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Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

I visited Burma for three days from 15 to 17 November, the first visit by a senior Minister from the European Union since a ban on high-level engagement was suspended in April 2011. In the capital, Naypyidaw, I met President Thein Sein, Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, the Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann, and the Ministers for Industry, Railways, Border Affairs and Health. In Mandalay I visited development projects funded by Britain. In Rangoon I spent most of a day with Aung San Suu Kyi including visiting a school run by her party, the National League for Democracy, and I met representatives of ethnic groups, other political parties, activists, civil society groups, and the recently freed political prisoner Zarganar. I was accompanied throughout by British journalists.

Speaking to members of the Burmese Government, I both welcomed the progress that the Government have recently made towards political reform and strongly urged that the momentum of reform be maintained. In particular I pressed for:

a full release of political prisoners, including 1988 generation leader Min Ko Naing;

continued progress in the dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi;

free and fair by-elections, due to be held in the next two months;

urgent moves towards a resolution to the ethnic conflicts; and

improved humanitarian access in border areas.

I made it clear that Britain would support a very significant positive international response if the reform process continued.

The President and his Ministers assured me that the reforms would continue, but gave no clear time frame and argued that considerations about stability were stalling the release of more political prisoners. The President however emphasised the importance of the dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, and expressed his hope that she and the National League for Democracy would run in the by-elections—they have since confirmed that they will. Burmese Ministers confirmed that they had opened channels of communication with armed ethnic groups. I noted that the international community was watching closely for successful outcomes on these issues.

Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her gratitude for Britain’s unwavering support for democracy, development and human rights in Burma. She stressed the need to maintain pressure for the full release of political prisoners, strengthened rule of law in Burma including the independence of the judiciary, and progress on negotiations with the ethnic groups. Aung San Suu Kyi set out her priorities for development and poverty reduction in Burma, focussing on education, health, widening the availability of small scale finance to poor families, and improving child nutrition. She underlined the importance of improving living conditions equally across Burma, including in ethnic areas.

During the visit I set out the results that British aid would deliver for the Burmese people over the next four years:

ensuring that more than 127,000 mothers give birth more safely;

preventing more than 150,000 unintended pregnancies;

helping more than 1.8 million people with bed nets to help avoid malaria;

diagnosis and treatment to reduce drug-resistant malaria;

supporting 277,000 children through primary school;

providing 110,000 women with access to affordable credit;

helping 92,000 women and men produce more food.

I also highlighted the prospect of further British help in the future if the reform process is maintained, for example to encourage wealth creation and to help to improve Government accountability, service delivery and the rule of law.