Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
It is good to appear before you today, Mr Howarth. I thank the Minister for also appearing today. His portfolio covers many difficult issues, not least of which is the one we are discussing. I do appreciate that. I also thank other hon. Members who have been involved in raising this issue. I have spoken to some of them this morning. They are genuinely interested in the issue and concerned, and have previously initiated various debates in their own right, which gives an indication of their support for raising the issue, but they could not be here today.
Let me explain why I continue to want to raise this issue. The little secret is that seven or eight years ago, I had to google “Rohingya” to find out what the group was and what its background and history was. That arose when I was approached as a Bradford councillor, which I was then, through a housing association that had been contracted to provide accommodation and support to a group of Rohingya who were coming or wanted to come to Bradford through the Gateway programme, and we did provide a lot of support. There are certainly no votes in this, but there is now an important group of people, whom I consider to be Bradfordians and constituents, who regularly raise with me appalling stories of what is happening. The new arrivals originally came from Bangladesh. We campaigned hard on some of the issues faced by the Rohingyans in the camps in Bangladesh, but obviously in the last few years a new issue has emerged in the public’s awareness—the issue was not new in itself, but it was new in terms of public awareness. I refer to the activities that were taking place in Burma or Myanmar, and those are the ones that I want to talk about today.
The UN special rapporteur, Mr Quintana, produced a report back in April, and I will need to quote from it at some length, because this is someone who knows the issues. He has been to Burma many times—nine times, I think—and has visited some of the most difficult areas in Kachin and Rakhine. He reported back a sombre tale of his time in Myanmar.
The good news, at the beginning of Mr Quintana’s report, was about the release of many prisoners of conscience—more than 1,000—but some of his other comments make pretty worrying reading. In particular, he raised the ongoing issue in Burma of human rights. Despite the release of political prisoners and other reforms that are taking place, he had to conclude that he saw
“no improvements in the human rights situation.”
Indeed, he believed that the situation was getting worse, from what was “an already dire state.” He found that the practice of separating or segregating communities
“continues to have a severe impact on the Muslim populations in Rakhine…and in particular the Rohingya community.”
The discriminatory and really quite strict restrictions on freedom of movement for Muslim populations remain in place, as the Minister is well aware. Mr Quintana concluded that part of the report by saying that that continues to affect
“a range of other human rights including”—
sadly—“the right to life.”
So serious are some of the issues that Mr Quintana identified and experienced that he went on to conclude that the extrajudicial killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence—
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He will be aware that since 2011 the Christian community in Burma has been persecuted dramatically, with 64 women and girls raped, 66 churches destroyed, 200 villages burnt down and more than 100,000 people displaced. Right up to 2013, there were gang rapes, as he has mentioned. Surely more pressure should be brought to bear on the Burmese Government to stop this horrendous activity.
That is absolutely right. The fact that many of my comments, because of issues raised by my constituents, refer to the Muslim Rohingya in no way minimises the atrocities that are committed against other groups as well.
These issues are very serious. I started to mention some of them. Others include the lack of due process, fair trials and rights; forcible transfers; and the deprivation of liberty for so many people. These are not isolated incidents; they are happening on a large scale and are directed, in many cases, against the Rohingya population. So serious is the situation that the special rapporteur concluded that they amount to “systematic human rights violations”. They are so serious that they should be referred to the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. They are crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome statute and need to be elevated to that level in the public consciousness. We are talking about the worst of the worst.
I know that the Minister is aware of the report, and other hon. Members may want to pick out specific points, but it contains a whole series of recommendations, many of which the British Government could contribute to. I will come to specific actions that I and others believe the Government could and should take. More recently—again, the Minister will be aware of this—there has been a report back to the United Nations by the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ms Kyung-wha Kang. If anyone has not seen the video of the interview and questioning that took place, I recommend that they watch it. The report back to the UN was made only two weeks ago—I think it was 17 or 18 June; it was very recently. She points out that this is the second anniversary of the inter-communal violence in Rakhine and the third anniversary of the terrible conflict in Kachin.
The UN Assistant Secretary-General found that there were severe issues in providing access to international humanitarian aid. It is restricted, although in different ways, in the two states to which I have referred. In Kachin, there are up to 100,000—the point about the scale of this has already been made—displaced people in camps. Half are in Government camps, where some aid, of a limited nature, is possible and available. However, half are in IDP—internally displaced people—camps, which are under independent army control and where access is simply unobtainable.
