Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
Let me begin by explaining that the Foreign Secretary, with whom I spoke yesterday evening, would have been at the Dispatch Box this evening but for the joyful news that he and his wife Louise have adopted a second son, Jacob. Naturally, he is taking a short break from his ministerial duties, and I am confident that I speak for the whole House in sending the Miliband family our sincere best wishes at that wonderful news.
The House has long been united by a repugnance at the brutality of the Burmese regime and an admiration for the bravery of the Burmese people. This evening, I shall address three areas: I shall begin by outlining the situation on the ground in Burma in respect of the recent crackdown and the wider political and economic problems; I shall move on to how the United Kingdom is supporting international efforts to bring about change in the country; and I shall end by describing the actions that the Department for International Development is taking.
In mid-August, popular—and peaceful—protests began on the streets of Burma’s cities in reaction to sharp increases in fuel prices. Monks joined ordinary citizens on the streets; the voice of the Burmese people was being heard. The response of the Burmese regime was shocking, if predictable. We do not know how many the regime killed, but the true toll is likely to be many times higher than the regime has so far admitted. Some, such as the Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai, were killed in full view of the world—many more, we fear, have died behind closed doors.
Many people who may have been only remotely connected with the protests have been rounded up. Our best estimate is that more than 2,000 demonstrators, including many monks, remain in detention—in addition to the 1,100 political prisoners already held by the regime. The reports that we are hearing of the conditions in which people are detained are horrific: monks stripped of their robes and beaten; prisoners left to die in their cells; and hundreds crammed into rooms without sanitation.
The events of the past months have been the focus of much attention in the House, the media and the country at large. However, the roots of Burma’s social, political and economic failure lie deep. It is now 45 years since the military coup, almost 20 years since the 1988 student movement was crushed leaving thousands dead, and 17 years since the regime disregarded the overwhelming choice of the Burmese people.
Although recent protests were sparked off by popular reaction to a steep rise in fuel prices, they reflect a deep frustration with the persistent lack of democracy and economic opportunity. They were a desperate call for a better future for a country where isolationism and repression have condemned millions to poverty. The protests were not, as the Burmese authorities have suggested, the result of external interference. A third of Burma’s population—some 17 million people—live on less than a third of a dollar a day. Public investment in health and education is among the lowest in the world. Yet Burma is a country with no shortage of natural or human resources. It should stand alongside its neighbours as a prosperous, vigorous and outward looking member of the global economy.
However, that vision cannot be realised without fundamental change; and change in Burma will not be easy. It will require courageous leadership that allows a wide range of Burmese voices to debate and forge a common future. Genuine reform includes: reconciliation between the Government and opposition groups, including the minority ethnic groups; accountable and responsible Government; respect for human rights; and effective economic management. At the heart of change must be a process of national reconciliation and dialogue. The regime’s own road map cannot succeed. It does not involve the National League for Democracy or any other key political figures. It will convince neither the people of Burma nor the outside world. Real change requires the restoration of institutions: a free media, an independent judiciary, trade unions, local government and an accountable police force that protects rather than persecutes its own people. Better economic management is also vital to Burma’s future, ending over-regulation, fighting corruption and encouraging investment and enterprise.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have been engaged in discussions with China, not least in relation to the recent presidential statement in the Security Council, which I will address in the course of my remarks.
Let me set out the United Kingdom Government’s view on the way forward for Burma. Our diplomatic strategy is to apply pressure from all possible directions. With Britain’s strong encouragement, the international community has made it clear that the Burmese regime must take meaningful steps towards reform and reconciliation. Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented statement by the UN Security Council, to which I just referred; the strengthening of European Union sanctions; and visits by the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, to Burma and the neighbouring countries. The United Nations is the primary focus of Britain’s diplomatic efforts. On 2 October the EU, strongly backed by the UK, tabled a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council strongly deploring the situation in Burma and requesting that the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, be given immediate access to the country. That drew almost unprecedented support, including from countries hitherto reluctant to criticise the regime publicly, and was, I am pleased to say, agreed unanimously.
On 11 October, the UN Security Council sent an even more powerful signal, when it unanimously agreed a presidential statement strongly deploring the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations, calling for the release of all political prisoners and underlining the need for the Burmese Government to establish a genuine dialogue with all concerned parties and all ethnic groups.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to what the UN has already done it would be helpful if the Secretary-General himself, rather than his envoy, went to Burma and argued with the regime? Will he suggest that to the Secretary-General?
Obviously, we keep all options under consideration in terms of the means by which the international community, and the United Nations in particular, can most effectively make clear its views to the Burmese regime. We are anticipating a further visit from Professor Gambari, the Secretary-General’s envoy. I think that the appropriate approach to take forward now is to offer every support to Professor Gambari and to reflect on the outcome of his second and, I would hope, longer visit to Burma than the first visit that he was able to make since the terrible events of recent weeks. At that point, we will have the opportunity to discuss these matters with our partners in the Security Council and, indeed, with the Secretary-General. When I attended the UN General Assembly in September, I had the opportunity, along with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, to discuss our very grave concerns about the situation in Burma directly with the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. I can assure the House that he is fully seized of the importance of this matter and is keeping all options under review.
Is not the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) absolutely right in that it is a matter of great importance that the Secretary-General himself should go there? Is he not the right man to go there at this point in view of his provenance and his reputation?
Obviously, I would not discount that possibility and I sought to reflect that in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South. However, we need to be careful in sending a clear signal to the Burmese regime. Given the tasking of Professor Gambari, it is important that we do not seek to undermine the Secretary-General’s special envoy ahead of what will be a critical visit to the region and the country in the coming days. In a relatively short number of weeks, we will have the opportunity to take a clear view in light of the further advice we receive from Professor Gambari as to whether the direct involvement of the Secretary-General would be appropriate at this stage. I certainly would not discount it.
I share the instincts of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that we need to make it clear that there is a universal, strong international community view on the matter, but a little patience is called for in allowing the Secretary-General’s special envoy to take forward his work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a great feeling of frustration among those of us who have waited so long for a change in Burma? Would he cast his mind back to those instances where regimes have changed when senior people visit, such as heads of state, not just UN representatives? Is there not a time when a head of state should visit a country, or attempt to, to show how important the matter is to the British people, not just the United Nations?
In response to my hon. Friend, I would simply observe that it is no secret that there have been divisions in the UN Security Council in recent years as to the way forward. As recently as January, a motion was tabled at the Security Council that precipitated a veto from two members, and although I accept and share his concern and frustration at the glacial pace of change in Burma, which all of us want to see accelerated, I ask him to take heart in the fact that the Security Council has spoken with one voice. It is against that backdrop that Special Envoy Gambari will make his second visit to the country.
I assure my hon. Friend that, based on my conversations with the Secretary-General, never mind the ones that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had with him in recent weeks, I know that he shares the broad sense of frustration felt in this House and in the international community. Careful, calibrated judgments have to be made regarding how best to ensure that international pressure yields the results we all want to see.
Returning to the issue of China for a moment, does the Secretary of State agree that next year’s Olympics in Beijing give the world community a precious opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese during the next few months? The role of China is fundamental, and the Burmese Government will listen to that country.
Clearly, there are long-standing and historic ties, not least economic ones, between China and Burma. The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that. I had the opportunity to visit China earlier this year in my previous ministerial capacity as Secretary of State for Transport and there is a genuine desire on the part of the Government in Beijing for China to be seen as a responsible international citizen or player ahead of what they see as the welcoming of the world to the Beijing Olympics. Therefore, every opportunity should be taken to engage in serious and sustained conversation with the Beijing Government about the best way in which we can act together, with a single voice, on the issue of Burma.
I pay tribute to the fact that in recent weeks the Chinese Government have taken a different tack, in the presidential statement secured at the Security Council, from the one they adopted as recently as January, when both China and Russia exercised a veto in relation to previous moves by the Security Council.
The Association of South East Asian Nations countries have an important role in relation to Burma. They have standards and aspirations relating to pluralism and democracy that are clearly not being fulfilled by the regime. What does he think that other countries in the region, as well as China, can do to assist in this process?
My hon. Friend brings to bear considerable experience from chairing the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to his observation. He will know that a decisive commentary has been offered by the ASEAN group this time, which has simply not been the case in the past when terrible events have taken place in Burma. Too often in the past, neighbouring countries—indeed, Asia itself—appeared to step back or walk on the other side when terrible events have taken place.
I welcome the robust statement issued by ASEAN, reflecting its repugnance at the actions taken against the monks in Rangoon and throughout Burma. It is a welcome development and reflects, exactly as my hon. Friend’s question suggests, an awareness on the part of ASEAN that if it wants to develop beyond being an economic community and stand for certain norms in the region, it should recognise that the present conduct of the regime in Burma stands far apart from expected reasonable standards of international conduct.
There are glimmers of hope—whether in the action taken in the United Nations Security Council through the presidential statement or in the different tone that ASEAN has adopted about recent events in Burma—that the international community is making clear its view about the darkness and horror of the events that we witnessed. That simply was not the case in previous years.
The presidential statement was the first formal action on Burma that the Security Council has taken. Those signing up to it included, of course, China, a permanent member of the Security Council, as we have had the opportunity to discuss, and, as has also been said, Burma’s most powerful neighbour. The political situation has therefore shifted significantly from the position of only a few weeks ago. That reflects a genuine and shared concern across the international community, uniting countries that have traditionally engaged with Burma with those that have previously sought to apply pressure through sanctions.
We look forward to the first meeting of the “core group” on Burma, proposed by Ibrahim Gambari and, if asked to join, we will be glad to do so on behalf of the United Kingdom. At the same time, the UK has been working with our EU partners to ascertain the direct leverage that we can bring to bear on the Burmese regime. On 15 October, Europe agreed stronger restrictive measures, targeting the business interests from which the regime draws much of its revenue—timber, precious metals and gems.
On the same day, our Prime Minister announced that we will review with our partners the implementation of the EU arms embargo to address any risk that arms or their components might be diverted or re-exported to Burma. We have been careful to avoid measures that will hurt the ordinary Burmese people. Sanctions are therefore targeted at the regime.
Those with the most direct influence on the Burmese authorities are Burma’s neighbours, ASEAN countries, China and India. It is becoming ever clearer that regional stability and prosperity is best served by a managed process of political reform in Burma. So the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Foreign Office Ministers have been in regular contact with their counterparts in the region, encouraging them to make their voices heard and get behind the United Nations process.
Obviously there is a difference in their place in the United Nations system, given that China is a permanent member of the Security Council. There has been a significant shift in the position that China took as recently as earlier this year, when it exercised its veto in the Security Council. We continue to discuss the matter with India. I am not sure whether it greatly assists the cause of securing a broad international consensus to offer a comparative view of two of the principal regional players, on which we rely to offer the sort of concerted and co-ordinated international response that will be most effective in trying to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese regime. The relationship between China and Burma is key and we will be watching to ascertain whether China follows up the positive steps that I have described.
If genuine progress on reform takes place in Burma, the international community should be ready to support it. On 15 October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to the leaders of G7 countries, India, China and Portugal—as president of the European Union—Singapore, as the current chair of ASEAN, Ban Ki-moon and the heads of the World Bank and of the IMF, proposing an economic initiative in support of a recovery plan for Burma, conditional on progress with reconciliation and moving forward with the process of political change in Burma.
On 20 October, at the Prime Minister’s request, I held a meeting in Washington with representatives from that group. We emphasised the shared need for concrete and verifiable steps along the path to reconciliation and reform in Burma. We initiated a discussion of the possible size and shape of international support should those steps be taken. Although the international community is rightly considering Burma’s future, we must also continue to provide humanitarian support to the roughly 50 million people who suffer genuine poverty under the current regime.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the concern of the many people who are keeping a vigil tonight for Burma? Will he acknowledge especially the plight of the internally displaced people who are the long-standing victims of the military junta, for example, the Chin people on the Thai border? Will he follow the Select Committee’s recommendations and the Canadian Government’s lead in giving genuine and positive help in the form of aid to the border people?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention anticipates some remarks that I hope will find favour with him as I move towards the conclusion of my speech.
Let me set these matters in context. The Department for International Development’s assistance to Burma has increased from £2 million a year in 2002 to £9 million this financial year, including the additional £1 million that I announced earlier this month to meet urgent new needs and to help to ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer as a result of the recent grave brutality.
I can assure the House that none of this funding is spent through the Burmese central Government. All our aid in Burma is delivered through the United Nations or through non-governmental organisations. It supports basic services that make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people. For example, more than half of Burmese children fail to complete primary school. To help keep more children in school, the Department for International Development is supporting UNICEF’s efforts to provide materials and text books to half a million children, mostly in remote areas. We are also working with Save the Children to help local communities to organise pre-schools. Life expectancy in Burma is 10 years lower than in neighbouring Thailand. The Department is also supporting efforts to fight the three main killer diseases—malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS—with the aim of saving 1 million lives a year.
Continuing conflict in eastern Burma has had a terrible impact on the civilian population. They have been subjected to human rights abuses and forced labour, and many have fled their homes. Today, at least 500,000 people are displaced in Burma, including 90,000 still living in areas racked by conflict, and 160,000 living as refugees in Thailand. The Department is providing £1.8 million over three years for food and shelter for Burmese refugees in Thailand and for emergency cross-border assistance to displaced people in Burma. We are also providing £400,000 this year to support health, education and livelihoods among communities in Burma.
DFID is also supporting Burmese organisations to build the foundations for a better society. For obvious reasons, a lot of the work that those organisations do is not overtly political, but it is important to support their efforts where we can. We are, for example, providing £500,000 over three years to improve the ability of civil society organisations to organise themselves, and setting up a new fund of £3 million to help Burmese organisations to promote people’s participation in local level decision making—for example, in forest management, agriculture, education and health services.
Many hon. Members will recall that the International Development Committee reported on Burma as recently as July. The Government’s response to that report was published last week, and shows clearly our agreement with most of its recommendations. I should like to share four of the key recommendations with the House: the need to increase funding for cross-border assistance; the need to improve communication and co-ordination between aid agencies and local community organisations working in Burma; the proposal to maintain a Department for International Development presence in Thailand; and the recommendation to increase the size of the Department’s programme. Let me take each recommendation in turn.
I fully agree with the Select Committee’s view that the humanitarian assistance provided from across the border in Thailand should complement, not compete with, the assistance provided from inside Burma. We remain deeply concerned at the condition of vulnerable people living on all Burma’s borders. I certainly pay tribute to those who are holding vigils in that cause this evening. Earlier this year, DFID agreed to allow its funding to be used for the cross-border delivery of emergency assistance to displaced people inside Burma, as well as to Burmese refugees in Thailand. We have given £1.8 million over the past three years to the Thai-Burma border consortium, and we will consider carefully the needs that it identifies for the next phase of our support, from early 2008.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs is undertaking an assessment of the needs of displaced people in eastern Burma. DFID will use those findings to inform our future funding decisions in relation to those people. The Department will consider project proposals from groups inside or outside Burma. They must be clearly aimed at poverty reduction, and will be assessed according to normal transparency and accountability criteria.
The Select Committee made a number of recommendations on improving communication and co-ordination among the providers of humanitarian assistance in Burma, including between those working inside the country and those working from across the borders. The Department and the United Nations are both supporting contacts between organisations working with displaced people inside Burma and the agencies providing cross-border support.
We recognise the need to strengthen our staffing to deal with Burma. The Department is substantially increasing the number of staff based in Burma and has also strengthened its London-based team working on Burma. We have carefully examined the Committee’s recommendation that we should maintain staff in Thailand to monitor our assistance to the border areas. Indeed, I have discussed that subject in recent hours with our head of office in Rangoon. However, our considered assessment is that this work can be carried out effectively from Rangoon and London. Increasing the number of staff in Rangoon allows greater capacity to do this, as well as to manage our programme in Burma itself. I have personally impressed upon our staff in Rangoon the importance that I attach to close monitoring of the situation on the Thai border. London-based officials also plan to visit Burma and the Thai border region regularly.
