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Volume 538: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

I draw the House’s attention to the written statement on my visit to Burma, which was published yesterday. Last week, the Burmese Government and the Karen National Union signed a historic ceasefire. The following day, there was a significant release of political prisoners, which will contribute to greater democratic participation in the parliamentary by-elections. If that momentum can be maintained, we are clearly moving into a new phase in our relations with Burma.

As my right hon. Friend says, the release of 651 political prisoners by the Myanmar Government is a major political statement and certainly one that is to be commended. What confidence does he have that all political prisoners will be released in time for the elections in April this year?

The importance of the timing of last week’s announcement is that yesterday—16 January—was the date for any candidates to register to participate in the 1 April elections in Burma. The release of so many prisoners is therefore an important move ahead of those elections.

My hon. Friend is quite right to ask about other political prisoners. Our assessment is that of the 651 prisoners released on Friday, between 270 and 283 could be considered political prisoners. That means that political prisoners remain, although it must be said that there are definitional disputes over what a political prisoner is between the Burma Government and opposition groups. However, we of course look for the release of all political prisoners in Burma while welcoming that move as a major step forward.

All Members of the House support the release of the political prisoners and share the concern that there are still so many. However, I understand that the released prisoners have not been pardoned, but simply had their sentences suspended. What assurances has the Foreign Secretary had that they will be pardoned and kept out of prison rather than being re-arrested shortly?

My hon. Friend is quite right about the details, although that seems to be the effective way for the President of Burma to secure the release of the prisoners—the laws allowed him to act decisively to release a large number of prisoners. Of course, let me make it absolutely clear that the improvement in relations between Burma, our country and many other countries would come to a very rapid halt and go into reverse were those prisoners to be taken back into custody, but the President of Burma said to me when I was there 10 days ago that Burma’s progress to democracy is irreversible, and all the Ministers I met said that all political prisoners would be released.

Although I welcome the changes and developments with the Karen people, they are far from the only ethnic minority within Burma with which there have been a lot of tensions and difficulties, as the Foreign Secretary will know. Despite progress in some areas, there has been an increase in attacks on other peoples. What discussions did he have on other ethnic minorities and what pressure is he putting on Burma to ensure that every ethnic grouping is included in the democracy that we hope is developing there?

The hon. Lady is quite right: although what has happened in relation to the Karen people is important, other ethnic conflicts continue. I held a meeting with ethnic representatives from around Burma in Rangoon on my visit there and raised this wider matter with the Government at all the meetings I had with them. I also announced an additional £2 million of humanitarian assistance for displaced people in Kachin state, where fighting continues. It is important for the Government of Burma to understand that resolving the conflicts more widely around the borders and ethnic areas remains important.

The Opposition join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the release of political prisoners in Burma although, as he has acknowledged, many hundreds of men and women remain in prison there for their political beliefs. Will he tell the House what he did to push the Burmese regime to allow greater access for the world’s media, particularly in the run-up to the elections in April, now that restrictions have started to be lifted?

I made the point to Government Ministers there that part of the essential opening up to the rest of the world is access for media representatives. Indeed, on my visit I was able to facilitate that access for the first time and to ensure that BBC correspondents could go to places or get invited to press conferences to which they would not previously have been invited. Each international visit helps to prise open to a greater extent the media’s access to Burma. We will continue with those efforts.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in extending continued support to the pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi?

I certainly will. I spent the best part of 24 hours with Aung San Suu Kyi during my visit to Rangoon. She is an inspirational figure, a great leader and a great hope for the future of her country.