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Burma

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

Question again proposed, That the original words stand part of the Question.

This has been an important debate, which has attracted a good deal of passion, argument and discussion, because Members rightly feel strongly about the situation in Burma. Their concerns are shared throughout the House, and were expressed extremely well by, for example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb).

Let me reassure the House that the Government’s response to Cyclone Nargis is, and will continue to be, driven first and foremost by the need to provide help for the people of Burma. That means that our priority is the delivery of drinking water, food, shelter and medicine, and it means making every effort to minimise the spread of disease following the initial devastation caused by the cyclone itself. The Government have therefore earmarked £5 million for disaster relief. That is a starting figure, which we will review as more aid gets through, and—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has confirmed—it is in addition to aid that Burma is being given on an annual basis, which has recently been doubled.

Given the scale of the suffering in the Irrawaddy delta, the focus must obviously be on how to convey aid and relief to that area. However, as a number of Members have pointed out today, Burma was already suffering major humanitarian problems affecting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and others, many of them in areas not adjacent to the Irrawaddy delta. Can my hon. Friend give some reassurance about the levels of aid and the mechanisms that will allow it to reach those other areas? The spread of disease and other problems there will be equally great in a few weeks, if not in days.

I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. When I was in Thailand I spoke to people about the aid going to camps on the border. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also visited the area and the camps, and has given a commitment that we will keep the situation under review.

I need to make a bit of progress.

HMS Westminster will arrive off the Burmese coast tomorrow. We do not yet know what role the ship and its crew will play in delivering humanitarian aid, but it is sensible to move it closer to where help is needed. Aeroplanes are now arriving with help funded by the United Kingdom Government. The problem is that the Burmese regime is controlling the time at which each international flight can land in the region.

One Member—I cannot remember who it was—asked earlier about contributions from the European Community. The European Community Humanitarian Office is contributing €2 million, and the European Commission has pledged €5 million. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain have already made commitments, and I am sure that other European countries will do so as well.

I think that most Members on both sides of the House recognise that Burma is facing one of the biggest humanitarian challenges since the tsunami. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has described the gravity of the situation. We agree that a disaster of this degree requires the attention of the whole international community: individual states, individual NGOs, but above all a United Nations-led civilian mission. We are all extremely frustrated and appalled by the attitude of the Burmese Government in denying the international community’s relief workers access to the areas affected by the cyclone. The crucial question for this debate is how, faced with the intransigence of the Burmese regime, we can best proceed in order to help the Burmese people. As the Government have already stated, we are not ruling out any particular action at the moment.

On behalf of Members who have been present for all or most of the debate, may I ask why the Government feel it necessary to oppose the Opposition motion, given that there is such unanimity of view across the House?

If the hon. Gentleman will just wait, I will come to that point.

We have a desired option: to convince the Burmese Government to think again and open their country to the humanitarian workers who have the expertise to co-ordinate the aid effort. The first duty of any Government is to protect the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. Instead, we hear that the Burmese leadership is refusing even to take the telephone calls of the UN Secretary-General—a Secretary-General who is pledging help. The international community is committed to helping any country, of any size or importance, when its people suffer a humanitarian disaster. The Burmese army simply does not have the experience, knowledge or logistical capacity to co-ordinate a relief effort of this magnitude. Indeed, few countries would have that.

Is it not a scandal that in the midst of this crisis the Burmese regime proceeded with its sham referendum? Does my hon. Friend agree that it was a sham referendum, a sham consultative process, and not the kind of action that will build the democratic civil society that Burma needs if it is to be able to deal with the problem it currently faces, and its other underlying problems over the long term?

I completely agree. We said at the time that the referendum was a distraction. It should not have gone ahead, and the fact that it did gives the clearest sign that that Government are dangerously distant from the reality of what is happening in their country. We have, of course, always had our concerns, but a referendum conducted in those conditions has to be of dubious credibility.