The International Development Committee recommended that we quadruple our Burma programme by 2013. Clearly, as has been reflected in this evening’s debate, the situation in Burma remains fluid, so it seems appropriate at this stage to address funding during the spending review period to 2010-11. That is why I can inform the House today that we will double our aid to the Burmese people over the period of the spending review—from £9 million today to £18 million a year by 2010-11. That does not prejudge any decisions made in relation to the next spending review period.
Having previously visited the camps on the border, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the embassy in Thailand will continue to carry out the solidarity work with those camps? Leaving the refugees on the border without that support, quite apart from the humanitarian and practical implications, would be a terrible political blow to them. They might well see it as the withdrawal of support from the UK Government.
I think that we all need to exercise caution in the language we use about these issues. None of us would seek to give encouragement to the Burmese regime by characterising any of these organisations as somehow having the interests of anyone other than the Burmese people at heart. I can assure my hon. Friend—I took the opportunity to speak to our ambassador in Rangoon today, though not to our ambassador in Bangkok—that the Foreign Office is seized of the importance of this work. Nothing that I have announced from the Dispatch Box today—effectively the doubling of our assistance from £9 million to £18 million—prejudices the ongoing work that is being taken forward in the camps. I hope that when we see the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs review and when the other work I mentioned is carried out, we will be able to make judgments on the basis of the best evidence as to what further support should be provided to those who are often suffering in very poor conditions in camps on the border.
The doubling of funding that I have announced by 2010-11 will enable us to help more children go to school, to treat more people suffering from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, to invest in community development and rural livelihoods and further to address the humanitarian needs of those living in border regions. More humanitarian assistance will help alleviate immediate hardship, but I hope fervently that we will soon see the wider reforms needed to unlock the true potential of the Burmese people and the full support of the international community. As the Prime Minister has said, we will not turn our backs on the people of Burma. In that, I am confident that he has the backing not only of this House, but of the British people.
It is welcome that the House is turning its attention today to the plight of the people in Burma—a bitter injustice which has inflamed the strong feelings of hundreds of millions of people across the world and which blights the lives of millions of Burmese people. We had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would open the debate, but we entirely understand why he cannot and why he asked the International Development Secretary to take his place. We heartily wish him well with his expanded family.
It is appropriate to debate this subject now, as five days ago marked 12 years to the day that Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. Her courage and self-sacrifice never cease to inspire our deepest admiration and respect. There is perhaps no greater testament to the power of her example than the lengths to which a vicious military regime has gone to keep one woman isolated from the world and from her own people.
As we know, the Burmese have lived under military rule for 45 years. The images and information about their suffering that have reached the outside world throughout that time are truly appalling—images of poverty, stories of human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, rape, the destruction of villages, the use of forced labour and children pressed into military service. Presumably, the facts that have reached us are the tip of the iceberg, as the regime has gone to great lengths to shield its actions from the spotlight of the world’s attention. The fact that we know as much as we do is testament to the bravery of those Burmese who have spoken out against the regime, to the dedication of aid workers on the ground, and to the courage of Burmese pro-democracy activists, such as Zoya Phan, who has twice made inspirational addresses to the Conservative party conference. From her words, and those of others like her, we can say, I think without exaggeration, that the Burmese regime is one of the worst in the world.
On the Conservative Benches, in common with colleagues in other parts of the House, we have long regarded the situation in Burma as a human rights priority. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, who will wind up the debate for us, visited the country this year and was the first senior British politician in many years to meet members of the regime. When we created the Conservative party human rights commission in 2005, its first action was to hold a hearing on Burma.
The situation in Burma could be so different. If the party that had won an overwhelming victory in the 1990 general election in Burma had been allowed to take office, we might be extolling the Burmese success story and looking for ways to deepen trade and links between our countries. Elsewhere in Asia, countries once dominated by military regimes have successfully evolved and are richer today. More than 100 million people across east Asia have left the ranks of the extreme poor since 2000. However, Burma is light years from that progress. It used to be known as the rice bowl of Asia. It was one of the richest nations on the continent when it gained independence. Today, the Burmese regime invests less in education and health care than almost any other Government in the world and its people face some of the worst poverty in the region.
In those dreadful conditions—the House must recognise this—the people of Burma have shown incredible resilience and courage. In a country where criticism of the regime is punishable by imprisonment, September’s dramatic protests reminded us that the people of Burma want their freedom and that they deserve our full support as they seek to attain and exercise the rights that we freely enjoy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what typifies this hideous regime is the imprisonment of a good friend of many of us in the House, James Mawdsley, for the crime of distributing Bibles when he visited Burma? Trying to repress the distribution of Bibles and lock away people involved in such an act shows how hideous it is.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I remember hearing James Mawdsley describe his experiences. It brings home the tyrannical nature of the regime and its determination to suppress the freedom of thought and religion that he was trying to encourage.
Thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent last month in the full knowledge that the last time similar protests took place—in 1998—the Government response killed 3,000 people. This time, too, the junta met peaceful protesters with violence. They levelled their weapons against monks. As we watched the ruthlessness with which the protests were crushed, we witnessed not only the junta’s repression but in some measure the outcome of 17 years of inactivity by the international community. Seventeen years have been lost. During that time the Security Council has not passed a single resolution condemning the situation in Burma or applying pressure on its leaders.
I want to raise three sets of issues: first, our immediate diplomatic response to the recent crises; secondly, what has been done to build an effective diplomatic coalition since then; and thirdly, the Government’s strategy going forward, on which the Secretary of State said some words. On the immediate response, our first concern must be the safety of those detained during the protests and those who have been rounded up since. We hope that it has been possible to establish a better picture of what happened last month. The regime claims to have released all but 500 of the Buddhist monks and other demonstrators it detained, although the Secretary of State just put the figure at 2,000, which is a far more believable assessment. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that it is deeply worried about those who are believed still to be in custody, particularly as it has been banned from visiting prisons to check up on those still under arrest. That is in itself a gross failure to meet the basic principles of international humanitarian law. We hope that the Government pressed the Burmese regime on that issue throughout the crisis and that it continues to do so now in the most vigorous way.
There are also disturbing reports of detainees being dispersed around the country to centres that the regime chillingly and bizarrely calls “new life camps” but which are in reality gulags where detainees are used as forced labour. That clearly makes the task of tracking the condition and whereabouts of those in detention vastly more difficult, but no less vital. There were reports during the crisis that UN computers had been seized by the military with the apparent intention of obtaining information on opposition figures. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government think that that did take place and if they have been able to establish to what extent such information was available on the computers and could have been of use to the regime?
There have been first-hand accounts of regime officials scouring villages looking for people whose faces were caught on camera during the protests. I trust that all possible efforts will be made to monitor these activities to try to keep track of the numbers arrested and to use every opportunity to protest about such detentions. Another area of concern must be the fate of those involved in the leadership and organisation of the protests. I hope that the Minister can say whether it has proved possible to establish any contact with the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, which emerged during the crisis as the group leading the protest. Although we are aware that any such contact could be dangerous to the safety of those involved by making them known to the authorities, identifying individuals has made it possible elsewhere to hold Governments to account and to make it harder for them to subject such people to violence or politically motivated imprisonment.
On the surface, Rangoon, in the official assessment, is calm. The regime speaks of a return to normalcy and stability. However, the situation is anything but normal. Reports suggest that the regime continues to raid monasteries, arrest activists and subject those detained to inhumane conditions. The death of National League for Democracy member, Win Shwe, who was arrested and tortured by the authorities, is only the most visible manifestation of the cruelty; many others appear to have shared his fate.
It is vital—this is why it is so good that we are debating the issue tonight—that the Burmese regime is not allowed to believe that it has weathered the storm and that the international outcry about its actions has somehow died down. Now is the time for us to step up our diplomatic efforts. We welcome—I am sure that we all do—the prompt visit to Burma by the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, but it is far from clear that he was able to receive any specific commitments from the Burmese leadership to engage in real talks with the opposition and to release political prisoners. The apparent concession made by the regime to allow him to meet Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have been little more than a ruse to gain some positive publicity. Attacks on villages and military atrocities in northern Karen state, where 80,000 people have been displaced in this year alone, continued unabated during the UN special envoy’s visit. Professor Gambari was prevented from meeting any other detainees, other members of the National League for Democracy or representatives of the Buddhist clergy. The junta's talks with the opposition leader should be seen in this light. Seventy detainees appear to have been released last week, but there is no sign that the regime is prepared to release her, or most of the 1,300 political prisoners in Burma.
Turning now to the building of an effective diplomatic coalition, we hope that Professor Gambari, on behalf of the UN, will return to Burma soon and that when he does so he will have the full backing of the Security Council to extract commitments from the regime and to hold it to them. We agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall) that the time has come for the UN Secretary-General to go himself, which my hon. Friend the shadow International Development Secretary has called for and has put to the Government. The Secretary of State said that the Government would look for a further report, but we have no doubt that, whatever the recommendations to come from Professor Gambari, the UN sending the Secretary-General himself to visit Burma and meet the main players there would accord a degree of profile and pressure that would place the military leaders in a more difficult situation. We echo that call.
Equally important are the visits by the UN envoy and others to key regional capitals. The active support of Burma's neighbours would transform the current international censure into real, effective pressure—a point made by several Members. We welcome the fact that the 10 nations of ASEAN formally condemned the violence and expressed their “revulsion” at the methods used to suppress the protests. We also welcome Thailand's proposal to convene a four-party meeting of ASEAN, the UN, India and China to formulate a response.
However, ASEAN as a whole has displayed unwillingness to take action against Burma. The Foreign Minister of Singapore, who currently holds the chair of ASEAN, described its policy in a recent interview as a group decision to
“bite our tongue to keep Burma in the family because it serves our long term strategic interest.”
That is a great disappointment. Over 70 per cent. of Burmese exports go to members of ASEAN, giving those countries great leverage over the Burmese leadership if they chose to exert it. A $150 million gas exploration deal with the regime was agreed even as the protests were taking place and Chinese trade and investment provides the regime with its main economic lifeline. Regrettably, the priority of Burma's neighbours appears to be not to resolve the crisis, but to defuse it as far as their own interests are concerned so that they can return to business as usual.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about neighbouring countries investing in Burma, but many European companies invest in Burma, including Total, which also invests in Preston. I am very glad about that, but obviously its activities in Burma concern me. What is his view on the issue of investment from European sources?
Investing in Preston is a rather different matter, I am delighted to say. I will come in a moment to European policy and what our Government should be doing on that score. I will complete my point about Burma’s neighbours and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will come to his point in a moment.
In order to be effective, international pressure on Burma needs to be supported across the international community. That means that Burma's neighbours and key trading partners must act. The regime in Burma will not feel under pressure until they do so. We support the Prime Minister's announcement that Britain will send Ministers to the region to talk to the ASEAN Governments, as well as to China, India, and Japan. I hope that the Minister will be able to specify in greater detail what Britain is setting out to achieve in this respect. Our case for raising Burma at the Security Council would be considerably strengthened if any of Burma's neighbours were to lend their support, for although those countries have joined us in condemning the situation, they do not share the same view of how to encourage change in Burma.
In light of that, we must all welcome the fact that the Security Council was able to agree a joint statement on Burma. It was the first time that the Security Council had taken any kind of public position on Burma and it is action that is long overdue. We fully supported the Government's efforts, along with the US, to bring Burma before the Security Council earlier this year. I hope that the Government will continue their efforts to raise the issue at the Security Council and to generate Russian and Chinese support for measures relating to Burma.
Looking to the strategy going forward, the Prime Minister has said that the Security Council will
“meet again to review the results”
of its recent presidential statement and that the UK will seek UN sanctions if no substantive progress has been made. That commitment must not be allowed to slide and is very much one that the Opposition support. We appreciate the difficulties in getting the support of other Security Council members, but without consistent pressure there is little hope of influencing the Burmese leadership. The obvious concern is the definition of the “progress” called for by the Security Council statement. I hope Ministers will agree that that must be real progress, starting with meetings without preconditions with opposition figures and the release of political prisoners. Token action should not be enough to stave off the pressure for action at the Security Council.
If it could be achieved, a binding UN sanctions resolution would require countries such as China, Russia and India to moderate their support for the Burmese regime, and in our view it should include an embargo on arms sales to Burma. That would worry the military regime more than almost anything else. There is also a strong case for imposing limits on companies making finance available to named Burmese state-owned companies, their joint ventures and subsidiaries, which serve only to prop up this unpleasant regime.
It is right that while debate about Security Council action is going on, the EU should act, as the US has done, to increase targeted sanctions on the regime. We welcome the EU decision of 15 October to increase EU sanctions on Burma. The steps taken to ban the sale of equipment to, and investment in, the mining, logging and precious jewels sectors are sensible. However, we had hoped for more.
I ask the Minister to provide clarification on a few points in her winding-up speech. The EU statement of 15 October requested
“relevant bodies to elaborate further restrictive measures, including a ban on new investments”.
Will she confirm, therefore, that the EU is considering a full ban on new investments in Burma? That goes to the heart of the question raised by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick).
Secondly, on aid, the EU statement said merely that the EU
“stands ready to increase this assistance, subject to further assessments of the humanitarian situation.”
Given that the humanitarian situation is dire, that appears to be a complacent European response. According to the Department for International Development, Burma receives one of the lowest levels of international assistance—£1 per person in 2002, 10 times less than EU aid to Zimbabwe. That is insufficient. The Secretary of State made announcements on that matter this evening, on which I wish to make a point shortly.
Another question I want the Minister to address when she speaks at the end of the debate is whether efforts have been made to identify the Burmese leaders and officials most responsible for the violence against the protestors, and whether the Government will seek further EU restrictions against them personally. The widening of EU sanctions is an important first step but, as has been pointed out to us by Burmese activists, unless the EU resolves to enforce the measures consistently, they will have little effect.
Turning closer to home, the Secretary of State for International Development recently set out proposals to develop an economic initiative to support recovery in Burma, if and when there is verifiable progress towards reconciliation and democracy. It is right for incentives for change to be set out alongside the penalties that the regime will face if it continues on its course. However, there was concern about the way that the proposals were launched, which was reflected in some newspapers. There were suggestions that the announcement in Washington was not launched in consultation with the United States; the Minister might wish to clear that up. The US and the UK have stood shoulder to shoulder on Burma, and co-ordinating our strategy will increase our effectiveness and ensure that the Burmese regime is presented with a united front.
The International Development Committee recently described British aid to Burmese refugees as “unacceptably low”. Although the Government’s announcement that DFID will provide £8 million in aid to Burma this year and the Secretary of State’s announcement of an increase in future years are welcome, that still falls far short of what is needed. Although the Secretary of State announced an increase in aid in coming years, it is not in line with the IDC recommendation that aid should be quadrupled by 2013. That is the option that we much prefer, and we will wish to say more on it in winding up the debate.
The World Food Programme reported this month that at least one in 10 Burmese are going to bed hungry and about 5 million people do not have enough food. The WFP itself can reach only an estimated 500,000 of those people, which is far fewer than is needed. I hope that over the coming months the Government will set out steps that they will take to support those working to provide much needed emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Burma, and that they will revise upwards the Secretary of State’s commitments of tonight, as well as support those working to document human rights abuses and promote democracy in Burma.
There have been pleas by Burmese activists—already repeated in this debate—for the UK to provide more humanitarian aid to those hiding in the jungle and frontier areas. They argue that that aid could be sent across borders from neighbouring countries without being susceptible to interference by the Burmese regime. The Secretary of State said that he would seriously consider such requests. That consideration should be urgent; consideration at length would not be good enough. We must ensure that Britain is doing everything reasonable within its power to ameliorate the plight of these people. I hope that in her summation the Minister will give the Government’s assessment of the UK’s ability to deliver such aid. Can that be done without obstruction from the regime, and can it now be increased?