The level of suffering is indicated in the comments of the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who said that in Rakhine she witnessed
“a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before”.
Men, women and children are living in appalling conditions, with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, in camps and isolated villages. In Rakhine, there are estimated to be 140,000 displaced people, 90% of whom are Muslims, although there are some of other faiths. The problems are made worse by the fact that Rakhine is the poorest state in Myanmar. We can take it as a common state of existence that there is no electricity, no schools, no toilet facilities and no freedom of movement. Many people have been living in those conditions for years, although such accommodation—if we can call it accommodation—was supposed to be temporary.
In theory, humanitarian aid can be provided in those areas, but in practice it is much more difficult for a whole host of reasons. The first of those is travel; the Minister, who has visited the area, will know far more about that than I do. The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs pointed out that a two-hour boat ride was required to reach one of the camps, let alone to transport any aid. There are also administrative barriers to obtaining authorisation. Often, the local community are at best distrustful and at worst hostile towards aid workers, whom they believe favour the Muslim community. We are talking about people who are in desperate straits. Humanitarian aid workers, who are incredible human beings who risk their own safety and put their lives at risk, are treated with hostility because they are thought to favour a particular group.
The real concern, as the Minister knows, is the continued statelessness of the Rohingya, on which there seems to be very little progress. It is telling that Ms Kang was advised not to refer to the Rohingya as Rohingya, because to do so would be controversial and might trigger tension, which might provoke a violent reaction. Considering the awful past in Burma, it appears that relationships with other states, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have improved—although they could not really have been much worse. Notwithstanding Ms Kang’s comments about the negative aspects of the situation, to which I have referred to, she pointed out that huge strides had been made in political and economic reform, but little progress seems to have been made on the question of the Rohingya in Rakhine. She echoed Mr Quintana’s comments about the need for a change in culture. Pressure is being applied for constitutional change, but a fundamental reconciliation and a change in culture are the most important things. What is the point of a constitutional change if it is not supported by a change in attitude and culture in the region?
There are some points that I would like the Minister to respond to. Ms Kang refers in her statement to the Government action plan on Rakhine. Does the Minister know anything about that, and what progress is being made on it? There is also an opinion—I would like to know whether the Minister is aware of it—that the UK Government’s criticism of the Myanmar Government is muted because foreign Governments do not want to disrupt the progress being made and are therefore taking a softly, softly approach. We want reforms to continue, but that cannot happen at the cost of providing much-needed support for the Rohingya. Defending the Rohingya cannot be seen as contrary to a desire to support changes and reform in the country.
There is also a view that the reforms to date have simply been a smokescreen—that the President is carrying out limited reforms with a view to trying to get the international community to remove or reduce sanctions. As I understand it, some sanctions have been removed, so the strategy is working. It does not seem to be of any benefit to the Rohingya, however. I am grateful to the Burma Campaign UK, which has supplied me and other Members with briefing material over the last several months. The campaign has raised some specific concerns, to which I would like the Minister to respond. One is the census in Burma, to which the UK contributed £10 million. As the Minister knows, however, the promise that the Rohingya would be allowed to register as Rohingya was not kept. That is a broken promise. There is also a view that the Minister was somewhat snubbed and was banned from making a planned speech at Rangoon university; I do not know whether that is true. In addition, within hours of his visiting Kachin state and calling for peace, the Burmese army attacked two civilian villages.
There is also the issue of the limitations being placed on the numbers of children that Muslims can have and the restrictions on non-Buddhist men that prevent them from marrying Buddhist women. I find the whole question of the Buddhist faith difficult, and it is not something I have a great deal of knowledge about. Some time ago, however, I saw a BBC report—I think it was—of a Buddhist monk who was justifying the slaughter of children. When he was asked how he could possibly justify that and be a Buddhist, his response was: “It’s a bit like weeding a garden: if you want to get rid of the weeds, you have to get right down to the roots.” The killing of children was therefore justified on the basis of destroying the roots of a plant to prevent it from growing and becoming a problem later. It was sickening and appalling, and if that is Buddhism, I have a completely wrong perception of what that religion is.
There is also the question of political prisoners. More than 1,000 political prisoners of conscience have been released, but I understand that the number of political prisoners is increasing again. The number of people being held has doubled this year. Many prisoners were released with the intention of removing sanctions, but we now have another escalation in the persecution of political prisoners. I do not know the details of the Andy Hall case, and I do not know whether the Minister has any comments. Does he know of that case? If Andy Hall is convicted, he could face many years in prison, but I am not too aware of the case.
