Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
It is a privilege to have secured the first end-of-day debate of the new Session of Parliament.
I would suggest to those hon. Members present for this important debate that the most memorable occasion during the previous Parliament—it will live long in my memory for many Parliaments to come—was when Aung San Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament. Her brave and long fight for freedom and democracy represents our strong and vibrant hope for the future of Burma. Today’s state opening has shown that Parliament does pageantry well, but Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of how Parliament is also a beacon for freedom and democracy. It is, therefore, appropriate that this first end-of-day debate will shine a light on the human rights situation in Burma.
Ministers have been diligent in pressing the Burmese Government to improve their human rights record. We must recognise the importance of the United Kingdom’s approach to a country that is far from these shores: the light that we shine has an influence in Burma. The Kachin Peace-talk Creation Group said recently that the UK’s role in Burma’s progress is crucial. We are one of the most influential countries in Burma, so this debate is important.
The Government can act in four areas. First, they must urge the Burmese Government to pursue full rights and recognition for the Rohingya people and other religious and ethnic minorities. That has to include reforming citizenship laws, allowing the United Nations and aid organisations to work freely in the neediest nations, inviting the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and signing and ratifying the international covenant on civil and political rights.
Last week I visited Burma, including Rakhine state, where 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced, along with Kaman Muslims, and I also saw Rakhines in camps. I saw first-hand what is happening and I concur with the hon. Gentleman that one of the fundamental issues for humanitarian access, or the lack of it, is the question of citizenship. The way things are practised and the reality of people’s everyday lives is like apartheid. As well as the need to address the catastrophic humanitarian situation, especially ahead of the rainy season, the Government need to apply much greater pressure on the Burmese Government to resolve the question of citizenship as soon as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to the other hon. Members present who have raised this issue and spoken about the Rohingya people in particular. Arakan state, which she visited, with its predominantly Rohingya population, has been one of the most persecuted areas. It is striking that Médecins sans Frontières describes the Rohingya as one of the 10 people groups in the world most at risk of extinction. When one considers that there are approximately 1 million Rohingya in Burma, that is a chilling statistic. We must all take heed of that warning.
As the hon. Lady said, aid is an important responsibility of the UK Government. We must pay tribute to their record on aid. We are the major donor country for internally displaced people and are very much at the top of the tree in that regard. However, we must ensure that the aid gets to the right places. I therefore call on the UK Government to work alongside the Burmese Government and non-governmental organisations to continue to provide that aid and to ensure that there is an increase in the emergency aid for the tens of thousands of people who have been displaced in the Arakan and Kachin states.
Thirdly, I urge the Government to encourage the Burmese Government to establish initiatives to promote the important inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation. Fourthly, Burma should be included in the Foreign Secretary’s pioneering preventing sexual violence initiative. We all commend that important initiative, but we have not yet heard that Burma will be included.
I sought to have this debate two weeks ago when the European Union lifted sanctions on Burma in recognition of its recent progress. We must recognise the work that has been done by the Burmese Government to overcome the deep divisions in parts of Burmese society, but we must also be honest and recognise the great obstacles that are yet to be overcome. We must look at the benchmarks that were set before the decision was made to suspend economic sanctions.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the first Adjournment debate of the new Session on this important subject. Some of us in this House are very interested in Burma and have deep concerns about it. He is right that Burma has made progress, but I think we all recognise that it has to make further progress. Does he agree that the Burmese Government should allow the UN special rapporteur to conduct an independent investigation into the abuses in Rakhine state? Burma is setting up its own inquiry, but there needs to be a separate independent inquiry led by the UN.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He secured an important Adjournment debate on the Rohingya people. It is important that we raise the concerns of Burma in every way we can.
As I said earlier, we should encourage Burma to offer an invitation to the UN special rapporteur. There should be witnesses to what is happening there. Many of us have raised the importance of witnesses and independent investigations in relation to conflicts in other parts of the world, not least in Sri Lanka. However, those points need to be balanced with the need to encourage Burma along the way of democracy and recognising the rule of law. It must increasingly have its own robust, independent investigations. We must work alongside and in partnership with Burma. There should be an invitation for the UN special rapporteur, but we must also encourage Burma to step up. The early steps along the road to democracy must include the bringing to account of the perpetrators of the horrendous acts that I will go into in some detail.