Let me say a little more about what our Government are doing to persuade and lobby on this issue. We know that preventing deaths through persuading the Burmese authorities to work with the international community to deliver aid and assistance is the best way forward. We point out in all our contacts with the Burmese regime and other Governments in the region that this is a humanitarian situation, and that it is not political—that at present we are interested not in the political situation, but in giving humanitarian aid.

I am sorry, but I need to make progress.

The crucial factor in any natural disaster is the response of the Government. If a Government care, make plans and organise a response, people will survive; if not, they will die. That is why we continue to back the plan to persuade the Burmese Government to provide unfettered access for aid workers, whether through the UN or through countries in the region, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West has said. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), are in the region seeking to persuade people there. We are convinced that the most effective way to deal with this tragedy and to save lives is to persuade the Burmese authorities to accept the help coming from the rest of the world, and to do so through intensive and urgent diplomatic activity, and particularly through targeting countries with influence over the regime.

China has been mentioned, and it is in a key position both to influence the Burmese regime to open up and to facilitate practical support on the ground. China has publicly called for aid to be let into Burma, but it can do much more to persuade Burma to allow more international workers on the ground and direct distribution of aid to the delta region. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Chinese counterpart yesterday, pressing on the subject of the regime’s unacceptably slow response. China and other UN Security Council members have been asked by the UK to discuss the serious situation in Burma.

The Association of South East Asian Nations Foreign Ministers will meet on Monday, and we have been lobbying them to help improve this situation and to put pressure on Burma to increase the number of visas granted. There has been some increase, but not as much as is needed.

The Opposition raised the issue of a forward bridgehead. We have discussed with countries such as Thailand what they can do to address such issues. I do not want to spend too long on the subject of air drops, which has been discussed. We have not ruled anything out, but I think that hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), have set out the problems that might result. The scale of the disaster requires a full international civilian operation, like the ones we saw after the tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, and for that we need the co-operation of the Burmese authorities. That must remain the principal focus of our efforts.

The “responsibility to protect” was raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South in particular. There is no doubt that the Burmese Government have a responsibility to act now to help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Burma’s people who are suffering after the cyclone. As we have said, we rule nothing out. We will continue to argue vigorously in New York for UN Security Council engagement.

Let me be clear why we tabled our amendment. It focuses on what we are seeking to achieve:

“to secure access and ensure aid is delivered to those in need.”

That is why the amendment should be supported, and I ask the Opposition to consider the matter carefully. The motion risks suggesting that the UK will pursue the responsibility to protect above all else, rather than our actual focus, which is on any means that will secure the outcome that we all seek.

Unfortunately, the situation for Burma remains extremely grave. A great deal is being done by international organisations, our ambassador on the ground, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations, and we must all place on record our thanks to them. However, until there is a response from regional actors and ASEAN putting pressure on the regime, we will not get the outcome that we want to see.

There has been a great deal of agreement in this debate; everybody wants to see the Burmese Government open up their country so that help for the people who desperately need it most can get through. I ask hon. Members to support our amendment.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House notes with horror the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis upon the people of Burma; recognises the vast scale of humanitarian assistance needed urgently to prevent further loss of life; is appalled at the unacceptably slow pace at which the Burmese authorities have so far allowed in international expertise for the relief effort, and at their lack of capacity to distribute aid to the affected areas; calls upon the Burmese authorities to allow immediate and unfettered access for both the delivery of aid and for its distribution inside Burma; strongly welcomes the UK Government’s initial £5 million pledge to the relief effort for emergency items; strongly supports the UK Government’s exchanges with key international partners in order to bring about a concerted international effort for access for humanitarian assistance; in this regard, welcomes the visit to countries in the region by Ministers from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; urges countries in the region to increase their efforts to persuade the Burmese authorities to allow in unfettered international assistance and to ramp up the delivery of aid; and strongly supports continued efforts of the United Nations to secure access and ensure aid is delivered to those in need.