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Aung San Suu Kyi

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Frank Roy.)

May I say how pleased I am to have this opportunity to conclude our business this evening with a few remarks about the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi? She is rightly known and respected throughout the world for the quiet calm and the dignity with which she faces intolerable repression. She currently faces a process that, for the purposes of this debate, we will call a trial, but which, it is widely accepted, conforms to none of the recognised principles of natural justice that we would understand in this country.

I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to his new position. I welcome his appointment; we are delighted to have him here. As the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, may I say that we have always enjoyed a fruitful and close working relationship with his predecessors in the Foreign Office and with Ministers in the Department for International Development? I am confident that that relationship will continue under this Minister, whom I congratulate on his appointment. I wish him every success.

The charge facing Aung San Suu Kyi is that of violating of the conditions of her house arrest. If she is convicted—we might reasonably say “when she is convicted”, because the purpose of the trial is to obtain a further conviction—she stands to have a further five-year period of imprisonment imposed on her. The irony is that this imprisonment will be for the breach of a condition of her detention, which has already been declared illegal by the United Nations as a contravention of international law and of Burmese domestic law. This illegality heaped on illegality is a particular feature of Aung San Suu Kyi’s position, and of the loathsome regime by which she is being oppressed in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest on and off for 13 of the past 19 years. The process first started in 1989, when the martial law provisions of the time allowed for detention without charge or trial for a period of up to three years. It is a matter of public record that in the elections in 1990, the National League for Democracy, of which she is the leader, won some 82 per cent. of the available seats. That was a remarkable achievement, and an indication of the standing that she enjoys in her own country as well as in the wider international community. It is also a matter of record that the junta refused to recognise the results of the elections, and that at that point, it changed the rules to allow for her continued detention for up to five years.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention—at that point she was under house arrest—in 1995. She was placed under house arrest again, with additional conditions restricting her entitlement to travel, in 2000. I mention the restriction on travel because it is well known that as a consequence of those restrictions, she was unable to visit her dying husband in London for fear of not being allowed to return to Burma.

Is it not an indication of the nature of the Burmese authorities that in the forthcoming trial of Aung San Suu Kyi on 12 June—which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, could lead to her imprisonment for five years—three out of four of her defence witnesses have been denied access to the court? The Burmese Government are producing 14 witnesses for the prosecution, yet she is to be allowed only one. Is it not even more shocking that members of the pro-democracy 1988 movement who are in jail are being denied adequate food? They are not allowed food parcels, and those who have severe medical conditions, including heart attacks, are not allowed any medical supplies. Is that not an indication of the nature of the Burmese regime?

It is. It is also an indication of the exceptionally unfair, ill-conceived process in which Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself. Speaking as one who previously practised as a court solicitor, I believe that it breaches just about every norm of international law. My only quibble with the hon. Gentleman is that I was told that the number of prosecution witnesses being produced was 16, compared with one defence witness, but the numbers make no difference. What is most obnoxious is the fact that the person standing trial is not being allowed to present her case.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that—in 2003, I believe—I visited the Karen ethnic groups in the Burma jungle. Does he agree that while the Government of Thailand should be thanked for their tolerance of the refugee camps just over the Thai border, they nevertheless have a major part to play in putting pressure on the Burmese junta to respect human rights?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a great deal of sympathy for the position in which the Thai Government find themselves. We occasionally hear reports of some activities within the camps that are a cause of concern—for example, the suggestion that refugees are being pushed back across the Burmese border. The point was made in discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for International Development earlier today that the refugees in Thai camps are not allowed to work, which is also a cause of concern. I have to say that it would be difficult for the UK Government to argue that point too vociferously, given that asylum seekers in this country are so rarely entitled to find paid employment.

The institutionalised inhumanity of the Burmese junta is reflected in the denial of Aung San Suu Kyi’s right even to use the telephone, and the frequent denial of her right to medical treatment. Are not those further examples of why, in the final analysis, multilateral action is vital if we are to give effect to the UN proclamation of the responsibility to protect?

