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Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you, on behalf of my colleagues the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for granting us this debate, which seeks to place on the record details of our recent Speaker’s delegation visit to Burma? I want to set out the background to the visit, what we saw on the visit and points of action to influence Government policy on Burma. I am sure that we can, between us, cover the events of what was a remarkable experience.

Mr Speaker, you have been most gracious in inviting me to accompany you. Of course, I also have to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), because her not being available to make the visit enabled me to take her place. Following your invitation to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to speak to both Houses, you made it clear that, on behalf of Parliament, you wanted to leave a lasting legacy of help and support to Burma, particularly as you have had a long-standing interest in Burma. You said that you did not just want to have a visit and leave, but you wanted to fulfil your promise to Daw Suu to help in a practical way. At this stage, I want to thank the embassy in Burma and all its staff, your office and others in the House service who were involved in setting up the visit, organising and accompanying us to the meetings.

Mr Speaker, you said on many occasions at our meetings that we were not in Burma to tell the Burmese how to run their country, but that we were there to show them how we do our work here and how they can perhaps learn from us and adapt it for their use. So what did we see? May I pay tribute to you, again, Mr Speaker, for holding together and being the focus of the 24 meetings we had over eight days, and acknowledge your courageous speech at Yangon university, which may be a topic for a Speaker’s lecture?

We all appeared on our trip with the book by Benedict Rogers “Burma: a Nation at the Crossroads”, which was launched at the Speaker’s House. We note from the book that progress has been made. Despite the elections in 1990, the results of which have not been recognized, Daw Suu now sits in the Burmese Parliament, along with many other MPs and also the generals. At the Parliament in Nay Pyi Taw, we met both Speakers of the upper and lower Houses, the President, Minsters from the presidential office and committee chairs. The delegation managed to raise the issue of the release of political prisoners and I know that you, Mr Speaker, have already sent a list to the President’s office. The President had already agreed that the United Nations could set up an office for the human rights commissioner, but he was no clearer about when that would take place. I am pleased that the embassy now has a human rights post.

It seems to me that we can have influence on two levels: the political level and service level. Daw Suu said that she wants active parliamentarians and to give all MPs the tools to be effective MPs. We can help and are helping to set up a library. I explained that our Library provides research facilities for all Members on an independent and confidential basis. The right hon. Member for Gordon led the session on how Select Committees work, and as all the delegation had served on Select Committees we could show MPs that we can work together for the good of the country.

The non-governmental organisations we met told us that arbitrary arrests and detention had worsened over the past few months, which was something we also heard from members of the “88 Generation” who are still being arrested, having to pay fines and having their cases regularly adjourned. Getting permits to allow humanitarian aid is difficult, particularly in Kachin state. We also heard that the rice federation regulates itself and is headed by someone close to the Government. A major census was under way that would provide useful information in 2014, such as how many girls were getting equal education, or an education at all. An MP from Kachin state told me that displaced people could not return to their villages as there were landmines; we have the technology to help them move out of those camps.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving the House a chance to recognise the contribution that has been made. At the release of the Nobel prize laureate, there was a perception that democracy had returned. The House, Mr Speaker, the hon. Lady and her colleagues and many other Members have contributed to trying to help that move forward. Unfortunately, in Kachin province we have seen the persecution of the Christian minority and other groups. Human rights deprivations are rampant. Burma is now in the top 10 countries in records of human rights abuse. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Minister and our Government need to play a more effective role in stopping that happening and giving freedom to the people of Kachin province?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and absolutely agree with him. That is a still a big issue, which forms part of my 10-point plan. It is also a key point, as I was about to move on to the ethnic and religious differences.

Such differences are enshrined in everyday use: ethnic regions are states and Burmese areas are divisions. I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that one of the many highlights were our meetings with Rakhine and Rohingya representatives and representatives of the different faiths.