The other issue is military training, which I and others have raised in parliamentary questions. Military training, like many of the other things to which I have referred, could have been used as a lever to try to bring about improvements, particularly for the Rohingya.
I have seen research showing that young Christian adults and teenagers have been threatened with conscription to the army if they do not give up their faith. They are told to shave their head, as the Buddhists do. If not for charities such as Barnabas and others, which provide shoes and clothing to Christians in Burma, they would be in a very bad state.
That echoes the familiar pattern that emerges. Burma is almost like two nations. Good news stories continually come out about the progress that is being made, and on the other side there are horrendous atrocities and abysmal behaviour towards large sections of the ethnic minority communities. It is almost like two parallel worlds that exist alongside each other. I can understand why we want to encourage one side to improve and become part of the international community and—if we want to be cynical—to develop trade. We know the benefits of international trade and how it can bring about political reform, but what about the other side? What about the daily reports of behaviour that would be unacceptable in any other part of the world?
Burma Campaign UK has produced eight steps that it believes the British Government could take to improve human rights in Burma. First, the Government should put human rights—not trade or political reform, but human rights—at the top of the agenda, elevating human rights as the Government’s policy priority in Burma. Secondly, the Government should support an international investigation into human rights violations against the Rohingya. We hear about various internal investigations, but an international investigation is required into what the UN special rapporteur believes to be crimes against humanity.
Thirdly, the Government need to consider the use of aid as a lever. I believe that twice as much aid— £20 million—is spent on building Government capacity and moving towards democracy than is spent on helping civil society and relations between the different ethnic groups across Burma. Is that the right balance? As I said earlier, there seems to be a view that if we can bring about political reform and constitutional change, everything else will follow. That view is contested by those who believe that cultural change is required as well as constitutional change.
Burma Campaign UK also calls for a global summit on countering hate speech. The Minister may want to say something about that, as it has been well documented. Hate speech is becoming a severe problem, and such a summit should not be a talking shop, but should lead to a clear action plan with significant—it would have to be significant—international funding and technical expertise provided to address hate speech. Further, the campaign recommends that the UK Government should make any future training of the Burmese military conditional on the ending of Burma’s tactics in ethnic states. There is clearly a lot for which the Burmese Government are either responsible or to which they turn a blind eye.
Burma Campaign UK also recommends that the UK Government should support the establishment of an international investigation into rape and sexual violence in Burma, which has continued unabated since Thein Sein became President. No steps seem to have been taken and impunity seems to be a major problem. Human rights violations are committed on a regular basis, with impunity for the perpetrators.
The campaign calls for support for an internal, cross-departmental investigation into the decision to fund the census. Again, was that another lost opportunity to provide something that would lever the changes we seek? Finally, the campaign supports a new independent review mechanism for political prisoners in Burma. We welcome the number of prisoners who were released, but it seems that, after the international acclaim and praise for those actions, the Burmese Government simply reverted back to their old ways. The review mechanism has to be lifted out of the internal investigations and appraisals within Burma and be done by the international community.
There are quite a few things there, and I hope others want to contribute, but the main message that I bring to the debate is the frustration felt by everyone who understands the issues, particularly those from within the Rohingya community, which I now know very well. The Rohingya community has fitted into our own community, but it feels totally powerless about what is happening so far away. The Rohingya community believes that its cause is not forgotten, but is not considered a top priority compared with other important international diplomatic measures.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The census was supported by UK funding, but the Rohingya are not only not counted, but are not allowed to describe themselves as Rohingya, so we are not aware of the scale of the problem. We can only conclude that the problem is greater than is publicly known. That, among many others, is an issue that I hope the Minister will address.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate and to see the Minister back in his usual spot; as always, we look forward to a very good response from him. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate and giving us this opportunity to participate.
In this House, we are charged with the responsibility of looking after our constituents—in my case, the constituents of Strangford. But the people of Strangford, along with all the other constituents across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, have an interest in what happens in the rest of the world. They are interested in what happens to ethnic minorities. They are also interested in those who are being persecuted for their faith, and I would like to comment on that.
The topic of this debate is the situation in Burma and the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities. I will comment on the Rohingya minority and how they are being persecuted for their faith, and also talk about those who are persecuted because of their Christian faith, which is equally important.