When the decision was taken on economic sanctions, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union set out several benchmarks.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous in giving way, as always. He has brought an important issue to the Floor of the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there has to be an embargo on the military equipment that the Burmese army is using against ethnic groups, and in particular against Christian groups? Does he agree that that would be one way of trying to address the cruel and violent activities of the Burmese army? My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has been involved in some talks with the Burmese Government and with groups out there, and I believe he has some knowledge of ways to address the issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We will hear from the Minister about the sanctions that still apply to military equipment. That embargo continues, whereas economic sanctions have been lifted. We still need to be rigorous about military hardware, particularly given the responsibility shared by the military for acts of omission, not always of commission.
The benchmarks for the lifting of sanctions included
“the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released”,
an end to conflict in the country,
“substantially improved access for humanitarian assistance”
“addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas.”
It is therefore important that the Minister informs us whether, to the best of his knowledge—I recognise that it is not his primary responsibility in the Department—those criteria have been properly met. Does he also know why there was no reference in the EU Council conclusions to the situation in Kachin state? That is an interesting question.
Over the past year, Burmese minorities have suffered extraordinary attacks and human rights violations. Some of the most disturbing came when the Burmese army launched air strikes against Kachin Independence Army troops in Kachin state in December. The strikes lasted nearly a month. More than 100,000 Kachin civilians were internally displaced, and human rights organisations report cases of rape, torture, forced labour and killing of civilians.
The attacks followed an 18-month offensive by the Burma army, which broke a 17-year ceasefire with the KIA. In that offensive, human rights violations increased significantly, and 100,000 people fled their homes and remain displaced. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which I commend along with other organisations for highlighting the extent of the abuse, discovered horrific incidents of human rights being breached. One man told of how his wife was raped by Burmese soldiers and is assumed dead, but the Supreme Court in Naypyidaw dismissed all charges against the Burmese military, reinforcing the sense of many that the Burmese military have effective impunity. Other stories tell of children shot, a grandmother gang-raped and homes and churches destroyed and looted.
The marginalisation of Muslims takes its fullest and most monstrous form in a majority Rohingya area such as Arakan, but it is not limited to those areas. That is why we need to challenge the Burmese Government, and Burma in general, about how systemic the discrimination and abuse of human rights are. Even in the more progressive cities, Muslims are no strangers to discrimination. The 969 campaign, for example, attempts to ban Muslims from any non-Muslim shops. The fact that that is occurring in the cities is a symptom of the divisions that sadly run deep through Burmese society. The feelings that are manifested in segregated shops in Yangon are manifested in banning the sale of food to Rohingyas in Arakan state. There, many Arakanese block the Rohingya’s food supply. One Rohingya man was reportedly told, “We will stop all food for you, and do you know why? We’ll do it so you’ll leave here quickly and permanently.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again. The Rakhine commission reported last week and was not even willing to accept the term “Rohingya” as an ethnic group. The Rohingya Muslim population were referred to as “Bengalis” to deny them their Burmese and ethnic citizenship rights, which go back hundreds and hundreds of years—they would say to the seventh century, not to 1826 and the British period. Some may mistakenly think that this is about recent migration. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government ought to produce a response to the Rakhine commission setting out our concerns about what seems like a whitewash, and requiring international attention and independent scrutiny of what is happening?
I am sure the Minister will respond to that point, but in addition, in July the monks’ association in Mrauk U released a statement saying that the Rohingya
“want to destroy the land of Arakan...and plan to exterminate Arakanese people and use their money to buy weapons to kill Arakanese people...from today, no Arakanese should sell any goods to Bengalis, hire Bengalis as workers, provide any food to Bengalis and have any dealings with them, as they are cruel by nature.”
Such incitement infects people’s view of the Rohingya. Many Arakan believe that the Rohingya are determined to destroy Burma and that mosques double as weapons stores, and sadly such beliefs permeate supposedly decent society. Indeed, such terms were mentioned in the recent report by Human Rights Watch, published—ironically—in the week sanctions were lifted. A statement released by the monks of one sangha proclaimed:
“The ‘Arakan Ethnic Cleansing Program’ of bad pagans...taking advantage of our kindness to them, is revealed today.”
It is important to hear from those who are suffering—sadly—at the hands of Buddhist monks who are forcing the Arakanese population to isolate Rohingya communities, teaching them that the Rohingya plan to exterminate them. One man was killed for selling rice to Rohingya, and sadly, public statements and pamphlets urging ethnic cleansing are common. The Arakanese are provoked to attack Muslim communities and mosques, believing that all Rohingya are terrorists. The police rarely step in, often watching the carnage unfold. One Muslim in Arakan told how his neighbour’s house was burned down one early evening, although 15 police were watching outside.