It is our duty as fellow human beings to continue to stand with the people of Burma. Our actions should embolden and empower the Burmese people, not contribute to their further impoverishment and isolation. Only a genuine process of internal reform and reconciliation with the full involvement of the Burmese opposition will deliver stability, democracy and prosperity to the country. That requires a great deal of pressure from the international community. It must seize the initiative now—when the regime might be most sensitive to international criticism and keen to deflect the consequences—in order to bring about the change that the people of Burma so desperately need. We must say that enough is enough, and work to ensure that the world never witnesses a repeat of last month’s scenes on the streets of Rangoon. The people who demonstrated so bravely must have done so because they have some hope that their circumstances can change for the better, and those languishing in Burmese jails will keep going only if they have hope for the future. We in this House must help to make sure that they do not hope in vain.
Order. Last Thursday, the House decided to accept the Modernisation Committee report recommendation that the Speaker should have the power to vary a previously set time limit. That power takes effect in the next Session, which is unfortunate as it would have been handy to have been able to use it tonight, because a miscalculation has clearly taken place as a result of the other business having ended somewhat earlier than predicted. I am afraid that the 12-minute limit must stand, and it applies to Back-Bench speeches.
I was flying over Burma at about 1 am this morning, and I wondered what was happening below in that country. Like many, I have not had the opportunity to visit it, but I have been to the border camps and I have for the past three years been the chair of the human rights committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which deals with the human rights of parliamentarians in trouble. We have over a five-year period heard from the Burmese in opposition, some of whom were elected in 1990. They have told us about the plight of their colleagues in Burma, and the stories are tragic. Members should be particularly concerned about the plight of our fellow parliamentarians who, unlike us, are not able to stand on any platform and speak out, or to practise their mandates.
At the last count, 12 Burmese politicians elected in 1990 were in jail. To our knowledge, three of them are seriously ill. We have asked at the past three IPU annual conferences for those MPs to be released. We have also asked that all those elected in 1990 and all political prisoners be released. I am afraid that the generals do not listen to very much. They have had many opportunities to listen to special envoys in the past. I hope that this special envoy will be successful, but the past record of the regime is not good at persuading us that it might listen now. If the generals want to show that they are at least listening to some arguments, they should release the elected politicians who languish in jail, particularly the three who are seriously ill.
Not only are those people in jail, but others have died in custody—six of those elected in 1990 have done so. We know that since the October crackdown, another 13 parliamentarians have been arrested and are now in jail. In total, 26 elected members of the Burmese Parliament are in jail in that country. As a gesture, the generals should at least show that they are listening to the arguments of fellow politicians all over the world.
At the IPU conference that took place in Geneva a few weeks ago, at which several hon. Members were present, the British delegation asked for talks with the Chinese and Indian delegations and we withdrew our own emergency resolution in order to support the tough ASEAN resolution. It is worth everybody looking at that resolution, which is available on the IPU’s website. It was adopted unanimously by the 117th assembly in Geneva on 10 October, which included members of Parliament from 143 countries, the Chinese and Indian delegations and all the ASEAN countries. It is significant that, again, all the ASEAN countries supported the resolution.
This has been a good debate and people from all parties have said things with which we all agree. When I was flying over Burma this morning, I thought about the people below and about the reports by our ambassador. I would like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to congratulate our ambassador in Burma, because his reporting in the first few days of the crackdown was significant. It was brave of him to speak out in the way that he did, and I hope that he is able to continue to do so.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I can give her the assurance that she seeks. I had the opportunity to speak to our ambassador this morning. Not only did I congratulate him on his efforts in recent weeks, and those of his staff, but I assured him of the good wishes of all Members of the House for the conduct that British diplomats have shown in what has been an extremely trying time for themselves and their families, as well as for the people of Burma.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I am grateful for that because I read with horror the account given by diplomats. They say that the regime probably still holds between 2,000 and 2,500 protesters. As he said, many are being detained in so-called “new life camps”, which are re-education centres a long way from the capital Rangoon. People are jam-packed in rooms where the walls are covered in excrement, they are not given any food, they are being continually interrogated, subject to brutal torture, routinely beaten and soaked in ice-cold water. The Human Rights Watch report is similar:
“We should have no illusions about what is going on in Burma. Soldiers are hunting down leaders of the protest movement and torturing them. Revered Buddhist monasteries are being occupied; the monks are being defrocked, beaten and sometimes killed. Government newspapers demand unity against ‘neo-colonialist stooges’…People are afraid.”
The courts continue to try protesters in secret and hand out heavy sentences, crematoriums have been working overtime to cope with the number of dead and there have even been allegations that some injured protesters have been buried alive. We can all imagine the scene, and it has been described vividly here today. I urgently call for one thing to happen right now on behalf of the detainees who are at immediate risk. We should get the International Committee of the Red Cross back in so that it can visit the detainees to ensure that they are at least being fed.
As I said, the IPU will continue its efforts. We have attempted to visit Burma, to no avail, but we need to keep putting pressure on neighbouring countries to initiate a regional political process in a meaningful way. We should get them to get the generals to the negotiating table. The ASEAN member states of China, India and Russia must give their full backing to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Burma and assist him in getting this initiative off the ground.
No, I am afraid that I know of no IPU country that has managed to get a delegation into Burma, although people obviously continue to try. Our committee is involved with the human rights of members of Parliament all over the world, and the IPU covers about 143 countries. Unfortunately, the human rights abuses that elected members suffer are getting more rather than less frequent. The IPU continues to attempt to get delegations in.
As has been mentioned, ASEAN needs to expel Burma if there is no sign of reform. ASEAN Heads of Government will gather in Singapore for a summit towards the end of November, and that will be a good time to discuss that and other measures. I know that there is not time to say much else, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the last thing that we need is for the international community to rail against the generals and make a lot of noise but to forget again in a few months’ time and allow Burma to descend into anarchy, and for the suffering of the Burmese to drag on and on and on.
May I open my remarks by expressing our support for and solidarity with the pro-democracy demonstrators and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi in particular? We would all agree that they have dealt bravely with the impossible situation in Burma and deserve all the assistance that the international community can give. I add my voice to those condemning the indiscriminate violent attacks on the demonstrators and others in Burma over the last months, and the awful human rights violations that have occurred.
It is important to say on this occasion that those violations are continuing. There are widespread reports of the ill treatment and torture of detainees, of secret detention, and of sentencing in closed and unfair trials. The situation in Burma is still desperate. We do not know how many people are being detained, or under what conditions, or where or, in many cases, why that is happening. Amnesty International has reported that arrests continue in far greater numbers than the official figures given by the Burmese state media. Despite the regime’s supposed co-operation with the UN, information about these detainees has still to be published. Surely the first step by the junta in resolving the conflict should be to publish information about those detainees, to allow immediate and independent access to them and then to release them.
The situation for the whole country is bleak, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as a result of forced displacement, the fear of violence and political, ethnic and religious persecution. With the current social and economic conditions further exacerbated by the violence of the past few months, is it any wonder that more than a quarter of Burma’s population now lives below the UN-agreed poverty line of $1 a day and that one in 10 children die before they reach their fifth birthday?
The internally displaced people and refugees, as well as ordinary citizens, face widespread poverty and a lack of health care and education, and all depend on action from the international community. We must ensure that they are not disappointed. The Select Committee on International Development’s recent report on British aid to Burma said that the £8.8 million currently allocated was an “unacceptable” level of assistance and recommended that the budget should be quadrupled by 2013.
In the light of the events of the past month and their repercussions on the number of internally displaced people and refugees, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement tonight that he has reconsidered the Department’s aid budget to Burma; but, as had been said, even doubling it still leaves many hon. Members with considerable concern that that will prove to be insufficient for the purpose. Perhaps when the Minister responds to the debate, she could also explain to the House DFID’s new spending priorities for Burma, given that timely budget increase.
Of course, the United Nations should continue to play the leading role in resolving the issues in Burma. We certainly hope that the UN will continue to push for regular visits by the special rapporteur on human rights and Special Envoy Gambari, because it is only by continued investigation that we will establish precisely what happened during the riots and what the current situation really is. Burma must give the UN free, full and unfettered access to all areas and peoples, and those visits should be reported on and followed up by formal UN Security Council discussions to establish what, if any, progress is being made. Where no progress is made, the Security Council must act decisively and move to adopt binding sanctions, including an international arms embargo and a demand for the release of all political prisoners.
China, in particular, has an absolutely key role to play. Although we recognise the significant movement that the Chinese have made already by supporting the formal UN Security Council statement, they also need to stand ready and willing to support the adoption of a binding Security Council resolution if one should be necessary.
Thailand, India and the other ASEAN nations, as close neighbours and significant trading partners of Burma, also have a key role to play in resolving this issue, and they must support international mediation and reconciliation efforts. Perhaps when the Minister responds, she might inform the House whether discussions have taken place with those Governments about their trading practices with the current Burmese regime and whether they support US and EU sanctions and, if so, how they might help to bring pressure to bear on the regime.
We welcome the extension of the EU trade and investment bans to include timber, gems and precious metals. By targeting those sectors of the Burmese economy, the EU’s sanctions will be better able to strengthen their impact on the regime; but to be effective, those measures must be implemented quickly and the sanctions must be watertight. They must, for example, include goods that are processed through third countries, as most of the gems and diamonds that come into the EU from Burma do at present.
We also welcome the agreement that a general EU investment ban will follow if the Burmese Government do not comply with the demands of the international community. However, if the international community is to keep up the pressure on the junta and the momentum on this issue, there must be a clear timeline for when such an investment ban might be implemented. Perhaps in her winding-up speech the Minister might clarify how long the Burmese Government would be given to comply with international demands before the general EU investment ban would be implemented. Will she say whether the Government have considered supporting the introduction of that ban at the next General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting if no progress has been made?
Further sanctions should also be planned to continue to increase pressure on the Burmese authorities and to make it clear to them that the international community will not stand idly by but will continue to act if they continue to break international law and human rights agreements. A strong message needs to be sent. Those measures should perhaps include sanctions on the very lucrative oil and gas industry, and as with the investment ban, they should include a clear timeline for implementation. Perhaps the Minister might say whether discussions about further sanctions have taken place and, if so, whether they included the specific possibility of introducing future sanctions on the oil and gas industries.
Although we acknowledge that the Government have taken a lead on this issue at EU level, we are concerned to ensure that existing sanctions are being implemented properly in all British dependencies and overseas territories. The Burma Campaign UK has reported that companies in Singapore have invested in Burma through their base in the British Virgin Islands and that an oil company has also invested in Burma through Bermuda. That will be a matter of great concern to the House.
In fact, Bermuda has not enacted the EU sanctions in its domestic legislation at all, and Orders in Council have not been applied there. In our view, if the EU sanctions are to work properly, in partnership with the respective Governments involved, the UK Government need urgently to review the effectiveness of the implementation of EU sanctions in British overseas territories. I therefore ask the Minister to inform the House whether any such review is being undertaken. Will she also give a commitment to ensuring that new Orders in Council are introduced to guarantee that the new EU sanctions have more meaningful and immediate effect?
In addition, the UK imported £19 million-worth of goods from Burma and exported £2 million in the first eight months of 2007. We do not, however, know the identities of the companies involved because the Government refuse to disclose their names on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Given the understandable and increasing interest of the British public in the conflict within Burma, will the Minister reconsider the Government’s decision not to disclose the names of those companies that currently invest in Burma, so that they, too, can be held to account?
In conclusion, I am pleased that the Government have sought to make Burma the subject of this Adjournment debate. It is right and proper that the House has the opportunity to voice its concerns on this vital issue. The situation in Burma has been most grave for a long time, and the events of the past months have pulled the country dramatically back into the public eye and can leave no excuse for the international community not to act. The Government can be assured of support from the Liberal Democrats if they are serious about resolving the grave human rights abuses, if they are serious about resolving the humanitarian crisis and if they are actively engaged in helping to bring about a resolution of the crisis in Burma. For the sake of the people of that country, I very much hope that they are.
I compliment the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on their introductions to the debate. I very strongly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)—I hope that I have pronounced the name of her constituency correctly—who talked so strongly about the situation with regard to parliamentarians.
The members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs are not little Englanders; we visited the United Nations in New York two weeks ago, and we had useful discussions with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the situation in Burma, as well as meeting some of the exiled groups that are working in the UN to try to get democracy and human rights in their country. I shall begin my remarks with a discussion of those groups.
There has been much concentration on the nature of the regime and the repressive events in Rangoon and elsewhere, but so far nobody has talked about the complexity and diversity of the country. Burma—Myanmar—is one of the most ethnically complicated and mixed countries in the world. More than 40 per cent. of the population are from ethnic minority groups and, for more than 20 years, there has been a series of sometimes violent rebellions against the brutal military regime. So far, many of those groups have not engaged in the current protests and pressure for democracy, but if there is to be political progress in Burma, it will be a question not just of restoring a democratically elected Government, but also of making sure that there is political dialogue and compromise to end long-standing, deep-seated and complicated regional and ethnic conflicts.
One of our problems in dealing with the situation is the mindset of the regime. There is an interesting article, “Understanding the junta”, by Nic Dunlop in the latest issue of Prospect. I recommend that all Members read that article, because it shows clearly that the mindset of the so-called State Peace and Development Council—probably one of the most misnamed organisations ever—is based on the training the generals received from the Japanese imperial army, which established an organisation to fight against the British in the 1940s. Later, some of those generals, including the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, changed sides and joined the British to drive out the Japanese, because they realised that the Burmese people would not get their freedom by allying with the Japanese. In 1947, the British Labour Government brought about the process that led to the establishment of an independent Burmese state.
In reality, however, there is a brutal, repressive mindset within the military that goes back to the 1940s, so we have to confront the difficult fact that those people live in a time warp and their world view will be extremely difficult to change. Mr. Gambari may try to do it, but he does not hold the cards. Reference has been made to Burma’s neighbours and countries that can influence Burma. The United States does not have influence, nor does the EU, although it is right that we have sanctions policies and that we bring international pressure to bear. It is right that we do whatever we can, but it is an illusion to think that we will be able to change the nature of the regime, which will either be overthrown internally or changed through pressure from Burma’s neighbours and the region.
There has been some movement in the position of the Chinese. It is important that China recognises that the whole world is watching its behaviour now that it is a serious global player and that, as we approach the 2008 Olympics, there will be even more attention on China and its policies, both internal and international. However, even though 700 Chinese companies invest in Burma, we must recognise that China alone will not be able to change the nature of the regime.
The ASEAN countries, including some of Burma’s neighbours, have a responsibility, too. One of those countries is Thailand, which is host to a large number of the refugees who have fled across the border from Burma. However, Thailand purchases gas from the Yadana and Yetagun gas fields so it also provides the regime with its largest amount of foreign currency earnings. Unfortunately, the Thai Government, too, are now a military regime, so we need to recognise that it is not just a question of talking with the Chinese, democratic India or other countries; Thailand has a role and we need to consider how we might influence other countries to bring about change in Burma.
Another important issue is what happens in ASEAN as a whole, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley pointed out in her remarks. An important ASEAN meeting will be held in Singapore next month to sign the ASEAN charter, which includes an agreement to establish an ASEAN human rights body. At present, there is no sign that the other nine ASEAN countries will try to expel or suspend Burma from their organisation. Indeed, it is likely that General Than Shwe, the strong man in the regime, will attend the charter signing ceremony, so we need to start to raise issues and to bring pressure internationally on ASEAN.
Reference has been made to the remarks of the Foreign Minister of Singapore. Some of the ASEAN countries are democracies and some—for example, Indonesia and the Philippines—have been pressing for strong statements of condemnation of what has been going on in Burma. Unfortunately, some others—Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam—have some sympathy for the authoritarianism of the Burmese regime. Those countries are not as bad as Burma, but nevertheless they are not pluralistic and democratic. There is a problem in achieving early, significant shifts of approach in the region.