Yes, that is absolutely the case, and it is fair to say that no country on its own can possibly hope to effect a solution to the difficulties currently facing the Burmese people. It has to be said, however, that the one power in the region that might have particular sway and influence is China. Clearly, that country is not minded to promote democracy movements—for reasons that largely speak for themselves—but the opportunity for multilateral action lies in efforts made to influence China to bring a more benign influence to bear on Burma.

Let me return to the history of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention. She was released for a period, but subsequently re-arrested in May 2003 in the aftermath of a horrific attack on pro-democracy activists and herself in northern Burma. Seventy people were killed and more than 100 arrested. Aung San herself was held for a period of some three months in what was effectively secret imprisonment; at that stage, nobody really knew where she was or what she was suffering. Her house arrest then continued until 2007, at which point it expired. It was renewed for a further year until 2008, at which point, with a still further extension having been allowed, the UN intervened to clarify, if any clarification were needed, that the detention was a contravention of both international and domestic law.

It is interesting, although perhaps academic, to speculate on what might have happened if last month Mr. John William Yettaw—a US national, I am told—had not taken it on himself to swim through the lake surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to break into the compound and remain there, giving rise to the charge she currently faces, which is breach of house arrest. That incident shows the Alice through the Looking Glass world that we are in when we deal with Burma. We have here one of the very few examples of a victim of housebreaking finding herself, rather than the perpetrator, to be the victim, or subject, of criminal proceedings.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) referred to health concerns. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being held in prison, as opposed to under house arrest, and those health concerns are real, substantial and widely held. It is said that she suffers from low blood pressure and severe dehydration. I know that the British embassy in Rangoon does what it can to stay in touch and to make itself as fully aware as possible of the circumstances in which she is being held, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on what the Government in this country understand her present medical condition to be.

I should also record the appreciation of many of us of the efforts of Mr. Mark Canning, the United Kingdom ambassador to Burma. He recently described Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial as a “show trial”. He has been allowed one day’s access to the courtroom.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is not only Members of Parliament here in Westminster who are gravely concerned about the welfare of Aung San Suu Kyi. Last night my local authority, Dundee city council, with cross-party support, backed a campaign to free this very brave lady. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the current trial is no more than an effort to ensure that she is incarcerated before the elections in Burma that are scheduled to take place next year?

I do, and I think that that view is held fairly widely. The history of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention is a remarkable, albeit perverse, tribute to her strength, and the extent to which the junta truly fears the influence that she could have if she were left at liberty. The irony is that while she may become physically more frail, politically she becomes stronger with every day that she passes in detention. We should be interested to hear from the Minister whether he has any information from Mark Canning on what he has been able to discern about the conduct of the trial from the limited access that he and other external monitors have been given.

I once heard Aung San Suu Kyi described as

“an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”.

That encapsulates rather nicely the point that I just made to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). The real tragedy is that while she herself is a remarkable woman who is widely recognised for her achievements throughout the world, inasmuch as she is a political prisoner she is by no means unique in Burma. It is estimated that there are some 2,100 political prisoners there, and the figure may be even higher.

It is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention is a political detention. There is no question of any criminality. There is also no doubt that the wish to keep her in detention is clearly related to the elections due in 2010. If we imagine the position from the generals’ point of view, we can well see why they would want to do that.

It is fair to recognise the strong and effective efforts made by the United Kingdom Government in recent years. I was particularly impressed by the words of the Prime Minister in his contribution to the “64 words” project. We were all invited to offer 64 words in anticipation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday next Friday. The Prime Minister put it rather well when he wrote:

“The clamour for your release is growing across Europe, Asia, and the entire world. We must do all we can to make this birthday the last you spend without your freedom.”

President Obama perhaps understated the position when he said that Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention

“cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime’s willingness to be a responsible member of the international community”.

It is not often that we would accuse President Obama of understatement, but on this occasion it appears that he did not indulge in any hyperbole.

My hon. Friend mentioned the entire international community. While it may be no surprise that Russia is no champion of democracy and human rights, does he not agree that it is a great disappointment that a neighbour of Burma—India, the world’s largest democracy—has not only failed to provide adequate support for the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, but has actually given comfort to the Burmese regime?