It is very sad that we should again be discussing tragedies in Burma, which concern Members here, those who would have liked to be here and those who have raised the issue in Adjournment debates both in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. Burma, as we all know, is a troubled region with a troubled past. We become aware of that when we read the history and observe what has happened. Decades of military dictatorships have wreaked havoc in the country, and ethnic people, especially those in resource-rich areas and areas of armed conflict, have paid the highest price—with their lives, both in deaths and in injuries. In the past 13 years, more than 3,500 ethnic villages have been destroyed in Burma.
I am conscious of the background information. In particular, I take note of the comments made by United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang. She said that the level of suffering that she saw in Arakan was something she has never seen before anywhere in the world. That puts into context the issue before us. Such devastation and malice are incomprehensible.
The UN listed the crimes by the state of Burma as including forced relocation, forced labour and sexual violence, which both the hon. Member for Bradford East and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned. The calculated rape and murder of women and young girls are completely unacceptable. That they are being carried out by the Burmese army on some occasions is even more incomprehensible, and that underlines the need to do something about it.
We saw extrajudicial killings, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers on our television screens last week—not in Burma, but in Iraq, where children as young as 10 were carrying weapons. How can that be? It is happening in Burma as well. All that is bad in a conflict zone has taken place in Burma.
I shall quickly comment on the issue of war crimes. Our background information mentions that a massacre of Rohingya Muslims took place in January this year. I am a Christian, but I believe strongly in freedom of religion for everyone. I believe strongly that those who want to practise other religions should be able to. The massacre of Rohingya Muslims occurred in the northern part of the Rakhine state in that month. Some 48 Rohingya men, women and children were brutally murdered and slain in the village of Du Chee Yar Tan, and they included the local police sergeant. The Government have flatly denied that there have been any killings. Thousands of people have been killed and injured, with between 120,000 and 140,000 displaced. There clearly is an issue, and we cannot close our eyes to what is happening around us.
For those people in Rakhine state and the north of Burma, I put this point: what is happening in Burma that we as a Government can respond to? I have every faith in the Minister; I genuinely mean that. I know that when he responds, he will do so in the light of research and with compassion.
My hon. Friend may be aware that recently—I think on 27 or 28 May—a draft religious conversion Bill was introduced in Burma. Anyone who wants to marry in to or convert to another faith, or marry inter-faith, would have to ask for permission through some specially set-up local authority. That is an absolute nonsense, but it is how people are being treated over there. Any violator of the legislation could, I understand, receive at least a two-year sentence in Burmese prisons.
My hon. Friend is right. How wrong can it be? We are confronted on many occasions with examples where human rights and the freedoms of expression and religion are denied to people. The Government there are apt to introduce legislation that restricts those rights. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House; I was going to comment on that further on in my speech.
Speaking of such crimes, the website Burma Partnership says that documentation
“demonstrates that attacks on civilian populations are not isolated, but are widespread and systematic tactics of the regime”—
that is, the Government—
“used to secure their economic and political control. As such, they constitute not only human rights violations, but are crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
When we talk about war crimes, we are talking about something that needs accountability for those involved. It is time that those who think that they can carry out, in their own countries, crimes that are unspeakably brutal, violent and evil know that a day of reckoning is coming in this world.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, even earlier this year, a priest was murdered in Kachin state, and that a 17-year-old girl was raped? While on the face of it, things look as though they are going well, there are still people who are arrested arbitrarily.
I thank the hon. Lady. I will comment on that particular incident, which clearly illustrates what we need to address.
Burma Partnership continues:
“And yet, the military regime has not been held accountable for these acts; impunity prevails in Burma.”
In other words, people do it and get away with it, if they are a part of the Government. There is no accountability.
I would like to know clearly from the Minister what discussions have taken place and what the response has been from the Government. Is there accountability in this process? If not, we have to find ways to make them accountable. Why has the military regime in Burma not been held accountable for such acts? What pressure, if any, have the British Government put on Burma so that it desists and takes action to stop those acts?
It has always been known that Burma was religiously intolerant, but that is becoming clearer as an increasing number of stories about the treatment of the Rohingya emerge. The UN believes that, since mid-2012, when sectarian violence broke out, more than 86,000 Rohingya have attempted to flee Burma to neighbouring countries. In 2013, 615 people died during the flight for freedom. It is believed that the outbreak of pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya has left around 140,000 people in squalid displacement camps, a point well illustrated by the hon. Member for Bradford East.
What steps have the British Government taken to help and protect the Rohingya? Are we providing aid to Burma’s neighbours to help cater for the influx of asylum seekers? What medical help is available to those in displacement camps? Is there sufficient help for them in relation to housing and temporary accommodation? There is a risk of disease breaking out; that is bound to happen, in confined places. Have we been able to assist? If not, what can we do?