What of aid? When we give aid we give the gift of life, and Britain should be proud of its aid-giving programme. We saw the malaria clinic from which within 15 minutes they can find and treat a person who might have malaria. That is important for migrant workers because they tap rubber between 10 pm and 2 am when the mosquito is active. There was the HIV clinic, and the school we visited where we saw lively children singing and learning. There was a legal advice centre staffed with mainly women lawyers. We need to provide them with some of our legislation and books on administrative law.

What are my points of action? Many other countries are offering help. We know that the Foreign Minister from Poland has already hosted people from Burma to work on the United States Institute of Peace’s strategic economic needs and security exercise—SENSE—programme, which simulates government; and so has the Indian Parliament.

Here are my 10 suggestions. First, one person should co-ordinate or keep track of what work Britain is doing, based in either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development. Secondly, the work on setting up the library and research facilities for MPs should have a time limit.

Thirdly, there should perhaps be an induction course like the one we had for new Members in 2010. We already have the blueprint, so that could be done now. We could also offer work with the Select Committee structure. I do not know whether you recall, Mr Speaker, but one person asked, “How do we clone these officials?”

Fourthly, will the FCO or DFID work with the Burmese Government to ensure that humanitarian aid workers do not have to keep applying for a permit for different areas? The international organisations should be able to negotiate that. We also heard that Médecins sans Frontières doctors cannot work alongside Burmese doctors—why not?

Fifthly, there needs to be constitutional reform before the elections in 2015, not least to lower the age of MPs. Although age is quite rightly revered, many young people we met were ready to serve and want to be MPs. Importantly, Daw Suu should not be excluded from taking part in the presidential elections, but she currently is.

Sixthly, there should be regular discussions on the release of political prisoners. Can the Minister say what has become of those on Mr Speaker’s list? But might we also look to others who, you will recall, Mr Speaker, we heard may have committed serious crimes? Perhaps an international lawyer could review those cases.

Seventhly, progress must be made on setting up the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Eighthly, on the ethnic issue, there should be a new Panglong conference—along the lines of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement.

I commend the hon. Lady for the visit. It was a shame that I could not make it myself. Particularly on the “to do” list, what about responding to the Prime Minister, who in a letter to me on 4 September, said:


the Government—

“will monitor progress on Burma taking a zero tolerance approach to those who fuel ethnic hatred”?

Given that last week, on 29 September, there were significant outbreaks of violence, again against the Muslims in Thandwe, Rakhine state, and although there was control and order, the following day, as I understand, over 60 homes were destroyed and at least five people, including a 94-year-old Muslim woman, were believed to be killed, how can we in this country help to bring about that zero-tolerance approach to those issues of ethnic hatred?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who was sorely missed on the visit. I know he had another engagement, but perhaps he will visit another time. I agree with him. Part of my 10-point action plan should, I hope, address that issue. We need to keep monitoring because things are not changing as fast as we would like.

Let me return to my point No. 8—the ethnic issue and the Panglong conference. Mr Speaker, you will recall the number of times we said we had sorted things out in Northern Ireland. We know that people who were involved in Northern Ireland, who can help, are active in Burma. We need to get people into a room and draw up a schedule and heads of agreement. Perhaps someone like Mary Robinson could play the role of a George Mitchell character. She could chair such a conference.

The Rohingya said they want their right to live there to be recognised. They say they have the papers and a judgment from their Supreme Court. Representatives of the different faith groups, some of the great religions of the world, sat with us together in a room. They need to be encouraged to continue their joint work. There are many international inter-faith foundations that can take on this work, to keep putting out joint statements that they will not be divided on religious grounds.

Ninthly, civil society groups, which came together so notably during Cyclone Nargis, should be supported. Currently, they have to register as organisations; otherwise, they are deemed to be illegal. Could the FCO or DFID look at ways of supporting these organisations without going through the Government?

Tenthly, and probably most importantly, the rule of law needs to be firmly established, with an end to arbitrary arrests. People need to know the case against them and to have a fair hearing before an impartial court.

