certain how many people were killed but we fear it is many more than the regime has admitted. Monks and opposition leaders have been beaten and arrested. Many remain in detention and reports suggest that they are being held in appalling conditions. Through the indiscriminate use of force, the regime has suppressed the protests and forced people off the streets.

The crisis is continuing in Burma. There are a number of urgent questions the regime must answer. They must provide precise information on those who have been killed or injured; and on those who have been detained—their identities, whereabouts, and the conditions in which they are being held. The regime must immediately accede to the requests for urgent access for the Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Professor Pinheiro. And they must engage with Ambassador Gambari in developing an inclusive political process for reform.

UK action since crisis began

UK action has focused on three specific areas.

First, the UK has been working actively with the international community, and with Burma's neighbours in particular, to put pressure on the regime to end the violence, release political detainees, including those arrested for peacefully expressing their views in the recent protests, ensure full respect for human rights and work towards genuine reconciliation with all the relevant political and ethnic parties in Burma. This work remains a high priority for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, other FCO Ministers and the entire diplomatic network.

Second, we have been pursuing urgent action in the United Nations. The UK pressed for the Security Council discussions that took place on 20 and 26 September and most recently, in formal session, on 5 October, and we pressed for the visit by Professor Gambari, to Burma to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leaders. We look forward to a return visit by Ambassador Gambari.

The UK also pushed hard for a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which, with strong UK involvement and support, passed a Resolution on 2 October deploring the violent repression of peaceful demonstrators and agreeing to send the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Professor Pinheiro, on an urgent mission to Burma to report on the human rights situation

Third, with our EU partners we have been working to strengthen sanctions against the regime. This will continue over the next week in the run up to the General Affairs Council on 15 October.

Future direction

We have three clear objectives, building on the work we have already been doing. The Prime Minister re-emphasised these objectives when he met Burma activists on Saturday 6 October—the day of global action on Burma.

First, the international spotlight must be kept firmly on Burma. We will continue to highlight the appalling recent events in Burma and use our diplomatic network to keep our international partners focussed on the need to address urgently the ongoing human rights abuses there. On 6 October the Prime Minister drew attention to a compilation of material by FCO officials, drawing together information on recent human rights violations in Burma from media, eyewitness and diplomatic sources. This can be found on the front page of the FCO Website:

Second, the regime must understand that it cannot turn the clock back to the dire situation before the recent demonstrations. We welcomed Professor Gambari's clear statement on 5 October that the status quo ante was both unacceptable and unsustainable. Recent events have demonstrated clearly that this would pose unacceptable risks to Burma's long-suffering population and to the region.

At its meeting on 5 October, members of the United Nations Security Council sent a clear signal that a process of national reconciliation leading to democracy, full respect for human rights and the rule of law is the only way forward. That process must involve Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the democratic opposition and ethnic groups. And it will need to have international legitimacy. We continue to support urgent and active UN engagement to pursue such a process, and are pressing for an early return visit by Professor Gambari to Burma.

Third, we will galvanise and mobilise international support to put pressure on the regime. In addition to further engagement by the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General, we also need all those with influence on the regime to use it to press for positive change. China and other key nations such as Thailand and India can play a crucial role. We appreciate the efforts China has already made in support of Professor Gambari's recent visit to Burma and we hope China will continue to use its influence on the regime to push for genuine dialogue with the political opposition. My recent meetings with Foreign Ministers of all three countries have provided the opportunity to explain the priority we give to this issue.

We expect the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council to announce a package of tougher measures against Burma on 15 October. We will push for these to include a ban on future investment, on top of the sanctions against individuals and their assets and measures aimed at specific commodities. These will be designed to have the greatest impact on those whose behaviour we are trying to change - the regime and those that benefit from their policies.

Support for the people of Burma

If the Burmese regime changes course and shows it is willing genuinely to work for reconciliation, democracy and poverty reduction, an economic package involving the UN, International Financial Institutions and bilateral donors could be offered. This could include the establishment of a multi-donor Trust Fund to support health, education and other key sectors; support for debt relief; financial and technical support for democratic elections; an investment conference to attract foreign direct investment; trade measures to facilitate Burma's entry into the global trading system, support for civil society including the development of a free media as well as continued humanitarian relief

Meanwhile, in response to PM's discussion with the activists he met on 6 October, the UK has announced an additional £1 million to meet the urgent humanitarian needs in Burma arising from this latest episode of gross misrule. This will help ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer because of the actions of the regime.