I have just returned from Cambodia where we had a two-hour session with the Prime Minister, Hun Sen. We discussed the situation in Burma at length and I hope that my hon. Friend will now find that a different attitude will be taken towards Burma than has been apparent so far.
That will be welcome. We must wait to see what happens. I am aware that although the secretary-general of ASEAN said there could be “no business as usual”, he also made it clear that there was no question of imposing sanctions on the Burmese regime or of suspending it.
The origins of the immediate crisis go back to the rapid increase in fuel prices that occurred due to the bankruptcy of the economy and the fact that the military regime was running a huge budget deficit. Whatever repressive actions the regime takes and however many people it beats up, drives into exile or kills, the fundamental problems will not go away. The regime spent billions of pounds building its new capital city in the middle of the jungle. The military elite has an adequate or good living, while the mass of the people live in abject poverty. The situation was so severe that the monks protested. People did not have enough money to live on so they could not give charity to monks, who in Buddhist culture rely on charity from the community. The situation is that bad and the underlying problems will remain unless the regime begins to change.
It is estimated that, in the 1990 election, a very large number of people in the military voted for the National League for Democracy, and that even now there is significant support within the military for possible reform and opening up, but of course the dinosaurs at the top will do everything possible to resist that change. It is to be hoped that someone in the regime will recognise that there needs to be transformation, compromise and dialogue.
Just as Nelson Mandela was let out of prison in South Africa to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition, so Aung San Suu Kyi should be released from house arrest and should be put in a position in which she, in discussion with her political colleagues, can act as a conduit and a force for the transformation of Burma into a pluralistic and democratic society. That is the best way forward for Burma, and that is a way to ensure an easing of the international pressure for sanctions, isolation, and targeted measures against members of the regime. If Burma does not take that way forward, Asian countries and the rest of the world will ratchet up the pressure, and the country’s underlying economic problems will not be resolved. There is a way out for Burma, if it has the courage to take it.
Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country of the world, the use of human minesweepers, the incarceration of political prisoners in conditions of unspeakable bestiality, religious persecution, water torture and the destruction of more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma in the past decade are all chapters in the story of savagery that has shamed the Burmese military junta in the eyes of the world.
In the past three years, I have twice visited the Thai-Burma border and, in September this year, I returned from a week-long visit to the India-Burma border. Those visits left indelible impressions on my mind. I will never forget hearing testimony about a man who was dangled over a hot fire as part of his punishment. I will never forget speaking to a man who had been incarcerated and beaten throughout the night, and who had suffered the humiliation and agony of having his body swung repeatedly against a pillar. I will never forget hearing testimony about a man in Insein prison who was so malnourished, so ravaged, and so painfully thin that, in the words of my interlocutor, it was possible to see his intestines moving like worms.
I will never forget meeting a boy, now aged seven, who at the tender age of three was forcibly abducted by Government troops for use as bait, taken to a remote army camp, placed in a cold, stone room with a mud floor and no windows, and kept there for no fewer than eight hours without being offered food or water. I will never forget, on my first visit to the Thai-Burma border in April 2004, meeting parents who had seen their children shot dead in front of them, and meeting children who had seen their parents shot dead in front of them. I will never forget the stories of the barbaric mutilation that regularly takes place, courtesy of the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw. We are talking about eyes being gouged out, tongues being ripped out, noses being chopped off, and heads being chopped off. Above all, I will never forget the harrowing, chilling stories about heads being placed on pillars or posts in prominent parts of villages as a warning of what might lie in store for anyone who dared to rebel, or simply to presume safely to exist as a member of a minority.
In light of the present situation, I have to call to mind all the experiences of the past 45 years and ask the House: what is new? The human rights abuses are not new, because as my right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, noted, they have been taking place for 45 years under the auspices of the barbaric and illegitimate Government. There is nothing new there. The abuses are not unrecorded, so there has been no new discovery of historical events; on the contrary, for decades, the abuses have been extensively documented by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch, by the Burma Campaign and—if I may say so with particular force and admiration—by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, whose Asia advocacy officer, Ben Rogers, has in recent years undertaken no fewer than 18 visits to the Thai-Burma border, and many visits to other borders. So there is nothing new there, either. There has been no revelation to the international community. Indeed, I think it fair and safe to say that, on the whole, the international community has been conscious of the nature, scale and recurrence of the abuses, but has by and large thought it politic to look the other way—to turn a blind eye and discuss a more convenient or comfortable subject.
I remember asking the then Prime Minister about the situation in Burma on 8 November 2004, and his reply was revealing and salutary. He said, at the Dispatch Box, that it was really only the absence of television cameras in Burma and a number of other places of despotism that enabled the dictators to get away with their ill-gotten gains and to cling to their power for so long. Now, the situation has changed, at least in the sense that we have learned of the nature of the abuses with an intensity that was previously denied to us. We have seen the bravery, courage, sacrifice and sheer undiluted heroism of the monks and others, and we have seen the sheer viciousness of the response from what must undoubtedly be one of the most egregious abusers of human rights to be found anywhere on the face of the planet.
Of course, we have to ask what we can do to bring about change. Every speaker tonight has asked that question and sought to answer it. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and others correctly referred to the role of the European Union. I am sorry to say that hitherto it has been fiddling around in the undergrowth, and its position has been to opt for the lowest common denominator. It has sought sanctions in the form of action against the pineapple juice sector and a tailor’s shop in Rangoon. I am delighted that as a consequence of concerted pressure, of continued publicity and of remorseless protest from the international community and millions of ordinary people, it has now gone beyond that. Worthwhile sanctions are now in place, but we need to monitor them to ensure that they are enforced. As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said, we have to be sure that they are not effectively flouted via a circuitous route through the use of third countries. We should go for a comprehensive investment ban.
Let me make one other suggestion about the European Union: why do we not suggest, and advocate as policy, a ban on the provision of insurance cover to companies that trade with the regime? It is difficult to envisage companies being willing to trade with it if they cannot get insurance cover. There is a role for the European Union, and a role for the United Nations; that has to be pre-eminent. We need a Security Council resolution of a binding character that sets out, in terms, the actions that are required of the regime and an exacting timetable within which they have to be performed. That resolution should say that Aung San Suu Kyi should be freed; that all remaining political prisoners must be released; that there should be clear, free and unimpeded access both for humanitarian aid organisations and for those undertaking professional responsibilities to assess the human rights situation on the ground; and that there must be meaningful progress in tripartite talks with the National League for Democracy—the true victors of the 1990 elections—and representatives of the ethnic national groups, failing which, intensified sanctions, particularly the imposition of a comprehensive arms embargo, will follow.
Of course, there is a role for others, too. India and China are central, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) acknowledged. It pains me to reflect that India’s behaviour is getting worse at a time at which China’s might be considered to be getting a little better. How can the country of Gandhi and Nehru behave as it does, selling attack helicopters and the arsenals of potential destruction and certainly of human rights violation to this appalling regime? It simply is not right. It is not right that China does so; it is not right that Russia does so; it is not right that Serbia does so; it is not right that Ukraine does so; and it is not right that the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations continue to do so. There comes a point at which we must say, “When will nations choose respect for human rights and democratic values over the reckless pursuit of filthy lucre?” As the hon. Member for Cheadle said, of course, it is right that Britain should put the priority of public interest and the availability of information ahead of the excuse of commercial confidentiality for companies importing goods and other equipment from Burma. I thought that the figure in 2006 was about £26 million-worth of goods. Companies that import goods from Burma should be named and shamed. People have a right to know the country of origin and the method of production of the goods that they are invited to buy.
I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, and I think that it will be echoed later by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development. We should embrace wholeheartedly the recommendations of the International Development Committee to quadruple aid, to facilitate greater cross-border assistance, and to back the women’s organisations and trade union groups that have toiled in the vineyard for years to help the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. We should support a range of exiled organisations, which not only have practical experience and worth to contribute, but should be part of the reconfigured arrangements in a new constitutional democracy in Burma.
I am extremely pleased at what my hon. Friend said about British companies importing goods from Burma. My understanding is that we import £26 million-worth of such goods, so does he agree—and I think that he alluded to this—that those companies should be named and shamed?
I certainly do. We have to do a great deal more, and ultimately, we have to decide how we are going to deal with a regime that is as despotic as the Burmese regime. One of the most horrific recent revelations was the report, supposedly unconfirmed but probably reliable, that the crematoriums were working overtime, burning the bodies of the regime’s slaughtered victims. Any regime that can behave in that way must be decisively confronted and defeated, rather than continually appeased.
My hon. Friend’s powerful description of that behaviour is, as he says, not a new description of that regime. It is not new, either, in the history of totalitarian Governments of both left and right. Is it not strange that many of the countries that he listed as helping the Burmese dictatorship claim to have broken with, or at least moved away from, totalitarian dictatorship themselves? Cannot more be done to try to show those countries that if they are to live up to the claims that they make for their own political evolution, they must put pressure on the Burmese Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that underlines the importance of a much wider and more sophisticated concept of national interest. Many countries say that they do not want to interfere. We know perfectly well that, under international law, it cannot possibly be justified for a state to hide behind the cloak of sovereignty by practising egregious human rights abuses, so the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is well established in international law.
My response to other countries that are considering whether to give support to, or to trade with, Burma is simply that they do not know what the consequence of their behaviour may be. It is not simply a question of damaging consequences for individual citizens living in Burma but of the spread of disease; of an increase in the arms trade; and of regional and global insecurity that could result from a rogue state that is left untamed. It is a tiger that is on the loose, and it has to be dealt with decisively. Ultimately it comes down to the question of whether the member countries of the United Nations are prepared collectively to decide that the UN is an instrument of necessary change in the world, or whether they are content merely for the UN to be a symbol of passive acceptance of a thoroughly unsatisfactory status quo. I hope that it is the former, not the latter. I rejoice in the fact that there is substantial consensus on many issues across the House. We need to ensure that there is priority, focus, determination, resolution and clarity in public policy. That is right in itself, it is what the people of Burma need, and it is what they most certainly deserve.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made an eloquent, expansive, moving and informative speech.
The whole country is deeply disturbed by the recent events in Burma, which are arguably the result of decades of oppression. The Burmese regime may have hoped that by closing down the internet and targeting the media it could hide its crimes from the eyes of the world. If so, it has failed. Horrific repression has provoked disgust and anger across the globe. The suppression of democracy, as well as beatings, forced displacement, killings, arbitrary detention, forced labour, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers are just some of the tools used in Burma. The Burmese regime can be summed up in a few words—oppressive, abhorrent, brutal, and barbarous—but with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to express my absolute disgust with the regime in a few more words.
As we have heard, the military regime imposed a reign of fear on the people more than 40 years ago, and it has crushed protests ever since. It remains steadfast in its opposition to free speech, worship and assembly, but the Burmese people’s desire for freedom continues. That was vividly expressed when Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won the election, but we all know that the results were ignored by the military, so instead of ruling her country, she was placed under house arrest, where she remains to this day. The freedom fight continued, however, and on 19 August this year, brave Burmese students took to the streets to protest against increases in the price of fuel, food and other basic items, as we have heard. Essentially, those already poor and desperate people were denied their most fundamental rights while the military regime continued to construct and maintain one of the world’s largest armies. Burma has the 12th largest army in the world, with nearly 430,000 active troops, thus dwarfing our own armed forces and those of France and Germany.
Students throughout the world have stood up against oppression, whether in Tiananmen square in 1989 or on the streets of Belgrade in 1992, and it was no different in Burma in 2007. Those students—hopefully, some of them will be Burma’s future thinkers and leaders—were arrested in midnight raids, left to die in their cells, and killed under interrogation. In the days after 19 August, as demonstrations grew, those who remained outside the crowded prison cells marched in Rangoon, joined by Burmese monks, who are no strangers to protest. Bullets were fired, and tear gas was directed at crowds that reportedly reached 100,000 strong. As the saffron revolution began, many monks were beaten. Let that thought stay with the House tonight: Buddhist monks beaten as they protested on the streets. The monks, once the most respected group in Burma, are not safe from the state-sponsored violence and repression.
As the Prime Minister said, we must not turn away. As Edmund Burke said, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. It takes a brave person, but also a desperate one, to face down a loaded gun and stand up for what they believe to be right. We should salute that bravery here today, but also send the message to Burma to let the Burmese people know that we stand alongside the good men and women of the pro-democracy movement in their fight. We cannot march with them, but we have the power to effect change.
I doubt that there was significant belief among the protesters that their actions alone could bring down this oppressive regime, but any small hope that they may have endured was brutally shattered when the crackdown was launched: monasteries raided, as we have heard, thousands arrested, and unknown numbers killed. Some of the protestors were as young as seven. We hear rumours of hastily arranged cremations designed to hide the number of the dead. Is this 1940s Europe or modern day Burma? What could be going through the minds of Burmese soldiers to make them shoot their own people? Is this the same evil that ran through the minds of the Nazi SS troops? Are they only following orders or do they believe that killing their own people is the right thing to do?
The steps to be taken in Burma are clear: end the violence, release the political prisoners and grant access to the international community. The only obstacle to a stable and prosperous Burma is the regime itself. There is no reason why Burma cannot match the economic success of its neighbours and go on to become a strong player on the international trading stage. Once the world’s foremost exporter of rice, it can again be, with our help and the willingness to change on the part of the military regime.
We have seen recently that the US and the EU have instituted firmer actions against the regime, but the UK and all other nations need to utilise all their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom. I am thankful that our Government have announced the additional £1 million of urgent aid to Burma to attempt to deliver support to those in real need, and I am glad that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are exploring other avenues. However, on the issue of support to the Burmese people we can go further.
I thank the Secretary of State for International Development for his commitment today and trust that he will continue to review the issues of funding to projects to promote human rights and democracy in Burma. I understand that our Government are preparing for the future should reconciliation occur, and recent international meetings are an important step. It is important to look at how Burma can be supported if it demonstrates real and verifiable progress. If such a situation should develop, our primary priorities should be access to health care, education and debt relief. Those measures will hopefully encourage the regime genuinely to work towards reconciliation. But if progress is insufficient, too slow or piecemeal, stronger options must be considered.
On the issue of health care, the closure of two Red Cross stations in March was deeply regrettable. We cannot allow international posturing to distract us from the fact that people are needlessly suffering through disease and injury as the Red Cross is forced to the sidelines. I urge the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development, as other hon. Members have done here tonight, to do all in their power to have the International Red Cross and other aid agencies allowed back into Burma.
To return to international pressure, the UK Government’s key aim is to mobilise support, particularly among Burma’s neighbours. The Burmese situation should be troubling to China for several reasons: Burma is on its doorstep and Beijing is wrong to think that domestic unrest in Burma has no regional impact. Burma is a country transformed in recent years into a virtual client state, where the Chinese are building roads, burning forests and backing gas projects. However, we are grateful for their support for the latest UN Security Council statement and for the facilitation of access for the UN special envoy. Ibrahim Gambari has been instrumental in opening new dialogue between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party. The pressure that that brought about must be maintained. China must stay involved in the process and the international community is watching China closely in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
I take this opportunity to urge the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has a 8.25 per cent. holding in the Bank of China, to use its position to bring about a change in attitude of Sinopec and PetroChina, and dare I say, even the Bank of China itself. It should not rest easy with the Royal Bank of Scotland shareholders that they are benefiting from the profits of Burmese repression.
What the hon. Gentleman has just said is absolutely right. Does he agree, however, that we simply cannot within the EU be in any way complacent about this matter? Will he concur with me that it is frankly the most damning indictment of a democratic Government, namely that of France, that Total Oil should be engaged in a $400 million investment to prop up the sadistic thugs who rule Burma? Is it not about time that they reconsidered and stopped offering sanctimonious humbug and self-serving rhetoric about their tiny little humanitarian aid projects when they are there for the filthy lucre?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps if we gathered some more information regarding UK trading and investments within Burma, we could apply our own individual pressures in that way as well.