Those would, I hope, be our way of ensuring that the Government look at—

I am aware that the hon. Lady is painting a broad-brush picture, covering all the different ethnic groups, but there is a large Rohingya community in my constituency. Can the hon. Lady offer them any hope in terms of the persecution that they are facing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. The only comfort I can give him and them is that there are people, in this country and in the international community, who are aware and are watching what is happening. We have to monitor any movement that the Government in Burma make; they cannot talk about trade without also looking at human rights. Hopefully, that issue will also be part of the Panglong conference.

In conclusion, Burma knows that it is at a unique place in its history. Having met the Burmese people, I can see why Daw Suu could not leave them to suffer, and although there is progress, people are still being displaced and there are conflicts. However, there needs to be an irreversible move to democracy and the rule of law, so that the Burmese diaspora feel they can return to their country, and those who live there, eager to serve their country, can do so and live together in peace.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on securing the debate, and on the excellent 10 points that she has put forward, with which I wholly agree. I echo her thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for inviting us to be part of your delegation to Burma. It was a great privilege for us.

Our visit highlighted to us that while a great deal of progress has been made in Burma—or Myanmar, as we were told we should now consider calling it—over the past two years, there is still a long way to go before there will be full democratic involvement of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities. Fundamentally, that requires nationwide and meaningful dialogue with them.

I was tremendously encouraged by the meetings that we had with members of civil society, young people and minority ethnic and religious groups, and their determination to be a part of building a wholly peaceful Burma and to ensure that their country progresses from a fledgling to a more mature democratic state. The young people we met included 20 or so youth peace activists, some from a committee for working peace progress formed only six weeks earlier. Others were representatives from the Mon youth progressive organisation, journalists, a teacher, students, the Mon human rights organisation and the Mon youth education group.

I was most impressed by these young people’s perceptive and articulate response when asked what they wanted for their country. They had quite a list—ethnic equality, a genuine democracy, clarity of the rule of law to promote peace, a clear framework and timetable for a working plan towards peace across the nation, respect for human rights, self-determination, equality across the genders, strong federal Governments, meaningful engagement with civil society, that MPs should be more available to meet and be accountable to their constituents, and a Government who truly represent all the people, including all ethnic and religious groups. All this was from young people who have lived virtually all their lives under military rule. It gave me enormous encouragement that with such actively engaged minds and hearts, there is real hope for democratic progress in Myanmar.

I was also tremendously impressed by the meeting we had with young former prisoners of conscience, the “88 Generation”. What struck me was their lack of bitterness and their dedication to a country where so many of them have suffered so much, some imprisoned for years simply for speaking out politically under the former regime, yet they are still determined to use all their energy and limited resources to help bring about a freer society.

Can my hon. Friend give me encouragement that the entrenched attitudes in relation to ethnic division have not been passed on to the younger generation? For example, even in some non-governmental organisations, sadly, there is an entrenched view of Rohingya people. The double discrimination of not being Muslim and not being Rohingya has, sadly, had an effect on some children, making them afraid even to attend school. Has there been a reaction to that among young people who represent hope in the future?

I can indeed encourage my hon. Friend. The young people whom we met wanted to engage. They wanted to have a dialogue with other ethnic and religious groups and they were looking to the Government to take forward such a dialogue.

The former prisoners of conscience requested, among other things, that the Government address human rights violations in prisons, which are still continuing. I was pleased that during our meeting, when we raised concerns about recent mistreatment of prisoners at Myitkyina prison, the Minister in the President’s office, U Soe Thane, agreed to look into that. I hope it is now being urgently addressed.

Further requests from the former prisoners were for the urgent review of cases of those who are still in prison and whose only offence appears to have been to criticise the previous regime. If Burma is to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it is genuinely moving forward in its respect for freedom of speech, conscience and belief, this is essential. The former prisoners expressed concerns that the media are not wholly independent or free. A recent press law, they told us, limits rather than extends press freedom and was not preceded by promised dialogue between press industry representatives before being implemented.