Yes, I do. When speaking earlier about the role of China in the region, I was remiss in not referring to India, which could have done—and, indeed, can yet do—a great deal more. I think it is fair to say that the further away a country is from the region, the more diluted its influence. India is part of the Commonwealth, as we are, and I hope that the Minister will do all he can to maximise the benefits from such links.

When the Minister replies, I hope we will hear a bit more about what the Government are doing to build the broad international coalition that we all think is necessary. I hesitate to use the phrase “when Aung San Suu Kyi is convicted” when we are still in the process of the trial, as it offends my sensitivities as a lawyer, but such is the nature of this exercise that we have to be realistic and acknowledge that she will be convicted: the prospect of acquittal is so negligible as not to be worthy of consideration. What measures do we anticipate taking in that event? It seems to me that there is an obvious response: to build this broad international coalition, particularly for an international arms embargo. Everybody seems to support such an embargo, but no matter how strongly they do that, it never seems to happen. Within the European Union, will the UK press for a travel ban to be extended to the prosecutors and judges who have been responsible for this sham of a trial?

In essence, those are our concerns. I know that the Government remain committed to bringing democracy to Burma. I hope that, whatever happens to Aung San Suu Kyi, she will not be left to suffer in vain, and that everything that happens to her will only serve to redouble our determination to bring democracy to that beautiful but benighted country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this Adjournment debate on this incredibly important issue, and on the responsible yet passionate way in which he made his argument from a very informed perspective. I also thank him for his generous congratulations on my appointment to my new post; I regard it as a tremendous honour to be a Minister of State in the Foreign Office with responsibility for the middle east, Burma and other similar issues. I am in day two of the job, so I hope Members will be tolerant as I respond to the best of my ability. May I also assure the hon. Gentleman that I intend to work very closely with his all-party group, and indeed with all all-party groups who have an interest in my new portfolio of responsibilities?

A number of Members are present who have consistently raised issues in relation to Burma over a long period, and I believe that the cumulative pressure from Members in all parts of the House does in the end make a difference in international opinion. There are doubts about how much that impacts on the regime, but it is important that the House continues to offer oxygen in terms of the political situation and political realities in Burma. I therefore congratulate all Members who take an interest in these issues on continuing to bring them to the Floor of the House.

As Members are aware, in the early morning of 14 May Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested simply for not reporting an intruder. Her trial on these absurd charges began on 18 May. The hon. Gentleman gave a different analogy, but in effect a prisoner is being prosecuted apparently because the prison guards were asleep on the job. Our ambassador in Rangoon—I noted that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his leadership on these issues—has reported the following:

“It’s difficult to see anything but a guilty verdict…these trials tend to be pre-scripted. All decisions of any significance in Burma are made by the ubiquitous ‘higher authority’.

He continued:

“The generals will want to make sure Suu Kyi is unable to play a role in the elections next year.”

That seems pre-scripted and pre-destined, and the point has been made by hon. Members. He continued:

“So the betting is on a sentence that extends her house arrest well into 2010 or beyond”.

I have no information on the medical condition of Aung San Suu Kyi. I shall inquire into that and write to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall try to find a way of making other hon. Members aware of the current situation, particularly in relation to her mental and physical health.

I am proud that the UK has led, in many ways, the international response to this outrage. We have spoken to EU leaders and members of the UN Security Council. Burma’s neighbours, including China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, are in no doubt that they have a critical role to play and need to use their influence—I reiterate that call in this debate. I wish to pay tribute to the tremendous work done by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), when he held this portfolio. He spoke up at the meeting of 45 Asian and EU Ministers in Hanoi only last month and he did not pull any punches. He said that the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi were baseless, he called for her to be released, along with the other 2,100 political prisoners who are detained in Burma—those are the ones we know of—and he asserted that without her and other opposition leaders the 2010 elections would simply not have any credibility in international eyes.