It is also grossly unacceptable that the First Minister of Scotland seeks to make Burma an ally in his conflict with the Westminster Government.
Despite Burma’s massive army, it is a fragile state where the danger of fragmentation is real. Insurgencies and drug warlord militias could easily fill a vacuum, and that is certainly something that no one wants to see. China can be a strong voice for reform in Burma, but, as we have heard tonight, it should by no means be the only one. Thailand must also accept responsibility as a primary funder of the military regime by its purchase of Burmese gas. India is another country that must live up to its responsibilities in the region. Its uncritical relationship with the regime is very disappointing and I hope that recent representations made by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will assist in moving the Indian position. India is the largest democracy in the world, and economically supporting such a repressive regime must be made to embarrass politicians in India.
The international approach is so vital. The protesters know that the regime will not relinquish power at the behest of the Burmese people alone. The leaders have no interest in the people and never will. The real drivers of change and reform must be Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic political opposition and the ethnic groups in Burma. The protesters need to know that their voice is having an impact on us here in the west. As the protesters speak directly to us they are saying, “We are here. Look at what is happening. Please help us.” Those people and indeed the world are watching this Parliament today to see that we are doing everything in our power to bring these atrocities to an end and to send the strongest and clearest message to Burma that this action will no longer be tolerated.
We all know that we have strong colonial ties to Burma and I am sure that many in the Chamber will, like me, have had family stationed there, and that places an additional responsibility on the UK to seek a resolution to the current problems and to ensure Burma’s future.
But before I bring my remarks to a close, I want to talk briefly about the role of Aung San Suu Kyi. This remarkable woman has spent 12 years under house arrest as she has watched her country descend into chaos. We debate in this Parliament about whether 28 days’ detention without charge is acceptable, yet this woman has been held hostage for 12 years and her only crime has been a desire to make Burma a better place in which to live. Her struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia, and indeed the world, in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression and serves as an example to others around the world. Her name, along with that of Mahatma Gandhi, will echo through time as a leading light of non-violent protest in support of human rights. I am sure that many in this House will join me in looking forward to the day when she gains her rightful place as the leader of Burma.
I am incredibly grateful because the hon. Gentleman not only makes a very good speech, but has also proved to be highly generous in giving way to me. What he says about Aung San Suu Kyi is absolutely right. Will he further agree with me—she is undoubtedly the world’s greatest heroine today—that the regime in Burma has no moral entitlement whatever to say, “Yes, we will meet her, but on condition a, b or c?” The regime that is guilty of ethnic cleansing, of war crimes, of crimes against humanity and probably of genocide should agree unconditionally to meet someone who is far greater than any of them will ever be.
No one would disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.
I hope that the regime will come to realise, if it does not already, that significant movement is urgently required and that the international community will not tolerate the continuation of recent atrocities. I also hope that the focus on Burma in this House tonight will play its part in creating the momentum required to bring about the necessary change and end the rule of that repressive, barbaric junta.
It is a privilege to participate in this debate, which is rightly full of passion—there have been some excellent speeches.
Everyone in this country, never mind in this House, was repulsed by the pictures from Burma, where people who were complaining about their plight and the starvation and poverty levels under which many of them were living engaged in peaceful protests. They wanted their view to be known, and they were joined by monks, who are revered by the people of Burma and who live among them. The people wanted peacefully to demonstrate against what they saw was wrong, but they were beaten, arrested and persecuted. A heavy hammer came down on anyone who dared to speak against or threaten the regime, which has existed for far too long.
We must remember how hideous the regime is. I mentioned earlier in the debate James Mawdsley, who visited that country. Many Christians live in Burma, and they are persecuted—for example, they cannot move about as we can here, because the multiplicity of faiths that we have here is simply not allowed in Burma. James Mawdsley was distributing Bibles, and he was arrested and put in prison, which shows what sort of regime we are discussing.
One reason why we can see what is going on at this juncture is the bravery of journalists, some of whom have visited Burma under cover. They have reported what is going on in that hideous regime, and it is important that they continue to do so. We are grateful for the risks that they take and for the work that they do.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been mentioned many times. She has experienced 12 years of illegal detention, and she is an iconic figure who personifies the fight and struggle of the ordinary people of Burma to be free. She is the only imprisoned Nobel peace prize laureate in the world. Glenys Kinnock MEP never spoke a truer word when she said last week:
“Aung San Suu Kyi symbolises the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom. She is isolated, denied her liberty, her voice stifled and her communications cut”.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a beacon of light in that country. She has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to liberty. She has been likened to Gandhi, because of the way in which she has peacefully sought to promote what everyone in this country takes for granted.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned parliamentarians in Burma who are now sitting in prison, and we must remember our responsibility as parliamentarians to them. Sometimes people ask what is the point in having yet another debate about yet another country in the House of Commons and in having yet another march—there was a march through the streets of London only a few weeks ago, when people showed their solidarity with the people of Burma. Today, a veteran of the 1988 demonstrations, who went to jail for six and a half years, explained to me that the message that they are not forgotten will get through to ordinary people in Burma and to people who are languishing in jails in Burma today. When people marched through the streets of London, people also marched throughout the world. That has not gone unnoticed, and it will give people in Burma succour and strength to know that we are thinking about them and the conditions in which they live.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important that the Karen, the Karenni and other ethnic minorities, who have suffered appallingly at the hands of the regime, should take succour from the fact that we have not forgotten them?
One of the merits of this debate is that we can share our experiences, such as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has had first-hand conversations with those who have been persecuted by the regime, and those of people in our constituencies—and that message will not stay only in this House. We know that the Government are listening to us tonight, and they will also listen to what the people of Burma are saying about what they feel should be done. I will discuss what the protesters, both in 1988 and of a few weeks ago, want to see us do.
Pursuant to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), it has perhaps been under-mentioned that cultural genocide against the Karen, Karenni, Chin, Shan, Mon, Arakan and Rohingya peoples is a fact of life in that country. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) aware that a particularly obnoxious form of human rights abuse is now being practised in Chin state, where the Government of Burma are deliberately promoting the sale of industrial-strength alcohol and targeting it at women in particular with a view to damaging health and wrecking another ethnic minority? Is that not a further example of despicable behaviour?
Everyone agrees that we are discussing one of the worst regimes in the world—it has some stiff competition. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has said that there are complex cultures in Burma, and the situation is not straightforward by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that various sects and groups of people who live in Burma are persecuted is deplorable. My hon. Friend has mentioned that the crematoriums are working overtime in order to destroy the evidence of what the regime is doing. However, if the regime thinks that it is going to get away with it, it should think again, because it will not get away with it.
Many of the people who were involved in the 1988 campaign against the regime have come forward again during these protests. The one thing that cannot be extinguished is the spirit of the people, who are fighting for liberty—their lives may be extinguished, but the campaign goes on. The campaign will go on in Burma until the hideous regime is removed.
One organisation that has not been mentioned so far is the International Criminal Court. Given that the court was set up specifically to deal with war crimes and that it exists on a standing basis, which means that a special organisation would not need to be established, is it not possible to indict before the International Criminal Court the perpetrators of the atrocities of which we have heard so much?
It is certain that those people must be brought to justice, and there is a mechanism by which that can happen. I hope that the Minister has listened to my hon. Friend and will see whether anything can be done to advance that cause, which would send the right message to the people of Burma in their struggle for freedom.
As I have said, Aung San Suu Kyi is iconic; there are no two ways about it. She is a leading figure who acts as a focus for people around the world, in showing determination, not giving up and continuing the struggle in conditions of repression. We must remember that she is not alone; others in Burma are also continuing the struggle. I want to draw attention to two activists, both leaders of the ’88 generation of students. They have each spent 14 of the past 19 years in prison for daring to stand up to the junta.
Htay Kywe managed to spend several weeks on the run following the most recent protests. During that time, he issued statements calling for the release of other human rights activists and pointed out human rights violations that had been committed. He was one of the signatories of an open letter that took up the Burma issue with the United Nations Security Council; because of that, I am worried that he is likely to have been particularly badly treated following his arrest on 13 October. The second human rights activist is “Jimmy” Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent campaigner who went into hiding last month. His wife Nilar is still on the run. They have a four-month-old baby. Those brave men are being held in atrocious conditions, and if the past is any indicator, they will be tortured—without access to a lawyer, on trumped-up charges and with the prospect of years in prison.
Clearly, we need to keep up the pressure on the regime. Stiffening up the United Nations resolution has been mentioned. I was involved in the Inter-Parliamentary Union discussions in Geneva not long ago, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley; Burma was debated as an emergency resolution. Clearly, there was competition from those who wanted to debate Iraq, but we felt that the resolution on Burma was far more urgent.
I sat on the committee that considered the resolution asking for arms sanctions against the country. That anybody should be trading arms to Burma in this day and age defies reason. Furthermore, why would anyone want to trade with that country? Any money helping to prop up the regime—whether pound, euro or yuan—is blood money, and we must crack down on it. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley said that 143 countries were represented at the meeting, but on the committee there were representatives of China and India, and getting our resolution through, as we finally did, was not always easy. That resolution from the IPU Geneva conference is hard-hitting and I hope that the Minister has seen it. I also hope that it will be taken on board as a demonstration of how many parliamentarians throughout the world wish action to be taken against the regime.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but there is also the moral point of view: how can people sleep at night when they know that they are helping prop up a regime that carries out the atrocities that we have spoken about? That regime can turn on a group of peaceful protesters and imprison, torture and kill them. Is that what those propping up the regime want to be involved in? As far as I am concerned, they should question their consciences on an hourly basis.
We have mentioned China, India and Thailand. They and all the other ASEAN countries are important; they all have a role in trying to convince the regime that its time is up and it is time to move on. I hope that none of those countries abdicates its responsibilities; it is important that they all use their influence in every way, shape and form with the junta and its hideous regime.
I understand that the ASEAN countries have been reluctant to suspend Burma from their group. What does the Burma regime need to do before those countries say, “Enough is enough”? I cannot think of anything worse that that so-called Government can do. The wake-up call is there; in the light of the fresh reports from Burma, I hope that the ASEAN countries will consider their responsibility not to involve themselves with the regime.
I mentioned the ’88 generation, which works a lot with civil society in Burma. It is right that we give aid that gets through to the Burmese people, but we should also give aid to elements of civil society operating within the country, which are trying to bring about change. It is important that we do that.
I shall finish by quoting from the letter sent by the ’88 student generation to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, on 16 October; it casts light on the situation. It starts by saying:
“As you know, we are on the run and may be arrested any day. Even under this situation, we are still committed to work for national reconciliation in Burma by peaceful means. This may be the last letter we send to you before our own arrest and torture and we send it with the utmost urgency.”
I hope that the United Nations will think long and hard about that letter and what it says the UN should do. I spoke with an artist from the ’88 group who was imprisoned for six and a half years. He was beaten and has been persecuted, but he loves Burma. He has married an English lady and is about to have a child. He wishes to return to the country, but he wants to see change there. That must happen. His spirit and that of the people in prison in Burma tonight will live on until the regime falls.
I should like to start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made an extremely eloquent speech and has campaigned on Burma for a long time. I have had the privilege of coming with people from Burma to some of the events that he has hosted in the House of Commons and I applaud his continued efforts on that front.
My hon. Friend made one of the most important points of this debate. We are debating this issue today because it is topical and the television cameras have been broadcasting events in the past few weeks. Yet, as my hon. Friend said, the situation is nothing new; it has been going on for years. There has been repression in Burma year after year, and later in my speech I shall come to a suggestion that I would like the Minister to consider.
Burma is important to us. I have spoken to constituents of mine who fought in Burma during the second world war. That period has been little mentioned in this debate, yet those constituents told me of the harrowing conditions that they suffered in fighting fascism and dictatorship in Burma. They do not want their struggle to have been in vain; they do not want us to allow the dictatorship to prosper.
There is a new consensus among our youngsters. Many young British citizens expect us to do something about Burma and want us to get involved. I have received a lot of letters from young constituents urging me to speak in this debate and wanting us as a country to do something. No longer can we say that Burma is a far-away country with little strategic value to us; that is simply not acceptable to our fellow British citizens.
One of the best things to happen when we were dealing with the awful oppression and Soviet tyranny in eastern Europe was the focus on human rights. The Helsinki agreement in 1975 was pivotal to ensuring that such dictatorships were held to account. For the first time, they were forced to acknowledge that human rights issues had to be at the core of discussions and of a civilised society. I am convinced that the Helsinki agreement in ’75 was a catalyst for the eventual collapse of dictatorship and oppression in eastern Europe. We need to work with our partners in the far east to undertake a similar exercise. Burma is not the only country in the far east that faces oppression—North Korea is another, and quite a few others treat their populations brutally. It is controversial to say this, but I genuinely believe that no matter what the Minister does now—and I very much urge her to take action—she and her colleagues will need to take some serious steps, with a long-term strategy along the lines of the Helsinki agreement, to ensure that such regimes in the far east realise the importance of human rights.
I should like to talk briefly about international co-operation. When I intervened on the Secretary of State, he said that it was unhelpful to compare the stances of China and India, but I disagree. It is very important to differentiate those two countries. China will not, in all likelihood, act in this matter. China oppresses its citizens in Tibet and there are many violations against its own people. I am therefore rather sceptical about thinking that the Chinese will intervene. They have said publicly that this should be resolved by the Burmese people themselves, they do not want to lose potential energy deals, and they provide funds and succour to the junta.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the focus on Beijing is something that the western democracies should be drawing to China’s attention? In 2008, China will no doubt want to be the beacon of the world, and it cannot achieve that if it does not act in line with the responsibilities that the democratic and western world expects of it.
I entirely concur. However, there are two different beasts. The Chinese Government must be approached differently, although very strongly, from the other ASEAN countries. We talked about Burma’s borders with India, Malaysia and Thailand. Last week, I spoke to the Malaysian Foreign Minister in preparation for this debate. He expressed a willingness to try to put pressure on the Burmese Government but was frustrated by the lack of action by other ASEAN partners in working constructively together on this. We should put pressure on the Chinese but at the same time work on the other ASEAN countries.
I want to make a brief criticism of the aid situation.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to that new area, does he agree that the letter quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was reminiscent of nothing so much as the despairing broadcasts of the patriots in the Hungarian uprising in 1956? Does he also agree that the scenes of oppression that were witnessed were reminiscent, as regards China, of nothing so much as Tiananmen square? If we carry those parallels further, both regimes, having suppressed revolt, went on to loosen up the degree of repression, with beneficial results. Does he think that that might yet be reflected in Burma, providing that we continue to make enough of an outcry?
On the subject of there not yet being enough of an outcry, may I put it to my hon. Friend, with absolutely no disrespect or pejorative intent towards the Minister, that it is imperative that from now on these matters are raised at the highest level—by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others—precisely because it sends to the regime the signal that we accord these matters the appropriate priority and it should take its cue from that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and entirely agree with everything that he has said.
In the past, our Government have promised an increase in aid if there is genuine reform. Of course, that is ridiculous, as the junta has no intention of reforming in any way. That is why I am pleased that the Secretary of State announced that regardless of reform the Government are prepared to increase aid from £8.8 million to £18 million per annum by 2010. However, international statistics show that a country in Africa that is comparable to Burma, with similar levels of poverty and population, would receive £80 million in aid. I still believe that, as other hon. Members have said, £18 million is nowhere near enough to help this country, facing the crisis that it does. I do not understand why the Minister feels that the increase to £18 million is sufficient when comparable countries in Africa receive four times that amount, and I hope that she will explain that.