Another former prisoner spoke of unfair legal procedures, often involving those accused having to go to court many times, and the overall impression that I had was that although there is change, a fundamental review of the legal sector, its practices and procedures is needed. We were told, too, of the need for the constitution to be amended so that it clearly bans the use of torture. Other issues raised with us included the fact that although new laws are passed, there is a lack of capacity to monitor their implementation, so that in some areas old laws are still being used. Individuals whom we met had been sentenced or told us about friends who had been sentenced within the past year for organising protests or allegedly inspiring people to riot, such as one young student who distributed CDs near a mosque.

Having said that, I was enormously encouraged by the visit to the free legal advice centre, which has been referred to, in the fourth largest city in Burma in Mon state. The 10 or so young trainee lawyers had three impressive objectives: to establish a steering group for a legal aid system; to provide legal advice and assistance to the poorest, including court representation; and to raise awareness that every citizen in the country should have legal rights under the law. Those aspiring young professionals were smart, visionary and personable, and at the same time they were realistic about the journey that they and their fellow countrymen have to make towards a new Burma. Meeting them and the other young people I have quoted gave me real hope that they could achieve that.

In closing, I have a few questions for the Minister. With regard to the need for a meaningful peace and a process of political dialogue that includes all relevant parties, what steps can our Government take to press for that, and what plans has DFID to increase humanitarian assistance for those who have been internally displaced or subjected to human rights violations? I ask him to consider the necessity of DFID ensuring that international efforts are co-ordinated. Finally, what is his assessment of the number of political prisoners still in jail? What can be done to ensure that they are released by the end of the year and that there are no more prisoners of conscience, political prisoners or unjustly imprisoned people in Burma?

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for inviting me to take part in the delegation and for leading it so ably. I congratulate the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing these matters to the House’s attention. The International Development Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, will be producing a report on Burma, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to elaborate on some of these findings and debate them more fully in the House. At this stage, I think that it is important that we hear from the Minister.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) for allowing me time to try to answer some of the questions. I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing the debate following what to all intents and purposes was clearly a very successful trip to Burma—we still call it Burma—along with you, Mr Speaker, and other Members of the House. The situation in Burma is rightly of great interest to many Members, so this is another opportunity for the Government to set out our approach.

We have a strong record of support for the Burmese people. Our bilateral relationship with the Burmese Government is more recent, but we are deepening and strengthening it as a platform for influencing and shaping the reform process. President Thein Sein came here in July, the first official visit to the UK by a Burmese President. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and separately my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I, used the visit to set out our aspirations for the relationship. We will be an open, constructive and critical partner of Burma, realistic about the scale of the transformation and the challenges that that entails and honest where we have concerns.

At the latest meeting of Friends of Burma—it was called Friends of Myanmar, to be fair—chaired by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at the UN General Assembly in New York just two weeks ago, I made a number of points. I reiterated the United Kingdom’s calls for the Burmese Government to honour their commitment to establish an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I also stressed the need for the Government to act to address the lack of citizenship for the Rohingya community and the incitement of inter-communal violence affecting Muslim communities in Rakhine, which I have visited, and other parts of Burma. It should be noted that it was the first such meeting attended by a Burmese Minister, which in itself is an encouraging step.

There are signs that the ambitions of the Burmese people for greater democracy are slowly being met. In June the Foreign Office hosted members of the “88 Generation” movement, and they were delighted to meet fellow Members of this House, some of whom are among us this evening, to discuss their thoughts for the future. In August I welcomed the fact that the people of Burma were able to commemorate freely the bravery and sacrifices of those who campaigned and marched for democracy during the student uprisings of 1988.

