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Volume 576: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014

During my second visit to Burma in January, I met Aung San Suu Kyi, key Ministers, the Speaker, and the Commander-in-Chief. I discussed the need for constitutional reform and continued progress in the peace talks, and I raised in strong terms our concerns about human rights and about the situation in Rakhine state. I was also the first British Minister to visit Kachin state since Burma gained independence in 1948. Among other things, I met a group of Kachin world war two veterans, and paid tribute to their exceptional and brave service during the war.

I thank the Minister for his response, and pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker: if you had not raised the issue of political prisoners with the General and Ministers during your recent trip, they would not have been released.

May I urge the Minister to press the Burmese Government? There is still concern about the census. Many people have been displaced, Médecins Sans Frontières has been suspended from Rakhine, and there needs to be constitutional reform by 2015 if there are to be free and fair elections.

We approach this issue in a spirit of agreement, and, in accordance with the pledge that I had given the hon. Lady previously, I was able to raise the issue of political prisoners. I believe that there are still 30 whose cases are disputed.

As for the census, the hon. Lady will be aware that we are providing funds for it, and that it is the first census to take place for a very long time. There are issues surrounding it, but we believe that it is the right course. I believe that our engagement with Burma is on the right lines, but serious issues remain, not least the continuing problems in Rakhine.

I welcome what the Minister has said, and his engagement with Burma. Of course there are many challenges within the country, but does he not accept that the steps towards peace and democracy deserve our support and wholehearted engagement while the opportunity presents itself?

Yes, I do. I have been able to discuss the situation with Baroness Amos, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, in the last couple of weeks. I also discussed it yesterday in Geneva with António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and last night with Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

We are all extremely concerned about aspects of what is still going on in Burma, but we believe that, with our support across the board, the Burmese Government need encouragement on the path towards democracy. It was never going to be easy, but we must redouble our efforts to ensure that they deliver on the pledges that they have made.

On Friday I met representatives of the Karen community who have been settled in Sheffield for some period now. They expressed great concern about Karen people in Burma, despite the peace talks. What is the Foreign Office doing to look at the situation of the many ethnic groups in Burma, not just the Rohingya Muslims, and to ensure there really is peace and that they are given support to integrate properly into society throughout Burma?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that. We are extremely concerned about allegations of human rights violations and inter-communal violence. We have discussed this right across the board with Burma’s leaders and with Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The census is an important step. Whatever kind of Government then come about in Burma will, to my way of thinking, have to recognise some of the differences in the different parts of that country. Human rights are universal; we cannot pick and choose them, and everyone in that country is entitled to the same protection as everyone else, regardless of their ethnicity.

Knowledge is key in promoting democracy. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the assistance this House is giving in setting up the library in the new Burmese Parliament?

Yes I do, and you, Mr Speaker, and others at all levels in this place are trying to show best practice. In effect, we are trying to build a democratic country in a country that has not been a democracy. We are trying to embed democratic institutions and that requires a lot of work, and I pay tribute to those right across this House—officials, civil servants, Ministers, Opposition MPs. All of us have a part to play in this, given our long-standing close affinity and history with that country.