I support what other hon. Members have said about the importance of supporting a UN arms embargo. That is absolutely essential. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised the very important issue of British companies that are dealing with Burma. We import £26 million-worth of products, which I find shocking. The least that the Minister can do is to assure us that all the regime’s assets have been frozen, or will be frozen, and that she will do something with regard to the £26 million of imports that British companies are bringing into our country. Interestingly, the Treasury refuses to name British companies, citing confidentiality, but I understand that the Secretary of State could have the information released if he deemed it in the national interest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said, it is in the national interest to know which British companies are dealing with these barbarians. I certainly do not want to purchase anything that has been brought from that country under these circumstances. We need to know what these products are so that we can boycott them.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) made many good points, but the one that resonated particularly with me concerned the Burmese soldiers. Those soldiers seem to be prepared to shoot their fellow citizens, and that is the only thing that sustains the regime. How can they shoot their fellow Burmese—their kith and kin? Having watched the revolution in Romania in 1989, I remember that what really did for Ceausescu was the army’s refusal to shoot on its fellow Romanians—that is why that despot fell. I hope that Burmese soldiers will eventually disobey orders and not shoot their fellow citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) gave a very important message when he said that events in this Chamber eventually percolate down to people on the streets of Burma.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent account to which I have listened with care and interest. He seems to be making the same case as my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Buckingham (John Bercow)—that the only way in which this matter will be kept at the forefront of popular imagination is if this House ensures that it is debated and considered carefully and regularly, for it is a mix of political, diplomatic and economic pressure that will ultimately force the Burmese Government to relent in the interests of decency, democracy and justice.
I entirely concur. I very much hope that more Members of Parliament will join my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham—I am not a one-man fan club, but he does do an awful lot—in highlighting this subject and demanding that the Government give more time for such debates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said that what we say in this House seeps through to the country in question. I, too, genuinely believe that what we say in this House will somehow be heard on the streets of Rangoon and in the other towns. My message to the soldiers is this: put down your guns and cherish your brethren, and do not prop up these brutes any longer.
Yes, I absolutely agree.
I would like to end my speech by saying that, with a view to this debate, I looked at BBC coverage from 1988 and compared it with the 2007 media coverage —my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to the role of the media. I found a vast improvement in the coverage by the BBC, and other channels, of the brutality of what is happening in Burma. That is partly because viewers are more interested in what is going on and consequently the BBC and others are making sure that they report on it. I applaud the BBC’s coverage of the past few weeks, and I urge it to do whatever it can to ensure that British citizens are kept abreast of what is happening in this brutal dictatorship, to show great support for our Burmese friends who are struggling in this campaign.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. Perhaps I shall not bring to it the same detailed knowledge and passion we heard from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—and others, in case he thinks that I am the second member of his fan club here today. Anyone listening to the passion and detail with which he described events could be nothing but moved. It illustrated why it is important to have such debates in this place, and leads me to one of the reasons why I wanted to take part.
Since becoming a Member of this House a couple of years ago, I have found that despite all the cynicism we might have about this country, which is sometimes engendered by our own behaviour in the House and by the comments of journalists and commentators, the letters I receive and the lobby groups I meet at Westminster make it clear that this country and its Parliament are often a beacon of hope for oppressed people throughout the world, shining for them and showing them that people in a democracy care about their plight. Sometimes in the darkness of their oppression they can feel that they are forgotten, so it is important that we are having this debate today.
The debate is also important because, just as Parliament is a beacon of hope to those people, it is a cause for concern to oppressive regimes. They know that the spotlight that shines from such debates, and the actions generated by them, will ensure that their dark deeds are exposed and that the sort of activities in which they engage against their own citizens will not go unnoticed. I wanted to take part in the debate for that reason. Moreover, Members from England, Scotland and Wales have spoken, and I want to make it clear that representatives from the whole United Kingdom see this issue as one of concern.
The abuses of the Burmese regime have been well highlighted, illustrated and documented in the debate and I do not want to take up time by adding to that. However, I welcome the outline given to us at the start of the debate regarding the Government’s actions. Although many Members expressed reservations about the effectiveness of those actions or how far the Government have gone, it is nevertheless important that we take the issue seriously as a country, and put pressure on the United Nations and directly on the regime to give hope to those who find themselves oppressed.
As a result of that pressure, we are seeing more concerted action, whether it is from Australia, which is now taking action with regard to the bank accounts of some of the members of the regime; Japan, which used to be supportive of the regime and has now withdrawn investment for the building of a university; or the United States, which has taken action with regard to visas, bank accounts and the purchase of gemstones.
One thing that strikes me in all this is that even as the sanctions were announced, the regime in Burma was arresting more people. It is still refusing the Red Cross access to prisons. New reports are coming out of further abuses of prisoners, and the regime is so confident that it can ride out the storm that it has even announced the latest auction for the sale of gemstones, which could net it somewhere in the region of $100 million—a very important source of foreign currency at a time when economic pressure has been put on the country.
One of the reasons why such things are happening is that although actions have been taken and sanctions have been imposed by the countries I mentioned, the countries that can really bring pressure to bear on the Burmese regime have not, to date, shown that they disapprove in any way. I can understand why the Chinese, for example, might feel that they have some economic justification for not leaning too hard on Burma. They rely on Burma for fuel; 40 hydroelectric power schemes are financed by the Chinese, 17 oil and gas fields are being exploited by them and a 1,500-mile gas and oil pipeline is being built. They also want naval bases and other monitoring stations on the Indian ocean. The ASEAN countries have behaved in exactly the same way. There is a certain irony in the fact that, at a time when monks were gunned down and protesters arrested, the Indian Government were in Burma, signing a deal to explore for oil and gas. It would appear that the economic interests of India, which needs fuel for its economic development, have overcome its desire to see justice done for the citizens of Burma.
There is a salient warning for us in all of this. I spoke in a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Burma a couple of weeks ago, and I commented on the role of the Chinese. It was reported on, I did an interview, and afterwards a Chinese friend said to me, “It is very good that you stand and condemn the Chinese Government for their attitude towards Burma. But look at Europe. Look at yourselves and ask whether Britain and Europe, when it is in their economic interests, do not turn a blind eye to some of the human rights abuses in the countries with which you trade?” Indeed, hon. Members have made that point already. Why will the Government not name those companies that trade with Burma, so that citizens of this country can decide whether they want to trade with those companies?
For a long time, the French, because of their oil interests in Burma, lobbied to have that country admitted to ASEAN and tried to stop sanctions on oil and gas investment. Only recently, it made available more than $400 million-worth of currency through deals to the Burmese regime. I should like the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to say when she replies to the debate whether she believes that EU sanctions have been somewhat softened by the reluctance of France, because of its economic interests, to see strong pressure applied to Burma.
Mention has been made of the pressure that could be put on China and the ASEAN countries. I believe that pressure is already building on them. The instability in that part of the world benefits neither the ASEAN countries nor China. When there was a strong, apparently immovable regime, perhaps they were happy to support it. Now that the prospect of long-term stability has lessened, it might push China and the ASEAN countries to apply more pressure on Burma.
Hon. Members have said that the Chinese Government want the Olympics to go smoothly. We should use that as a lever to get the Chinese Government to pay more attention to the position in Burma and put more pressure on the Burmese regime, which they have the ability to influence.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech. Given that delaying tactics, the making of only low-level representations by the international community and the removal of the spotlight of publicity from Burma are sources of delight to the regime, does he agree that, in addition to all else that he has said, it is imperative now that the Secretary-General of the United Nations should raise the stakes by making a visit? He wanted the job—is not it a good idea for him to show that he is worth it?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I want to finish with a plea to the Government to ensure that the stakes are raised and that pressure is applied to Burma.
From my experience, I know that, whether one is dealing with local terrorism such as we experienced in Northern Ireland or the state-sponsored terrorism on a grander scale that we see in Burma, terrorists always hope that people will cry and shout about the last atrocity and then forget it. The one message that the debate must convey at the end of the parliamentary Session is that, in the next Session and for as long as it takes, the spotlight will be placed on the iniquitous regime and that pressure, including sanctions on individual members of the junta, and the threat that, some day, internationally, justice will catch up with them, will be applied. That is important because if members of the regime believe that they can ride the pressure, they will continue to do as they have been doing. We will get reaction and movement from them only if they know that the democracies of the world are determined to ensure that they behave properly towards their citizens.
I will not take up the full allocated time because I understand that others want to speak. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate because, some years ago, I visited the border areas, especially one of the refugee camps, where I saw people who had to flee their country and had been in exile ever since. That made a profound impression for three reasons.
First, I was struck by the length of time that some refugees had been in the camp. I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) probably visited the same camps and had the same experiences. Some refugees are part of the second and even the third generation of people who have been born and brought up in the camps and still live in acute poverty.
Secondly, I was struck by the extreme isolation that the refugees experienced. Having been forced to flee their country, they were contained in the camp and had little opportunity to travel elsewhere. They therefore did not have much chance of speaking to and meeting people and talking about what had happened to them.
My third strong impression, which is reflected in the Select Committee’s excellent report, was the fact that the refugees felt that they and their cause had been forgotten. We have all obviously been struck by recent events in Burma and the horrendous sights on the television. However, interest in and attention on Burma has waxed and waned and the refugees in the camp did not feel that the world had constantly monitored their plight or was consistently supporting their cause.
I hope that the debate and the action that is taking place will help to redress the balance. I greatly welcome the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development about the increase in spending and the fact that the UK is now a substantial donor. That is a genuine improvement and goes some way towards dealing with the horrendous poverty that exists in Burma and in the refugee camps. I especially recall visiting the maternity ward at the refugee camp and seeing people place Coca-Cola bottles containing hot water and stoppers around premature babies to try to keep them warm and alive. The increase of aid to try to tackle such poverty and disadvantage is enormously welcome.
However—there has to be a “however”—although increased aid will help alleviate suffering and hardship, and prolong and improve the quality of life, it will not solve the problem because it is political. Political pressure and a political solution are needed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out some of the steps that the UK Government and the international community have taken and the progress that has been achieved, all of which is welcome.
The fact that the United Nations has adopted its first statement on Burma by consensus, including China, marks a substantial shift in global politics and sends a clear message to the regime that it, not the refugees, is isolated in world opinion. It also conveys a warning that Burma cannot hope to maintain the status quo and must therefore change its ways.
However, I do not agree with some hon. Members who spoke earlier because I do not believe that adopting slightly different procedures and expecting the world to accept them will work. Given that Burma has a clearly elected and supported democratic leader, regime change, not some slight improvements to a fundamentally unacceptable regime, are needed.
It is also important to note that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned human rights abuses in Burma, and to ensure that that is known around the world. It is also important that the EU has targeted sanctions on the regime’s economic interests that tackle some of the key sectors of the economy, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out. However, as all hon. Members have said, more must be done to increase the pressure to produce a change in the regime. As many right hon. and hon. Members have already suggested tonight, one of the factors that would contribute to that pressure would be a visit from the United Nations Secretary-General.
Also, we should increase the pressure on China and India to change their ways and to understand the extent of the revulsion that the rest of the international community feels about Burma. I understand that China feels the protests in Burma are an internal affair, although it did go along with the Security Council resolution. Despite doing that, however, China has continued to operate its trading regime, with some £2 billion of its imports coming from Burma.
I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying about the behaviour of the Government of India. I put it to her that that behaviour is not only immoral but profoundly short-sighted. Would she accept that, if the Government of India continue to pursue their “look east” policy to accentuate their contact and extend their commercial relationships with Burma in a bid to make more money, one consequence will be an increase in the number of refugees coming over the border from Chin state in Burma? A richer Burmese Government will cause more people to flee because they are terrified. If the Indian Government cannot see that, they really need to look more closely at the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is completely right. I must point out that I have not actually mentioned India yet, although I was about to do so. I understand that, at the height of the protests, India’s oil Minister travelled to Burma to sign a deal to explore for offshore gas. There are two aspects to trading with an unacceptable regime—first, the country concerned incurs the wrath of the world and, secondly, it is short-sighted in its own terms, as we have seen from China’s adventures in Zimbabwe, which will not ultimately be in China’s interest any more than they will be in the interests of the long-term future of the people of Zimbabwe. It is therefore particularly important that the UK Government use the very good relations that they have with China and India to exert maximum pressure on those Governments to introduce sanctions against the Burmese regime.
I believe that the Department for International Development still provides assistance to China and to some of the states in India. It is important that any discussions on those development programmes also point out the contradictions involved in those countries supporting the brutal regime in Burma. We also need to consider carefully the kind of boycott that was adopted here to deal with the regime in South Africa. Comparisons with South Africa and Zimbabwe are probably more pertinent in this context than to those with eastern Europe. There is a growing tourism industry in Burma, and there is a question in this country about whether we should have a popular campaign to isolate the regime in Burma similar to the one that was adopted for South Africa.
Because this is a political issue, it is also important to understand that the UK Government will support the exiles and the refugees from the Burmese Government. If the DFID staff are to be moved from Thailand, it must be made absolutely clear that our embassy there will continue to provide its very important support to the refugees who live along the border between Burma and Thailand. It must be understood that those people will be fully supported and not forgotten.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham. We in the House have a great responsibility to ensure that the cause of the people of Burma is not allowed to slip off our list of political priorities. We can do them a great service by ensuring that the cause of a free Burma is well represented and argued for here.
I do not wish to repeat anything that has already been so excellently said by others in the debate, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (John Bercow), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), as well as by many on the Labour Benches.
I want to make two points. The first relates to China. I am the vice-chairman of the all-party group on China, and I do not believe that we as a country, or we as a House, have yet got to grips with how we are going to deal and interact with that country. It has emerged from the debate that China is key to what will happen to most of Asia in the 21st century, and certainly key to what will happen in Burma. It is a complex country. In Shanghai, we see rampant capitalism and more department stores than in any European capital, yet in other parts of the country there is a huge amount of poverty. China is managing to lift many people out of poverty, however, and to a certain extent meeting some of the millennium development goals will largely be a consequence of China having achieved that. So China has that contrast between capitalism and state control. It is also quite difficult to work out who its decision makers are.
How do we, as a Parliament, interact with China? As I have mentioned, there is an all-party parliamentary group on China but—like every other all-party group except the British American all-party group—it has to busk its relationships. We go out and get sponsorship from business groups and others who might have a constructive interest in China and, under the leadership of the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), we have now managed to set up a fairly rudimentary programme in which a delegation from the House goes to visit the National People’s Congress one year, and the next year—including next year, we hope—a delegation from the congress comes here to have meetings with us. It is a pretty basic kind of dialogue, however, and if we are to have any real influence with legislatures in countries such as China and India as we emerge into the 21st century, Parliament will have to give much more thought to how, to use a Foreign Office expression, we thicken and deepen our relations with them. We can stand up in this House and make fine and noble speeches, but can we be confident that those who should be listening to them are doing so?
The same applies to colleagues in India. We probably have more contact with them, simply because we have more cause to see Members of the Indian lower House, who come to London more frequently, but it is still pretty hit and miss. Parliament in the 21st century must work out how we can have a much more meaningful relationship with legislatures and decision takers in countries such as India and China, given their increasing importance in the region and in the Security Council.
The second point that I want to make, while the Secretary of State for International Development is present, is that although I welcome the increased development assistance to Burma, I am now genuinely a bit confused about DFID’s priorities. The Department started off by wanting to meet the millennium development goals. I think that we then moved to providing budget support for countries that we thought were reformist, doing well, ticking the boxes and engaging in partnerships such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Then countries such as Ethiopia and—perhaps—Uganda did not quite meet the criteria, so we went back to project support rather than money.
If DFID is to give support to countries and regimes such as Burma, we need to provide some very clear signalling that it is different from offering support and financial assistance to reforming countries. In other words, we need to make it clear that we are giving assistance because Burma is a failed or failing nation and we do not want it to fail any more. It must be made clear that we are supporting only individuals or groups within such countries, making the development assistance of a different character and nature from that given to Governments of whom we approve.
