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Burmese Army

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

3. What support his Department has offered to the Burmese army; and what his Department’s objectives are for such work. (902315)

Our support to the Burmese military is limited to providing courses that address subjects such as accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. We have neither provided any training that would enhance combat capability, nor do we plan to do so. The Burmese military are a central political actor in Burma and are key to the process of political reform. It will only be through engagement with all actors, including the military, that we will see greater democracy in Burma, something I am sure the whole House would welcome.

I thank the Minister for that clarification and for the tone of his response, but civil society organisations in Burma have expressed concern that, given the human rights situation there, our involvement could be rather premature. What conditions were imposed on the Burmese army in return for UK assistance, and how will the Ministry of Defence monitor the Burmese army’s compliance with international law in future, particularly on the use of child soldiers and impunity for human rights abuses?

There are two points to make. First, the trainees who undertook the course were selected by the Burmese army. We are not aware of any involvement in human rights abuses by any of those course participants. Secondly, the House should be aware that in a speech at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last October, which was broadcast on Burmese television and covered by the international media, Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged the UK to engage with the Burmese military and appealed directly to the Burmese army, saying that she wanted it to be a professional military of the highest standard and noting that the most respected armies in the world were apolitical.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only by engaging with the Burmese army that we can have any hope of positively influencing human rights issues and democratic accountability and that, on balance—it is a balance—that outweighs the risk of coming into contact with individuals who might have been involved in abuses in the past?

I understand my hon. Friend’s question, and I am mindful of his previous military service. The whole House will understand that Burma has a complicated history and that this is a difficult situation, but given that, and given the fact that the Burmese military have an important role in the Burmese political system, if we are to encourage reform, which we would all like to see, it is right that we engage with the military, although we maintain a strong commitment to human rights in everything we do in that context.

I visited Burma last year as a member of the International Development Committee, and some of us met General Aung Min, who is leading the peace process. I believe it is extremely important that our military develop relationships with their military and pass on some of the lessons we learnt from the Northern Ireland peace process. I strongly encourage the Government to ensure that that happens.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am mindful that he represents a constituency with a significant military component. The previous Chief of the Defence Staff has visited Burma and engaged with the Burmese military at senior level, and as I said, we are undertaking our course of action partly on the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.