In its compelling report last month, Human Rights Watch found that following the violence and abuses last June, some security forces in Arakan state were destroying mosques and Muslim homes. A Rohingya woman from Sittwe said:
“Many houses were left standing but they were destroyed by the Government, not the Arakanese. There was nothing wrong with our house. It was still there”
after the violence. In Sittwe, the local government is reported to have destroyed five structurally sound mosques, saying they were
“not good to look at.”
It is little wonder that one Rohingya said:
“The police are Arakanese, too. They hate us.”
Following hostilities, the police and army arrested many Rohingya, some as young as eight, and transferred them to unknown locations. One UN official reported
“torture, humiliating torture. They are kept without food, water, clothes...beatings can start immediately, even in the street...people die from beatings.”
Even United Nations and non-governmental organisation staff have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges and denied their basic rights.
Perhaps the most haunting stories are those from the days following the atrocities as mass graves are dug and filled. One man spoke of seeing
“trucks full of dead bodies...The smell was terrible.”
As mentioned previously in the House, one Arakanese attack in October resulted in the deaths of 70 or more Rohingya in one village. Two days later, villagers began digging individual graves for Rohingya killed in the massacre, but police and army officials made them dig mass graves so that the bodies would be buried quicker. A Rohingya man said that they buried 30 children who had been stabbed to death.
Such stories evoke uncomfortable memories of other areas of cleansing and indeed genocide, and that is before we consider the persecution of Christians in Chin state, which has been previously raised in the House, or the recent violence in Shan state, Oakkan, Meikhtila and Rakhine state. The horrors of people squeezing into small boats and trying to flee across the bay of Bengal is another tragedy that could take up a debate of its own.
As I said, this debate was originally scheduled for two weeks ago, yet even since then, severe crimes have been perpetrated. Last Tuesday at 10 am in Oakkan township, a Muslim lady had an accident with a young novice monk and broke his monk’s begging bowl. She apologised and offered compensation, but what did the police do? They charged her with blasphemy. A mob of hundreds of people surrounded the police station, demanding she be handed over to them. At 1 pm, mobs looted 200 Muslim properties, destroyed two mosques and burned down an Islamic school in the township. At 4 pm, three other villages were arson attacked—three mosques and hundreds of Muslim houses were burned down. When the mobs heard that the army was coming, they left and burned down six other Muslim villages for good measure on their way. That was all in one day, last week.
I therefore urge the Government to do everything possible in their power to continue to seek the protection and recognition of Burmese minorities such as the Rohingya. The British Government took the lead in pushing for EU sanctions to be imposed. Now that the sanctions have been lifted, they should take the lead to ensure they have not been lifted in vain, and that there is no further relaxation of pressure until those issues are addressed. We recognise that with freedom comes responsibility. The encouragement of greater economic freedom must be matched by the greater responsibility of taking human rights abuses seriously.
The House must recognise that the solution to the divisions in Burma will be found not only by the actions of the Burmese Government. Nevertheless, they must take a lead on helping to reconcile communities. They cannot encourage respect and reconciliation while failing to recognise the citizenship rights of the Rohingya and other minorities. I therefore welcome the recent condemnation of the attacks on the Rohingya people by President Thein Sein, but now is the time for actions rather than just words.
The Burmese Government can give minorities back their rights by reforming the 1982 citizenship law. Then we can point to real progress in both treatment and attitude. The test of the new democracy in Burma will be how it treats its minorities, as it is in any democracy—that is the test that we seek to apply in this country and in all nations. If the Burmese minorities continue to be classified as less than citizens, Burma will have failed what we can call the Rohingya human rights test, by which we can judge how Burma’s democracy is functioning.
Let me ask the Minister to respond on the four actions that we can expect at the very least. We should urge full rights for all minorities, and continued and focused aid. We must support Government initiatives to promote inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue, and Burma must be included in the preventing sexual violence initiative.
I conclude not with my words, but with the recent words of Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, who has warned that
“our fragile freedom…that…is just beginning to emerge could be snatched from our hands and Myanmar could descend into a vicious cycle of hatred, violence and turmoil”.
He has urged people to
“promote inter-religious dialogue, peace and harmony, and work together to rebuild not only the physical structures of our country, but the hearts and minds of our people.”
