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Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013

1. What recent reports he has received on the security situation in Rakhine state, Burma; and if he will make a statement. (138331)

I visited Rakhine state in December. I visited five camps for displaced people and spoke to local community and political leaders. The security situation appears to have stabilised, though I stressed to Burmese Ministers the importance of a long-term solution that will not leave communities permanently displaced.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and pleased that he has visited the camps in Rakhine state. I am sure that he will have seen reports in recent days that Rohingya refugees crossing the Andaman sea to Thailand have been captured by Thai officials and sold on to human traffickers. What urgent representations is he making to the Thai authorities on that matter, and will he give us an update on the situation?

The hon. Gentleman follows these matters closely, and he is referring to the 949 Rohingya in southern Thailand who were allegedly waiting for their escort to smuggle them across the border. It is worth saying that the embassy in Bangkok has raised the issue of the Rohingya with the appropriate Thai authorities, both bilaterally and through the European Commission, and that it continues to follow the issue closely, including in close conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Will he update the House on the specific steps that the Government are taking, with the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments, to ensure a permanent, stable future for those people?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. My response can be divided quite neatly into two parts. First, in the short term, humanitarian access, co-ordination and security must be improved for the Rohingya people in Rakhine. I have seen that for myself and I am satisfied that that is happening. Secondly, in the longer term, those responsible for the violence must be held publicly to account for what they have done. Ultimately, the Burmese have to deal with the issue of citizenship, and that matter is being reviewed at the moment. The Bangladeshis need to play a better part in helping out those Rohingya who are on that side of the border.

The continued suppression of minority ethnic groups in Burma is clearly incompatible with the development of a proper democracy there. We all wish to see such a democracy developing, but what are the Government doing through their contact with the Burmese to stress that we cannot continue to support democratic development and the development of trade without the Burmese addressing those important issues?

The situation in Burma is complex, as the hon. Lady will accept. The country is coming out of a period of military rule. We believe that the President has embarked on the right journey, although he could move more quickly to deliver some of the reforms. The solution to 10 out of the 11 outbreaks of violence has been a ceasefire, but we have not yet seen that happen in Kachin state. This Government are helping out, through the Department for International Development, by being the largest bilateral donor of aid. We have also had many exchanges involving Burmese parliamentarians coming here to Westminster. The more engagement that British parliamentarians have with the Burmese authorities to show them how we do things here, the better. Perhaps that might include you, Mr Speaker, if you were able to find time in your diary to show the Burmese what we do here at Westminster and show them what a true democracy can look like.

Staying with Burma, is the Minister aware that the ceasefire in Kachin state has been breached, and that a village with 100 houses in it was burned today? Can he say what representations he is making to the Burmese Government to ask them to continue the ceasefire?

Yes I can. Indeed, not too long ago I made a statement about the situation in Kachin. We welcome what the President said about Kachin when he reiterated the Burmese Government’s stated commitment to a nationwide ceasefire and to peace building, although we do not recognise one or two other things he has said. It is important that there is a ceasefire in Kachin state and that the military in the area adheres to what the President is saying. It is also important, as I stressed when I was in Burma in December, that humanitarian aid gets to the people in Kachin.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the Minister has noted the urgent and troubling situation in Kachin state, with the three civilian deaths reported last week and the military breaking a very short-lived ceasefire at the weekend. Will he tell us what discussions the Government have had not just with the Burmese authorities on the urgent need for peace talks but with the EU and the United Nations on his assessment of whether the resumed attacks bring into doubt the Burmese Government’s commitment to a ceasefire and their control over the military?

The hon. Lady raises a good point. There is a genuine question about control over the Burmese military; and until the Burmese military is brought under control, the peace process in Burma and the journey on which the President has embarked will be under serious question. We are anxious to help with what is going on in Kachin: we have increased our humanitarian aid, which now totals £3.5 million—as far as I am aware, the biggest donation in that area from any country. We are also one of the three bilateral members of the peace donor support group, which represents most of the major donors in Burma and is working closely with the Government to move from the ceasefire arrangements to political dialogue with all Burma’s ethnic groups.