Everyone participating in a debate such as this is by instinct a humanitarian. Our instinct as a House is to provide support to areas such as Darfur, to refugees in Zimbabwe and to people in difficulties elsewhere. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves what proportion of the DFID budget should be given to such areas and whether we are confident that, in providing support and assistance, we are not making the position worse in the longer run. We may mitigate the worst that is happening in some countries and regimes, but reduce the pressure to reform further.
I would like to make an observation by way of putting a question to the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept my description of the money announced today, which made it clear that both presently and in the future we do not anticipate providing budgetary support or money directly to the Burmese regime? While it is a constant for DFID to be concerned about poverty eradication, the manner in which we provide either immediate humanitarian assistance or development assistance alters and varies according to particular circumstances. Does he agree that it is reasonable, in the circumstances of Burma of all countries, to say that we must conduct ourselves prudently when increasing DFID’s budget to make it absolutely certain that none of the money finds it way into the hands of the regime? It is appropriate to increase significantly during the coming spending review period without prejudice to the capacity of the NGOs to which we are giving money to absorb potentially even larger sums in the subsequent spending review period. That was the aim that I was seeking to articulate.
I do not demur from the Secretary of State’s take on this. I understand his line, but I am trying to make a slightly different point. Clearly, I am not making it very well, so I will try again. This will be read outside this place as the UK Government giving development assistance to Burma. What I am trying to say is that there should be a way of signalling in DFID’s annual report by traffic lights or colouring precisely which countries or areas of the world are receiving development assistance because we believe they are performing well, are reformist and worthy of encouragement, and which areas are receiving assistance because they are failed or failing states. Indeed, we may not give any money to some states, but to the NGOs helping particular groups within those states. The DFID annual report should make it patently clear what proportion of moneys is going in those different ways—budget support, project support and so forth. Otherwise, people will start to get confused as to what proportion of DFID money is intended to be long-term development assistance and what proportion is directed towards immediate humanitarian needs and concerns. That is my point to the Secretary of State.
Increasing cross-border humanitarian aid in a way that DFID officials on the ground have consistently resisted would enable us more effectively to reach some of the most vulnerable people who would otherwise get left out. I put it to my hon. Friend that it would also be helpful if there were an explicit unmistakeable commitment to give funds to pro-democracy organisations. With the greatest respect to the Secretary of State, thus far the Department for International Development has committed to neither of those specific requests.
My hon. Friend raises a fine point, on which I would like to expand in response to the Secretary of State. When DFID decided to move increasingly to budget support, the skills mix of officials in the Department changed. If the Department is giving large sums of money to other countries by way of budget support, it means that not so many people in it are involved in projects and other work on the ground, as in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
I will confirm the figures in writing, but my recollection is that there are eight countries to which DFID provides budget support. That contrasts markedly with a very much larger number of countries to which we continue to offer programme assistance. I did not want to allow the moment to pass in the suggestion that the overwhelming preponderance of our development assistance was now offered through budget support. I am keen to take the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has provided me to reiterate that we do not regard the additional resources offered today to the people of Burma as any reward whatever to the Government of Burma. They will not see this money, which will address the immediate humanitarian needs of people who have been desperately impoverished by the misgovernment of the regime. I think that we have an obligation not to punish the people of Burma twice—once for poverty and again for bad governance.
The Secretary of State has misunderstood my point. I am sure that he will write to me; and I will write to him and dig out the quotations of the former Secretary of State for International Development, who regularly came before the Select Committee to say, “Hey, lads, what we are going to do now is provide more and more budget support. This is the way that DFID is going to move to meet the millennium development goals.”—[Interruption.] Yes, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham also sat there for four years, going through this process. He saw the direction of travel, too. It stopped being the direction of travel only when various countries to which budget support had been given did not deliver. Ethiopia is one example. It led to the understanding that budget support might be withdrawn if countries did not perform. My point is that if DFID is to fulfil the ambitions for cross-border work with NGOs and others, the skills mix in the Department will have to change. It will need to draw on the abilities of people who are capable of managing projects. That happened under the previous Secretary of State.
Let me point out to the Secretary of State that it would be helpful to have a separate debate on DFID’s present direction of travel, so that we can all understand what is happening. It is not good enough to hear him declare that only a small number of countries are getting budget support, as if that were a justification for what is happening, when we were told only a couple of years ago by his predecessor that the intention was for far more of DFID’s funds to be distributed through budget support. We need a clearer understanding of where we are actually going.
As I said at the outset, I have two main points. The first is that we need to work out much better how to establish our complicated relations with China; we need to work much harder in that respect. Secondly, I do not wish to test the Secretary of State’s patience, but I believe that we need to gain a much better understanding of DFID’s direction of travel. It would be helpful to have a separate debate on that matter on another occasion.
I start by conveying the shadow Foreign Secretary’s apologies. He had an unbreakable commitment at 8 o’clock tonight from which he had hoped to return for the winding-up speeches, but he will not now be able to do so.
We have had a fascinating debate, in which deep concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the situation in Burma. The competition is stiff, as has been said, but Burma remains without doubt one of the most unpleasant and despised regimes in the world. It is a subject that has secured the House’s attention on numerous occasions, but it is some time since we had a debate in this Chamber. I am very pleased that we are debating the subject here tonight.
I first spoke on the subject of Burma in this Chamber at 3 o’clock in the morning on 24 June 1991, nearly 17 years ago. It is deeply depressing how little has changed since that time—
Your constituency has changed.
Indeed, but the situation in Burma has not.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, debates such as this one matter outside the House. He spoke with great passion, as did others, about the importance of holding these debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) pointed out that the subject is of interest across all generations. I have visited sixth forms, as other Members will have done, and I know how right he is, because they care passionately about Burma and about dysfunctional regimes around the world which are repressing their citizens.
Although there is deep gloom in the House about the situation in Burma, there are also many heroes. One thinks of the almost impossible bravery of the monks and nuns whom we saw on our televisions in scenes that we had hoped had been dispatched to the last century. Their bravery was described with his customary eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). While we salute their bravery, we should also mention the bravery of many others who are involved in trying to bring these terrible circumstances to a conclusion. I think in particular of Mark Canning, the excellent British ambassador who is doing such a good job in Burma, and Charles Petrie, the United Nations humanitarian and resident co-ordinator, who is making a difference in extremely difficult circumstances. Those two deeply impressive individuals are serving their country and the international community at this critical time for Burma. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned Zoya Phan, and my hon. Friend mentioned Ben Rogers, who does such good and dedicated work in the area with Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The concerns expressed are many. They fall into three different but interlinked categories. The first relates to the extraordinary and acute levels of poverty that exist in Burma. It is a country of immense economic potential, with no external enemies, which has seen itself descend yet further into the mire of poverty while surrounding Asian countries have lifted hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. In a report circulated today, the Save the Children Fund calculates that children in Burma face the worst poverty in Asia. We know that 50 per cent. of its children lack any form of primary education. Various statistics have been given on health spending in Burma, but it is a fraction of what is spent in surrounding countries, and 16 times less than what is spent in Thailand. If hon. Members cast their minds back to the television pictures of protesters in Burma, they will recall that the people standing behind the monks were not student activists but middle-aged women who traditionally carry the burdens of families coping in many societies. They could no longer provide for their families, many of which are now living in circumstances of near starvation or starvation in Burma.
Many hon. Members spoke about people who are classified as internally displaced. For most of us, that means refugees in the country itself. I cannot find the words to convey the sense of fury and outrage that I felt when I visited Ei Tu Hta camp and which we should all feel about the situation in the camps on the border. They should be safe havens. Often when people seek refuge in refugee camps, they do so in somewhere that is at least temporarily safe, but the camps on the border are not safe. The Burmese army is terrifyingly close, and the squalor in the camps—again, so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and others who speak with authority having seen what is happening there—is truly horrific.
In that context, I am surprised and rather disappointed that the Government have not accepted in full the recommendations of the Select Committee on International Development’s excellent report. Indeed, they have rejected the most important ones. The Committee called for the current aid budget for Burma of £8.8 million to be quadrupled by 2013. Conservative Members have been calling for that since at least May 2006. The Committee concluded:
“This crisis-stricken country, which suffers from immense poverty and pernicious human rights abuses, received the lowest aid of all Least Developed Countries. We believe that this level of assistance is unacceptable...we believe that UK aid to Burma should be scaled up substantially”.
We agree completely with the Committee’s recommendation. If we are in government after the next election, we will implement that proposal in full and immediately.
Some hon. Members pointed to the level of aid in surrounding countries. I think that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) asked what it said about the priorities for British aid. It is interesting to note that compared with that £8.8 million, which was recently increased, Cambodia is receiving £12 million; Vietnam, a country that is storming out of poverty, is receiving £52 million from the British taxpayer; and China, which had a trade surplus last month of $24 billion, is receiving £40 million this year and, I think, next year. We do not think that that set of priorities is correct. We very much hope that the Secretary of State will look at them again to see what further assistance can be given to the people who are living in desperate conditions in the camps and to the other programmes that are being mounted, some of them by the British embassy in Burma.
I hugely welcome my hon. Friend’s clear and explicit commitment to increase support. For the avoidance of doubt, may I tell him that there is no issue of capacity constraint? The Select Committee looked at the issues, took evidence, studied the subject in detail and posed the relevant questions. As far as cross-border aid is concerned and the funding of democracy organisations to boot, they explained to us just what they could do if we gave them additional support. There is no doubt or mystique about that whatever.
Russia, a rapidly growing country with huge oil reserves, has also received aid from the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State must look again at how international aid is spent so that countries such as Burma receive their fair share?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
That brings me to Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders, particularly from the students of ’88. The junta is incredibly fortunate to be dealing with the leadership of the quality of Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Professor Gambardi found to be focused and committed. He said that she understood not only the political but the economic task ahead in Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley talked about the students of ’88 and I would like to mention Min Ko Naing, one of its leaders, who, along with others, has always opposed any form of violence. The junta is fortunate because these are clear leaders with a good vision of leadership who understand that one needs to look to the future and not to the past. They are not interested in revenge and retribution and they understand that it will be a complicated battle in Burma to get the military into its rightful position and the politicians into theirs. They understand that democracy will take time but that there has to be a road map to reach it—not the bogus one beloved of the junta, which will take something like 100 years to complete, but a proper road map that puts the military into its correct place. If one looks at the difficulties with the Darfur negotiations in Libya, where it is so difficult to get a leadership that can speak for the opposition, one sees that the junta in Burma is indeed fortunate.
The junta appointed Major-General Aung Kyi as the interlocutor with Aung San Suu Kyi. He is rated for his abilities and has clear influence within the regime, which means, we hope, that he will be able to open up the negotiations. As the Secretary of State has said, if these negotiations can take place and a road map is agreed—if the regime is serious—a huge range of things that the international community can do in those circumstances becomes a possibility.
My hon. Friend keeps focusing on the positive things that one can do with negotiation and providing extra aid, but does he agree that it is absolutely crucial that we use the international banking system to continue to put the financial squeeze on a regime that relies on dollars and euros to trade in oil, gas and gems?
My hon. Friend is right and I will come to that point. It is clear that international pressure has had some beneficial effect. In particular, China has been immensely helpful, engaged both in New York and in Burma, specifically in respect of Professor Gambari’s visit. China is clearly deeply dismayed by the instability across its border in a country with 2.5 million Chinese nationals. Like others, I have been to see the Chinese ambassador to Britain, and the tactic of the Government and others of encouraging the Chinese to use their immense influence appears to be paying some dividends. We should welcome that.
Along with others in the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), I am surprised that India, the largest democracy in the world, has not felt it right to do more than it has done so far. I hope that the Foreign Office and the Secretary of State will do all they can to encourage the Indian Government to play a much greater role.
The role of Thailand has been mentioned. It is a key funder of the regime, not least through the purchase of gas from the Yadana and Yetagun gas fields, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the regime, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made clear. Thailand, too, has a role and is escaping international scrutiny that should be directed towards it.
The UN can do more. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, we think that the Secretary-General should make it clear that this matter is of such importance that he, too, will go there in the near future. We urge the Government to underline that point. We need a resolution requiring meaningful talks with the democracy movement and the sort of road map that I mentioned.
As numerous hon. Members have said tonight, we need a comprehensive and mandatory arms embargo. China, India, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine and ASEAN countries are suppliers of arms to this illegitimate regime and they should cease being so.
We greatly welcome the EU travel ban against Government Ministers and cronies that has been in place for some time, and the smart sanctions that are being devised and deployed against the junta leaders and their assets. That is an important development of sanctions policy, which we strongly support. We welcome the extension of sanctions to timber, logging, precious metals and gems. They are small areas of the economy from which the regime gains disproportionate benefit. It is right to target those areas with sanctions. They do work, as has been pointed out. Air Bagan, the internal airline—owned and run by the regime’s number one crony, Tay Za—has had to suspend its operations to Singapore because its bank accounts have been closed down. The reason for that is that all banks have such strong links to the United States that the danger to their image and business of their continuing such banking arrangements is too great. That is an example of the international community working effectively to bring about sanctions that really do hit the regime.
My hon. Friend mentioned image, which is very important. Does that not underline the merit—if not the imperative—of naming and shaming companies that trade with Burma, because if they are publicly exposed they will have to calculate whether the ill-gotten gains are worth the damage from other quarters? They might judge that it is simply not worth it.
My hon. Friend yet again makes an extremely good point; it is relevant to the decisions made by the banking community that I have just described.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was the only Member to raise tonight the interesting question of the International Criminal Court. In his speech to the UN General Assembly of 25 September, the Secretary-General said that
“the age of impunity is dead.”
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, has made the same point. In response to the crisis in Burma, the Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that
“the age of impunity in neglecting and over-riding human rights is over”.
The Foreign Secretary said that the regime would be “held to account”. The EU has called
“for a thorough and impartial investigation of the deaths of demonstrators as well as other serious and continuous violations of human rights, and for those liable to be held to account.”
In the light of those statements and the dreadful catalogue of gross violations of human rights amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, are the Government considering working with other Governments to request the UN—through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special rapporteur, or a commission of inquiry or other mechanisms—to carry out a thorough, complete and independent investigation into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, with a view to bringing a case to the UN Security Council for referral to the ICC? If so, what resources will the Government, through either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, commit to enable such an investigation to be conducted properly? Does the Minister accept that it is essential that such an investigation is not limited to the events of recent weeks, but that it covers the full scale of human rights violations in all parts of Burma over many years?
All of us underestimate the power of the ICC in such circumstances—Members will remember the discussions that took place in New York last year with President Bashir of Sudan, which showed of what deep concern the workings of the ICC were to him and his regime. That enables us to make it clear—as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham and for Buckingham have made clear in the debate—that we will hold to account the individual soldiers who take part in brutality and repression in Burma today. Just as the regime is able to use photographs to identify the protesters, so the international community is able to identify the individual soldiers in the regime and make them accountable for their actions. We need to be clear that that is what the international community intends to do.
It is easy to be pessimistic about what has gone on in Burma and the likely course of future events, but I submit to the House that the events over recent weeks are different from those that took place in 1988. In 1988, it was a long time before we knew that more than 3,000 people had been massacred by this regime, but now, partly because of the internet, we are able to know what is going on in real time. Despite the efforts of the authorities in Rangoon, they have been unable to shut down the internet and we know what is happening.
This regime will not be able to put the cork back into the bottle. Protest might not come back on the streets in quite the same way in the next few weeks, but the junta has done huge damage to its power structure by attacking Buddhism. So many monks have been locked up and beaten that as, inevitably, they are released and trickle back into their community, there will be fury at how they have been treated. Indeed, over the past weekend, graffiti has been appearing on the walls in Rangoon saying “Than Shwe killer”. That is an example of the change that is taking place in Burmese society.
Let the whole international community determine that this time things in Burma will be different. I want to end with a quote from the end of a good report just published by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium:
“The military regime has committed crimes against humanity and systematic human rights violations for far too long, and the coping strategies of rural villagers are almost exhausted. A window of opportunity exists for change in Burma, an end to the primary causes of forced migration, and a new era of peace and justice. Burma’s civil society has created this momentum, but the responsibility now shifts to the international community to ensure an end to the regime’s impunity.”