As you well know, Mr Speaker, Burma is in a new dawn of democratic government, but the light is yet to reach far too many people. I urge the Minister and all in the House not to let the Rohingya and other Burmese minorities be left forgotten in the shadows.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on introducing the debate. I rise to echo many of the sentiments he has expressed in such an eloquent and heartfelt manner.
It is right to welcome the positive changes that are taking place in Burma, including the increased space for civil society, media and democratic political actors; improvements in freedom of expression; the release of some political prisoners; and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in the parliamentary process. It is also right to recognise and encourage the efforts of reformers. However, as my hon. Friend has so graphically expressed, grave human rights violations continue and, as has been mentioned, none of the EU’s benchmarks has been fully met. Given the EU’s decision to lift sanctions, I urge the Minister to press the EU to spell out new ways in which it will prioritise, protect and promote human rights in Burma, and to send a strong message to the Government of Burma that, although sanctions have been lifted, the EU will not turn a blind eye to the continuing widespread violations of human rights there.
We can be encouraged by the Burmese Government’s intentions, such as those expressed by the Deputy Minister for Education and his emphasis on reform in the education system, including proposals to establish school councils consisting of outstanding students, designed, he said,
“to enable students to be involved in school administration and to build up leadership skills”.
He emphasised human rights and peace education, citizenship responsibilities and ethnic harmony as part of the curriculum. On the subject of ethnic diversity, he said:
“It is very important that there is peace, friendship and harmony. We do not want to live separately, we want to live side by side with the ethnic nationalities.”
He also emphasised English language teaching and encouraged the idea of bringing in native English speakers to improve English language standards. I hope that is something that this country will actively encourage.
I hope too that we will actively encourage reform of the public sector. A conversation I had only the week before last with a leading representative of an NGO highlighted how almost two generations of the civil service, the police and the public sector need proper training and education in how to act professionally in those organisations.
In light of the recent grave disturbances, it is critical that the Government of Burma, all political leaders, religious leaders from all communities, civil society, the international community and NGOs work together to promote religious harmony and peace, national reconciliation, law and order, freedom of religion and belief, and wider human rights for all the people of Burma, and to take clear and immediate action to bring the perpetrators of violence and hatred to justice and to counter hate speech and extremist propaganda of all kinds.
If concrete action is taken, the expression of good intent is converted into such action and political reforms develop from the current fragile change in atmosphere into a more substantive change of system, Burma has a real opportunity to achieve peace, freedom and democracy. I hope that this country will play its part. The international community must invest in urging the Government of Burma to address those grave violations of human rights that we have heard about this evening; in promoting inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation; in establishing a genuine peace process involving political dialogue—
I agree with my hon. Friend. If justice is to mean anything, it means bringing the perpetrators to rights.
The international community must avoid premature euphoria and remain vigilant in promoting human rights for all the people of Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said, some countries
“are going overboard with optimism, making the Government think that it is getting everything right”.
International policy towards Burma should be recalibrated to ensure that, while the reforms implemented so far are acknowledged, welcomed and encouraged, a strategy is adopted that combines pressure and critical constructive engagement, focusing on ending the grave violations of human rights, responding to the urgent humanitarian needs of the people, and countering religious and racial hatred and violence.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and others to ask the Minister what he will propose to the EU in terms of additional pressure for improvements in human rights in Burma. I ask him to urge that the Government of Burma consider the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners; action to end the use of torture and other violations of human rights in prisons and other detention facilities; the review and amending of the constitution in consultation with all political parties and ethnic nationalities; immediate and urgent action to tackle religious hatred and violence, to ensure adequate protection for all religious and ethnic communities and bring the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence and those who are complicit in such violence to justice, and to promote inter-religious dialogue, reconciliation and harmony; reform of the curriculum for religious education in schools to ensure that children are taught a basic understanding of all major religions and promote understanding and respect for all religions in Burma—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
I ask the Minister to ensure that the EU urges the Government of Burma to announce a nationwide ceasefire and establish a nationwide peace process with all ethnic armed resistance organisations, involving a genuine political dialogue in search of a political solution to decades of civil war; to end immediately all military offensives in Kachin state and northern Shan state, and establish a genuine peace process with the Kachin Independence Organisation, involving a political dialogue; and to end immediately all violations of the ceasefire in Shan state. The EU should also urge the Government of Burma to allow unhindered and regular access for international and national humanitarian organisations to provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance to internally displaced peoples in Kachin state and Arakan state; to end violations of freedom of religion or belief and ensure protection of freedom of religion or belief, as defined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, in all parts of the country; to invite the UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief to visit Burma at the earliest opportunity—as has already been proposed by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—with unrestricted access to all parts of the country, particularly to Muslim communities affected by recent violence; to sign and ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights without reservation; and lastly, again joining with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, urgently to review and amend or repeal the 1982 citizenship law, in accordance with international norms. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this timely and important debate on the issues facing Burma. I thank him for his usual courtesy in giving us sight of his speech so that I am able to refer to a number of the issues he raised. I also thank Members for attending the debate, a larger number than is usual for a late-night Adjournment debate, and for their obvious interest. There is no doubt that their interest in Burma, expressed over a lengthy period by their visits and interest in human rights issues—not least by yourself, Mr Speaker—has been supported by a number of their constituents. Allow me to set out the background to some changes before dealing with some of the issues raised by colleagues in their remarks.