Earlier today President Thein Sein took another small step towards fulfilling the commitment he gave during his visit to London to free all political prisoners by the end of the year. We welcomed the announcement that over 50 political prisoners are to be released. We will continue to press for the release of all political prisoners. As I said in New York, releasing political prisoners is one thing, but we do not expect the jails to be filled up with new political prisoners. Releases of longer-standing political prisoners are welcome, but ongoing detentions of political activists remain a cause of concern. We will continue to lobby on specific cases, and to press for the repeal of repressive legislation.

There are indications that the ethnic conflict that has blighted Burma since independence could end. Recent fighting in Shan and Kachin emphasises the need for continued concern, and the Kachin Independence Organisation remains in constructive dialogue with the Burmese Government. We are providing £13.5 million of humanitarian aid to Kachin this year, the largest bilateral contribution of any donor. We welcome the clear commitment the Government have made towards political dialogue. As the hon. Member for Walsall South said, UK experts have shared lessons from our experiences in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to offer our support to all sides.

Our aid continues to form a vital part of our engagement. By 2015, the Department for International Development will have delivered over £180 million, providing health care, tackling extreme poverty and assisting those affected by conflict. I heard clearly what the hon. Member for Walsall South said about better co-ordinating the efforts of some of these agencies.

We are helping the Government and others improve transparency and create a responsible business environment, we are strengthening the work of Parliament and civil society and we are helping Burma's efforts with ethnic reconciliation and the peace process.

As the right hon. and hon. Members who accompanied you, Mr Speaker, on a visit to Burma in July will have seen, the Government and this Parliament are delivering significant and valued support to Burma's Parliament. This support has been requested by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, reflecting the world renowned reputation and expertise of this Parliament. Through an exchange of visits, which we plan to continue, we are helping Burmese parliamentarians to develop a culture of holding the Executive to account; sharing the extensive knowledge of the Libraries so that the Burmese parliamentary staff can produce high quality research and draft better legislation; and allowing the Burmese Public Accounts Committee to examine the best practices of its British counterpart in monitoring public expenditure.

Burma's Parliament has also formed a committee to review the constitution. The work of this committee is fundamental to achieving Burma's eventual democratisation. During the President's visit to the UK, the Prime Minister welcomed the prospect of free and fair elections in 2015, and emphasised the importance of completing necessary changes to the constitution. I send this message again clearly and loudly now.

Recent events demonstrate only too clearly that the situation in Rakhine remains volatile. We called immediately for action to restore security and the rule of law in response to the violence last week, and we welcome both the President's visit to the scene and the arrests of suspected perpetrators. We have pledged £4.4 million to further the humanitarian effort. During my visit last year, I called for more co-ordinated action by the UN and the Burmese Government to ensure that assistance reaches those among the displaced who need it most. We continue to monitor the situation carefully. Continued action and strong political leadership are needed to resolve the citizenship status of the Rohingya community, and underlying sources of tension.

The Government share the concerns echoed by many Members regarding sexual violence against women in Burma. This is an important issue to address, as the President acknowledged during his visit here. I pressed the Burmese Foreign Minister to endorse the Foreign Secretary's preventing sexual violence initiative—signed by 119 other countries—and protocol at the UN General Assembly. We will continue lobbying to strengthen accountability systems and eliminate impunity for rape in Burma.

The British Government are committed to a stable, prosperous, more democratic Burma, where the human rights of all its peoples—of any religion and any ethnicity—are upheld, and where diversity is valued as a strength. We should not forget how far Burma was from this goal only two years ago. Continued progress will require determination, commitment and energy from the Burmese President and his Government. We will seek to deepen our engagement, offering support where it is requested and continuing to press where changes still need to be made.

It is not only the Burmese President and his Government who need to show determination, commitment and energy; it is parliamentarians in this House—in both Houses—who have expressed solidarity with the people of Burma and who want to see a better future for them. I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on taking your group to Burma. I hope we will have many more exchanges and visits on both sides in order that we can export some of our best practice to the Burmese and show them that a fair and proper democratic society where people of all races, ethnicities and religions are respected is the way forward for a country in the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.