In Hanoi and in Phnom Penh, my predecessor spoke directly to Burmese Ministers to urge them to take positive steps to restore democracy. As hon. Members will be aware, and as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned, the UK is taking action within the European Union. The Prime Minister intends to raise the issue of Burma at the June European Council. On 19 May, the Foreign Secretary discussed further steps that the EU should take in Brussels, and our officials continue to work with EU member states on tighter measures that target the regime. The Government believe that further measures, including financial sanctions, will increase pressure on the regime.

May I return to the comment that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about Aung San Suu Kyi’s health? We believe that she is not in bad health, but she has severely limited access to medical staff and we do not have any further information. She is, as ever, a remarkable woman—we would all accept that—and we believe that she is well enough to defend herself appropriately during the course of these proceedings, however unfair and unjust we know them to be. That is the best information we can offer at the moment, but I am certainly willing to provide any further information that I can get to him.

May I return to the UK’s contribution? We have ensured that Burma is discussed at the United Nations, including in the Security Council. The UK will be pushing for the firmest of responses, but it is only right on occasions such as this to be honest and frank about the boundaries of the effectiveness of our efforts. For example, hon. Members will be aware that our efforts to secure a Security Council resolution in 2007 following the saffron revolution were blocked, and the current composition of the Security Council means that any binding resolution against Burma is unlikely. Of course, the UK supports the imposition of a universal arms ban against Burma, but we know that an arms embargo requires a mandatory chapter 7 resolution.

I am also aware that there are calls for Burma to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Appalling and unforgivable crimes are undoubtedly being committed in Burma as we speak, but that country is not party to the Rome statute, and again a Security Council resolution would be required. We believe that it is incredibly important that we focus on practical measures that will convince the regime to choose the path of reform and national reconciliation.

What we have achieved so far is two unprecedented presidential statements, and we should regard that as positive. Two weeks ago, the Security Council expressed its concern about the arrest and called for political prisoners to be released and involved and engaged in the political process. As the hon. Gentleman said, we know that President Obama and the Secretary of State in the American Administration share our concern for Burma, and recently US sanctions against the regime were renewed.

Although it is right that there be a focus on Aung San Suu Kyi, the hon. Gentleman rightly made the point that she is one of more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma. People have been imprisoned for up to 65 years simply for asking for help for cyclone victims—an appalling state of affairs.

Another crucial requirement for national reconciliation has to be the involvement of all ethnic groups in Burma. The UK has condemned the continuing human rights abuses that ethnic groups in Burma have suffered. Recently, we received worrying reports about the situation in Karen state, which the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to. Thousands of people have been forced to flee to Thailand because of an offensive by the Burmese army, and tragically there have been a number of civilian casualties. Violence in Karen state can only prolong the suffering of the Karen people.

The Rohingya people are abused in Burma, and abused as refugees throughout the region. We have drawn the attention of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, to the plight of minorities. The conflicts with the Karen community and others are regrettable consequences of the regime’s attitude to the people of Burma. The full and equitable participation of Burma’s ethnic groups in the political process has to be the key to a durable, sustainable solution to its problems.

I refer to my previous responsibilities in saying that the way in which we respond to the humanitarian crisis is equally important. We are the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Burma. On top of our contribution to cyclone relief of £45 million, we intend to spend another £25 million on aid to the people of Burma this year.

There is a worldwide public campaign calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Prime Minister and global leaders have added their weight to that of millions who have spoken out about the plight of Burma.

Will the Minister undertake on behalf of the British Government to make renewed representations to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, that one of his utmost priorities should be to talk to the Burmese regime, and indeed the Chinese regime, to see how this tyranny can be ended? What we have heard in the House this evening is totally unacceptable according to all international norms of human behaviour.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope to meet the Secretary-General next week, although that is not confirmed, and of course this will be one of the major issues that I raise. We believe that it is very important that he use his good offices and reputation to intervene in a way that will change the dynamic of the country. His office and his role are absolutely crucial to securing progress, so if I am able to meet him next week, I intend to raise this specific matter.

We are in an interesting time in our domestic political scene, and at a time like this one might think that the Prime Minister would have other things on his mind. However, hon. Members should know the level of his focus on and concern about this issue. He feels personally engaged in what has happened to Aung San Suu Kyi. He regards her as a fellow leader in the international community—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).