The decision a year ago to suspend economic sanctions against Burma was a key step in encouraging the regime to continue down the road of democratic reform. The decision on 22 April by EU Foreign Ministers to lift those sanctions, except the arms embargo, recognises the significant progress that has been made. By-elections a year ago gave Aung San Suu Kyi and her party 42 seats in Burma’s Parliament. Ceasefire agreements have been signed with 10 out of the 11 ethnic armed groups. We have seen many hundreds of political prisoners released. Daily newspapers are now sold on the streets of Rangoon, free from censorship. Those are real benefits to ordinary Burmese people who want to live, work and raise their families free from fear. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself said,
“It is time we let these sanctions go...we can't go on relying on sanctions for ever to aid the democracy movement.”
While it is right that we acknowledge the strides Burma has made towards reform since President Thein Sein took office in 2010, it is also right that we continue to express our concerns and take action. That same balance has been echoed by those who have spoken in the debate. Human rights remain at the heart of UK policy and our discussions with the Burmese Government. By lifting EU sanctions, we have paved the way for deeper engagement on issues of concern. Our engagement has, to date, yielded progress in a number of areas. The United Kingdom is supporting peace negotiations and reconciliation to turn ceasefires with ethnic armed groups into political dialogue. In Kachin state, we are cautiously optimistic about early engagement between the Burmese Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation. We recognise that a ceasefire agreement will require time and effort.
The language of the EU Council conclusions—referred to by a number of Members—which accompanied the lifting of sanctions highlights the need for action to address the conflict in Kachin state. The EU will not be short of determination to exert pressure in that regard, and we will not be short of determination to press our EU partners. We have said to both sides that we stand ready to support the process in any way we can.
On 15 April, the Burmese Minister for the President’s office, Aung Min, led a delegation to London, where they met the Foreign Secretary and other political figures before travelling to Northern Ireland to learn from our experiences there. Once again, people were given an opportunity to learn about reconciliation from the pain and difficulty experienced in Northern Ireland, and also from the political leadership that it has provided in recent years.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, and are now being reintegrated into society. On 23 April, the Burmese Government announced the further release of more than 50. We are delighted that prominent members of the “88 Generation” of former political prisoners will visit the UK in June. However, about 200 remain in prison. We will continue to put pressure on the Burmese Government to ensure that their political prisoner review mechanism is comprehensive and transparent, leading to the release of all political prisoners, which was one of the requests listed by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
Britain is Burma’s largest bilateral aid donor. We are providing £187 million between 2011 and 2015 to support education, health care and governance. Despite its massive development potential, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia. Lasting prosperity for the Burmese people will also come from responsible business investment, which will create much-needed jobs and opportunities for training and education. That is why, last month, G8 Foreign Ministers, under British chairmanship, endorsed the Burmese Government’s calls for responsible investment in Burma.
Responding to a request from Aung San Suu Kyi, we are supporting the development of Burma’s Parliament and strengthening democratic accountability. Last month, three Burmese Members of Parliament visited the UK to learn about budget scrutiny. That work will grow and continue.
May I ask a question about bilateral aid? Will the Minister tell us—or otherwise arrange for a letter to be placed in the Library, or write to hon. Members—about the financial and technical assistance that we are offering to the various United Nations and humanitarian agencies, particularly those that are working in Rakhine state? Will he also tell us whether we are offering similar support to agencies which are working with refugees and asylum seekers who are in Bangladesh, having fled from Burma?