This has been an excellent and important debate. We have rightly heard a lot of anger and passion expressed, as well as concerns from both sides of the House and hon. Members from all parties pressing for change. Many powerful speeches have described the situation, none more so than those of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) related this issue to what is happening at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and that is enormously important, because parliamentarians across the world should be talking about this. Last week, I visited Singapore’s Parliament and I was reassured to hear its parliamentarians asking their Foreign Minister many questions about the situation in Burma. I am also told by the Malaysian Foreign Minister, whom I met in the UK last week, that the same thing is happening in the Malaysian Parliament.
An instructive exchange took place last week at the UN General Assembly Third Committee. The special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, gave an initial briefing on the recent crackdown and his assessment made for grim listening. In response, the Burmese delegation said that the country had returned to “normalcy.” The truth, of course, is anything but that. Thousands remain detained in appalling conditions; despite the relaxation of the curfew, night-time arrests continue; and the show trials have begun.
This debate has been useful in underlining how strongly this House, and indeed this country as a whole, feels about the ongoing situation. It has sent a clear signal to the Burmese regime and the Burmese people that we will not forget and we will not turn away.
I pay tribute to the very many public campaigns, both here and abroad, that are keeping Burma high on the international agenda. A number of hon. Members have referred to them. The plight of the Burmese people has united people within the Government and across UK-based and global non-governmental organisations in an unprecedented way. It is vital that we keep up the momentum.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) rightly recognised the work done by our ambassador and his staff in Rangoon, and I, too, pay tribute to the enormously important role that they are playing. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have a long and deep knowledge of Burma and the Burmese people. I have therefore not been at all surprised at the quality of analysis that we have heard tonight, and I will seek to respond to as many of the points that have been made as possible.
In response to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I shall outline the next steps that we would envisage in a reconciliation process in Burma. The regime needs to establish a genuine process of national reconciliation, including maintaining regular contacts with Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her state-appointed interlocutor; releasing from custody key opposition figures, so that Aung San Suu Kyi can consult them; and fully opening the door to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and allowing him to stay in the country as long as he needs to do so and, if he wants to, to establish a permanent presence there.
Hon. Members were right to identify that, although the vast majority of Burmese people are denied the most basic human rights, it is the ethnic groups, particularly those in the conflict and border areas, who suffer worst of all. The reports almost beggar belief: villages destroyed, women systematically raped, prisoners tortured, children forced into the army and civilians used as human minesweepers.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said, any political process will need fully to involve those ethnic groups, which make up nearly a third of Burma’s population. Their role will be as central to reconciliation as that of the pro-democracy civil opposition. They are unlikely to embrace any political agreement that does not incorporate the demands broadly shared across all 120 separate ethnic groups: the protection of cultural identity, the equitable control of natural resources and a degree of political autonomy at state level. Ensuring that the interests of ethnic minorities are properly engaged will be vital if stability is to be maintained in a democratic Burma. I had the opportunity to meet some Karen refugees in Sheffield on Friday when I was in my constituency, and I heard directly from them how they feel that it is important that their situation is recognised in any future reconciliation.
All of us, including regional neighbours, have genuine and understandable concerns about the future stability of Burma. We must acknowledge those concerns, and both the UN and the parties will need to take them into account in designing a genuinely inclusive political process. But at the same time, it becomes increasingly obvious that the status quo is unsustainable, so it should be ever more apparent that regional stability and prosperity is best served by a managed process of political reform in Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged, the Burmese military will have an important, continuing role to play in a democratic Burma, given the likely challenges to internal security and nation building that will remain, but the military dictatorship must end.
Many hon. Members have, not surprisingly, referred to the roles of China and India—Burma’s large neighbours—and the ASEAN countries. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to the need for those concerns to be raised with counterparts at the highest level, and I should like to reassure him that that has been done. The Prime Minister has had an extensive personal involvement, talking to his counterparts in China and Indian. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to his counterparts. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown has been to India and has spoken to his counterparts, and I have spoken to delegations from China, India, including a Minister, and Thailand, as well as from many ASEAN nations in the past week or two.
We believe that it is imperative that all countries in the region should turn the strong rhetoric, which is welcome, into concerted action. They should speak out against the regime, not offer the generals financial or other support and end arms sales and military co-operation. It is clear that, for ASEAN in particular, to turn a blind eye to such a repressive Government in its midst and in the year of its 40th anniversary would jeopardise the whole process of democratisation and the development of the region and damage its credibility.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked what Ministers sought to achieve by their visits to the region and to China and India. We want to continue to support the positive steps taken by Governments in the region and to point out that the UK considers the matter of the utmost importance. It will remain high on our agenda. Things must change; the Burmese regime must be brought to understand that it cannot continue as it has done. There must be a process of reconciliation and a move to a more democratic situation in Burma, and that needs to start now. We welcome the positive steps that have been taken and the positive statements that have been made, but they are not the end of the matter. More needs to happen and things need to move forward.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether any UN computers with information about democracy campaigners had been seized. We have received no complaints or reports from the UN about the seizure of equipment by the Burmese authorities, but we would strongly deplore any such action.
Many questions were asked about aid and trade. I shall first respond to issues raised about the proposed financial support that we would put in place should the Burmese regime take the steps towards the reform process we want. I assure Members that the UK and the US share the same objectives on Burma—to bring about peaceful political change, the restoration of democracy, national reconciliation and full respect for human rights. The Prime Minister’s suggestion arose from his discussions with other leaders about the need for a comprehensive approach to the crisis, balancing targeted pressure on the regime with a plan for possible economic recovery conditional on political progress.
We are giving the regime a stark choice. There can be sanctions and increased sanctions or the regime can take steps towards reform, which the international community might support with financial proposals. That is an appropriate approach. It is right that the regime understands that, as well as applying sanctions, we want to hold out an offer of progress should it take the steps that we all want to see.
Members spoke at great length about the aid provided by the Department for International Development. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the priorities in his speech and responded to interventions about the proposals. Members should bear in mind that, in 2002, the programme was £2 million and that over the past five years the amount has increased to £9 million, making the UK the third-largest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development donor. My right hon. Friend set out the expected increase over the next comprehensive spending review period. There will be a further CSR before 2013 and the International Development Committee has set out what it wants to see in that period. The current commitment does not extend to the end of the period.
Again and again, I go back to the issue of cross-border aid, support for democracy organisations and the need for explicit commitments in respect of both. This has been a very good debate, but as someone who has long admired, and continues to admire, both the erudition and intellect of the Secretary of State for International Development, may I point out that he should not underestimate the suspicion among some of the border aid groups and democracy organisations towards officials on the ground in Rangoon whom they regard as indifferent at best and hostile at worst? We need explicit commitments.
I am informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development admires the hon. Gentleman’s erudition and intellect, too, and is happy to meet him to explore the issue further. Obviously, the whole House is concerned about the issue, and I am sure that we want productive and friendly discussions.
The Minister says, in reply to our questions, that the budget has gone up from £2 million to £9 million, and will go up to £18 million by 2010 but, with all respect, that does not answer the question that many of us have put: why does Burma receive so little compared to comparable African countries?
I return to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). At the proposed meeting, which will clearly be governed by feelings of immense affection on both sides, the Secretary of State will need to explain why the case that the Select Committee made in its excellent report is defective and why he will not accept it.
I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities for the Secretary of State to explore those issues in the meeting, and to discuss the matter with the Select Committee, as he rightly should. The environment in Burma is complex and risky, and there are significant limitations on the ability of potential partners to absorb funds. We work around central Government, so mechanisms for getting funds to schools and clinics are labour-intensive. We must carefully manage the risk that the regime will get undeserved benefits from our programme. Rigorous monitoring is also crucial. It is essential that we can show that our funds have an impact, that we maintain a strong understanding of the political context in which our projects work, and that we ensure rigorous transparency, so that communities understand where support is coming from. We have worked hard to build a strong relationship with opposition groups inside the country, and it is important that we retain their trust through our careful approach to the programme.
The increase that was announced is at a level at which we can be confident that funds can continue to be used and monitored effectively. The expansion of the team based in Rangoon from three to 10 members of staff will give us greater capacity to manage the programme and the risk. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is a listening Secretary of State—we have just been exploring that point—so I am sure that he will seek to respond more fully in a subsequent meeting.
Hon. Members raised the subject of UN action through sanctions, and the question of whether there should be a UN arms embargo. As hon. Members will be aware, an EU arms embargo is already in place. We judge that, at present, there is insufficient support on the Security Council for a UN ban, but we have been discussing the possibility with partners in New York.
Hon. Members also wanted to know about the position of the EU. I am grateful for their welcome for the steps taken so far and for the response from across the EU to the proposals that the UK wanted to introduce. The additional measures agreed on 15 October are welcome. The EU agreed, with strong UK encouragement, to consider additional measures if there was insufficient political process and engagement with the United Nations. Together with our partners, we will discuss when and how to draw up and implement such measures, including a ban on new investment. I have to tell hon. Members that that is a complex process.
As I will come on to say, we are starting to see some movement from the regime in Burma. We want that to continue, and ensuring the exact right amount of pressure and encouragement will be crucial to the process. I feel strongly that we have to manage the process carefully; we have to keep in close contact with people in the region, because as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, we must not miss the current opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since the demonstrations in 1988, and there has not been an opportunity like the present one to get the international community to move forward. Getting the process right, applying the right amount of pressure, getting the right people involved at the right time, sanctions and the threat of sanctions are enormously important. When I spoke to our ambassador in Rangoon this afternoon, he said that the threat of sanctions is sometimes sufficient to achieve movement, so we should not react too quickly, as we are beginning to achieve progress.
The Minister said that sanctions can be effective, and sanctions exercised on consumers’ behalf against companies that invest in Burma can be highly effective. If British people knew which British companies engaged in trade or investment that supported that regime, they could bring sanctions against those companies. Why can we not be told which companies are involved?
If the hon. Gentleman can wait, I should like to respond to the issue of overseas territories investment raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). May I clarify the fact that the EU common position on Burma includes a ban on investment or the provision of financial services to certain Burmese state-owned enterprises and to certain sectors? That ban is in force in the UK and in British overseas territories. It is the responsibility of companies incorporated or constituted in British overseas territories to comply with the law. We have seen no evidence that investments covered by the EU common position have been routed through any of the overseas territories. The funds themselves would, in all likelihood, be held in bank accounts outside Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands, as relatively few Bermudan or British Virgin Islands-registered companies hold accounts in the territory.
With luck, the Minister will tell me that I am anticipating a point that she is about to make. So far, she has not addressed the question of whether the Government accept that crimes against humanity have been committed, and whether they intend to do anything to follow up the suggestion from the Opposition that the International Criminal Court should be involved.
If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I will come to that. First, however, I want to deal with all the issues raised about aid and trade.
The value of imports from Burma to the UK halved between 2004 and 2005. As the hon. Member for Cheadle said, in the six months to July 2007, UK imports from Burma were worth £17.1 million and exports totalled £2 million. Commercial confidentiality has been cited as a concern for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Major exports from Burma include marine and agricultural products. As we discussed in relation to EU economic sanctions, we must be careful not to introduce measures that target ordinary producers in Burma. I can reassure hon. Members that the EU common position has resulted in an asset freeze on 380 regime leaders and members of their families. Those assets have already been frozen. UK investment in Burma is negligible, and the figures from the Office for National Statistics on active UK investment show that it is very low. Indeed, the ONS does not have any returns suggesting any UK direct investment as at the end of 2005.
On commercial confidentiality, all the companies that were involved in South Africa under apartheid were named, and all the reports submitted under EU regulations were open to public scrutiny. Plenty of information was provided that enabled people to boycott South African agricultural produce. There was no perceptibly adverse effect on the wider community, but there was a profound impact on the regime.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and, as I have said, our concern remains that we should have sanctions that target the regime without impacting on ordinary people. The amount in relation to the UK remains small. We are unaware of any major UK-based company operating in Burma. Our ambassador, in his 15 months at post, has not received a single statement of interest from a UK company about investing in Burma, and has come across no British firm operating there. This Government were instrumental in persuading the last two major UK investors, BAT and Premier Oil, to withdraw from Burma, and we have consistently discouraged UK investment.
My hon. Friend raises another issue in relation to our contact with Burma. I know that there is considerable debate among a range of people as to whether it is appropriate to travel to Burma because that increases the contact with people and therefore reduces isolation and allows people to see what is going on, or whether it supports the regime. The Government do not support any tourism to Burma. We have made clear statements that are in line with the European position in terms of our contacts with the regime, and that is as far as I want to go in my answer on that.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked about the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Undoubtedly, large-scale human rights abuses are taking place in Burma. However, it is not yet clear whether those violations constitute genocide or crimes against humanity as understood by international law. There is therefore no current case before the ICJ, but we are in close contact with our international partners and the UN on this, and we will keep it under review.
There are some signs that the regime is beginning to feel the cumulative weight of international pressure. We saw fierce resistance to the Security Council statement and heard sharp complaints about increased international sanctions from the regime. As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has already said, there have been problems with the internal airline, and I believe with one other airline, in terms of their ability to continue operating due to insurance and banking support. I am told that there is every indication that companies and businesses within Burma are themselves very concerned about the situation with regard to existing and threatened sanctions.
We know that Aung San Suu Kyi—as everybody has said, an incredibly brave and courageous woman—has been shown on state television for the first time in years, and the first meeting between Aung Kyi and Aung San Suu Kyi was a welcome, albeit partial and unproven, first step, as indeed was last week’s announcement that the Burmese authorities would grant another visa to Professor Gambari and, for the first time, a visa to Professor Sergio Pinheiro.
More generally, we believe that in such a devoutly Buddhist society, the brutal and humiliating treatment of the monks and the desecration of religious sites has caused deep trauma across Burmese society, including within parts of the Government and military.
Faced with still greater international isolation, even those connected to the regime must realise that their own future, and that of their children, is ill-served by a group of ageing generals who are driving the country relentlessly into the ground. While much of south-east Asia advances into the digital age, Burma is slipping back into the dark ages. However, there is equally no doubt that if there is any relaxation in the pressure that we are exerting on the Burmese regime, it will take the opportunity to consolidate its hold.
If we do not see signs of genuine engagement in a political process, the UN Security Council will need to consider what further measures it must take. We have already begun discussions with our partners about what those might be, including the possibility of a UN arms embargo. There will be a hard balance to strike between maintaining consensus and agreeing the toughest action possible. At the same time, the EU is drawing up a list of further sanctions it could adopt against the Burmese regime, up to and including a ban on new investment should the regime fail to engage constructively with the UN.
Before the Minister sits down, will she do two things? First, will she commit to press for an EU-wide ban on the provision of insurance cover? Secondly, in view of the historical significance of securing a debate on the Floor of the House, will she take this opportunity to pay tribute to Yvette Mahon, Mark Farmaner, Anna Roberts and Zoya Phan—the latter may one day be a leader of Burma—because they and their colleagues at the Burma Campaign have worked tirelessly for years to achieve even the prominence that has now been secured for the issue?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will talk to our EU partners about all possible appropriate sanctions that will have an effect on the regime, and we will certainly consider the matter that he has raised. I am happy to pay tribute to the people he mentioned. The role of those in the NGO sector, those in society and those in the House in continuing to keep the issue high on the agenda and in the public mind cannot be underestimated. It is only continuing to keep up the pressure that will give us any hope of changing a difficult and entrenched situation.
Today, the House has sent out a clear signal. We are watching and waiting. We will not forget the people of Burma, and the world will judge the regime by its actions.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Tax Avoidance Schemes (Penalty) Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 24th July, be approved.—[Alison Seabeck.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure
That the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure (HC 998), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.—[Alison Seabeck.]
Question agreed to.