Is the Minister aware that the non-governmental organisations that have been working to support Rakhine refugees in Chittagong do not have access to the camps, and that the position is getting worse? Will he ensure that his colleagues in the Department for International Development apply pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that access is provided? We are a major donor to Bangladesh, and it is not clear why we are not applying such pressure. Bangladesh does not even accept the existence of an informal camp.
There is also the question of humanitarian access, involving the international multilateral institutions that we support. The World Health Organisation has not been doing enough work to get assistance to people who desperately need health care, and there is a major issue of segregation in the hospitals. That is costing lives. Will the Minister make further representations?
My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi takes these matters extremely seriously, and she has, indeed, pressed Bangladesh on this issue. She has taken this issue directly to the Bangladeshis. It is not a matter on which the United Kingdom can give a guarantee, of course, but I assure the hon. Lady that the UK takes very seriously the issues of access and recognition for refugees that are facing Bangladesh.
The Minister will be aware that Human Rights Watch produced a report that agreed that ethnic cleansing had taken place. Has he applied any pressure either through our Government or Europe to ensure that that report’s findings are made known and action is taken?
The Human Rights Watch report contained a number of disturbing and specific allegations, which we believe are backed up by comprehensive evidence. We are following up on them with the Burmese Government. If serious crimes have been committed, those who perpetrated them must be held accountable for their actions. We, too, take that report as extremely credible.
I had just reached the “but” point in my remarks about Burma. While recognising that some progress has been made, and having responded to that sense from colleagues, there is a but, and, as colleagues know, it is a big but.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made abundantly clear:
“The work of the EU in Burma is not remotely finished.”
There are many significant challenges facing the Burmese people, particularly on human rights and ethnic reconciliation. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and other colleagues who have spoken for again bringing to the attention of the House the many extremely concerning examples of human rights violations, and for further highlighting the urgent action that the Burmese Government, with the support of the international community, must take. I also thank the non-governmental organisations and others who are engaged in this difficult work, including some friends of ours, such as Ben Rogers.
The UK was one of the leading voices behind this year’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma. The resolution recognised progress had been made, but highlighted Burma as a country of concern to the international community and extended the mandate of the UN special rapporteur for a further 12 months. It called on the Burmese Government to adhere to a number of pledges, including opening an in-country office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and signing up to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which my hon. Friend rightly highlighted in his speech.
During a visit to Burma in December, the Minister for Asia, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), pressed senior Government Ministers there to make progress on both these points, as well as on the convention against torture and its optional protocol. We will continue to lobby the Burmese Government to ensure that they make progress against these and all their human rights commitments.
We continue to raise our concerns about human rights abuses in Kachin state. During the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Asia, he pressed the Burmese Government—[Interruption.] I should have said the Minister for Asia; my right hon. Friend’s constituency may be large, but it is not that large. He pressed the Burmese Government to ensure humanitarian access to all conflict-affected populations in Kachin state. The Department for International Development has allocated £3.5 million to support humanitarian needs in Kachin, making the UK the largest bilateral donor there. This aid is helping meet food security, shelter, water, sanitation, health, and bedding needs, and it is reaching conflict-affected areas. We continue to call for unhindered humanitarian access at every opportunity.
Sexual violence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate also rightly raised, is an issue that the Foreign Secretary has made a key priority. The British Government proactively lobby the Burmese Government on the rights of women, particularly the need to take measures to prevent sexual violence against women in conflict areas. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia raised this issue with Burmese Ministers during his visit in December.
We are also taking a number of targeted actions. We provide support to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to fulfil the Burmese Government’s obligations under the convention for the elimination of discrimination against women, to which they are a signatory. We support legal assistance centres in Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, which can help support victims of rape to secure access to justice, and we work closely with the UN in Rakhine state to strengthen its work to prevent, and respond to, sexual violence there. Our embassy in Rangoon is exploring options to increase our engagement on this concerning issue.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the work to prevent sexual violence. May I take it that Burma is included in the prevention of sexual violence initiative, in which the Foreign Secretary is taking a key lead? Is Burma one of the countries included in the initiative?
I do not believe that Burma is technically included at present, but not all the countries in which we consider sexual violence to be a matter are necessarily included in the initiative at this stage. The point I was making is that this area is of significance to the Government and the Foreign Secretary, and if somewhere is not technically included in an initiative, that should not be taken as indicating a lack of interest or engagement. The points will still be made, and my right hon. Friend will have taken the point made by my hon. Friend.
The United Kingdom has been one of the most vocal members of the international community in calling for action in Rakhine state, and we continue to lobby on the issue internationally. The UK requested the recent briefing in April of the UN Security Council by the UN special envoy, and the Minister for Asia was the first EU Minister to visit in the aftermath of the violence last year. We note the release of the Rakhine commission report on 29 April into the causes of last year’s violence, and we are examining its many detailed recommendations —that deals with the point about our response made by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). We have consistently called on the Burmese Government to take action to meet humanitarian needs, ensure security and accountability, and to address the rights of the Rohingya people to citizenship. We are of course deeply concerned by Human Rights Watch’s most recent report, which contained a number of disturbing allegations. We regularly raise specific allegations of human rights abuses with the Burmese Government at the most senior levels, and we will continue to do so.
Some 140,000 internally displaced people, mostly Rohingya, are living in overcrowded camps vulnerable to flooding. When my right hon. Friend Baroness Warsi met the Minister responsible for Rakhine state on 15 April, he pledged to ensure that all those at risk would be moved to safe areas. Lobbying alongside the UN, the United States, Australia and the EU, we have also strongly reinforced the message—as I indicated a moment ago—that NGOs operating in Rakhine state must be granted the freedom to operate, free from bureaucratic constraints. We gave £2 million over the past financial year to support humanitarian efforts in Rakhine state, and we are considering new plans to contribute to efforts to support and protect the displaced this year.
Further violence will be averted only through security and the establishment of the rule of law, and we again call on the Burmese Government to uphold those. All those guilty of having instigated, incited or carried out violence in Rakhine state need to be held accountable for those crimes. This should be done through a just, clear and transparent process, but it must be done.
The plight of the Rohingya, a people who have lived in Burma for many centuries, will not be resolved until the long-term issue of their citizenship is addressed. It is essential that the Burmese Government uphold the rights of all individuals, including the right of the Rohingya to nationality and freedom of movement. We note the Rakhine commission report’s recommendations in that regard and we will push to ensure that the solution meets the criteria I have set out.
As Members have indicated this evening, we are also extremely concerned about the violence directed against Muslim communities in other parts of Burma. The attacks against Muslims in central Burma in March and in Oakkan, near Rangoon, just last week point to a highly worrying new trend. We continue to make our concerns very clear. More work needs to be done by the Burmese Government to bring the organisers and perpetrators of violence to account. Both Baroness Warsi and the Foreign Secretary raised our concerns with senior Burmese Ministers on 15 and 16 April. Along with the EU, in response to a request from the Government and Aung San Suu Kyi, we are reviewing what steps we might take to assist with police and security reform.
As well as upholding the rule of law and ensuring accountability, the Burmese Government must tackle the hostility underlying the recent attacks. President Thein Sein’s speech earlier this week, in which he called on Burmese citizens to stand up against hatred and to reach out to those of different beliefs and backgrounds, will be an important starting point. We have provided funds for inter-faith dialogue in Burma, and will continue to do so, in order to build trust between communities. We have encouraged the Burmese Government to issue a formal invitation to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit Burma and assess the situation.
After almost half a century of repression, the last two years have seen Burma make progress towards the goal of being a freer and more democratic nation, but as the House indicates, and as my remarks have set out, there is still much to do to achieve greater democracy. To make progress, Burma must deal with the ethnic conflict it faces and tackle discrimination against minority groups. As colleagues know, this is not my normal area within the portfolio, although I have spoken on Burma before and, as a practising Christian, it pains me to see how religion is used, and faith is abused, to separate people and inflict cruelty and wickedness on others. We see that time and again in too many other places. We need religious leaders of all faiths to speak out against such actions constantly, so that faith is not abused in the way we have heard described tonight.
We will continue to engage with the Burmese Government to shape the process of reform. We want the United Kingdom to contribute with meaningful and targeted assistance, whether in reforming the economy or supporting Burma’s nascent institutions. Above all, we will ensure that human rights and ethnic reconciliation remain high on the agenda.
This is just the beginning of a process which could transform the lives of millions of people. It will not be completed overnight; it will take time. The British Government and the European Union will continue to be a constructive, supportive and critical partner, committed to supporting reform moves under the President and Aung San Suu Kyi, in order to see a stable, prosperous, more democratic Burma, where the human rights of all people will be respected. The House, and those we represent, will accept nothing less.
Question put and agreed to.