Another issue that has come to our attention is the theft of land. I said at the beginning that there are large veins of minerals in the country. What international economic pressure has been put on Burma? Ordinary, good peasants who own a bit of land are victimised, pushed and discriminated to hand it over. What is happening about that?
On Friday the 20th of this month, the Burmese Government closed the consultation window on its proposed religious conversion law, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred a few minutes ago. It would require Buddhist women to seek permission from their parents and the authorities before marrying outside the Buddhist faith. The law states that those people found to be applying for conversion
“with the intent of insulting or destroying a religion”
can face imprisonment for up to two years. Clearly, this is a human rights and an equality issue, and the Burmese Government must respond to it. This law is a poorly disguised form of religious persecution and it will affect those from all religions who are not Buddhist.
Have the British Government had discussions with the Burmese about this proposed law? What steps have been taken to ensure that it is not ratified? What pressure are we applying? When it comes to applying pressure, it is not only the Minister who can do it but all the European countries, as well as the US, by acting together. We must combine and use our collective power to influence the Burmese Government.
This issue has been discussed in Parliament before and it has now raised its head again. Would the Government care to give more information about how British taxpayers’ money is being spent on training the Burmese army? In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Bradford East mentioned that subject—the training that the British Army gives the Burmese army. We find out through reports and other information that the Burmese army have subsequently been involved in atrocities—vile, evil, wicked atrocities—against the ethnic groups across Burma. We get annoyed that our Army has trained their army in tactics and that then their army uses those tactics against their own people. There has to be a system whereby we can make the Burmese army accountable for that. Whether such training is for warfare or not, do the British Government intend to continue working alongside this brutal regime?
In her intervention, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about the allegations of systematic war crimes. Burma Campaign UK, a human rights group, has produced a report called, “Rape and Sexual Violence by the Burmese Army”. Within the Burmese army, there is clearly a systematic and orchestrated campaign of attacks on women and young girls, such that rape and sexual violence are the norm rather than the exception. This Parliament has taken a strong stance on this issue. Through early-day motions and other contributions, we have urged that more action be taken right across the world to combat such violence.
I will give an example of what has happened in Burma. Since January, there have been fresh allegations of rape against the small number of Christians in the Kachin province; Christians there are being brutally denied their rights, too. The hon. Lady referred to the case of the 17-year-old girl who was raped by two Burmese army soldiers. Again, there is no accountability for that. Such people seem to have immunity from prosecution and from accountability for their actions, and I certainly feel strongly about that.
Christians are one of the other minorities who face severe persecution in Burma. Release International reports that many Christians there still have to engage in forced labour, that huge numbers of them have been removed from their homes, and that rape is used as a weapon of war against minorities. Christians in Burma have had to deal with the Burmese Government’s catchphrase, “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist”, and Christianity is commonly referred to as the “C-virus”. Christians are denied the right to maintain and build places of worship, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann said earlier. When they do maintain or build places of worship, the buildings are often burned down. In Karen state, Buddhist propaganda is played during Christian services and Christians in the military or Government are denied promotion. Clearly, we have many concerns about all of that.
In Kachin province, some people practise Christianity; it reflects their language and culture in what is predominantly a Buddhist country. Kachin province is rich in jade and timber, but Christians there have stated that they are fighting for their culture and history. They are also fighting for their lives against a Burmese army focused on trying to destroy them.
The Burmese army broke a 17-year-old ceasefire on 11 June and since then up to 1,000 people have been killed or injured, while another 120,000 people have been displaced from Kachin province. Some have fled to China; others have sought shelter in refugee camps elsewhere throughout the region. Clearly, there are a number of places in Burma where there are abuses of human rights, which affect not only the individuals involved but their families.
The Kachin leader is General Gun Maw, who is also the chief negotiator. He had a meeting in Washington with President Obama. Talks were held, with great hopes for peace, but peace did not materialise. The uncertain peace was broken by the junta, and that has cast a dark shadow over Kachin province and the way forward.
There have been multiple recordings of the issues in Burma. I will quickly quote Human Rights Watch:
“There have been long standing and well documented reports for many years that the Burmese army perpetrates widespread sexual violence against women and young girls in ethnic conflict areas, often with utter impunity and denials. The Burmese government’s admission that it had investigated and punished eight perpetrators”—
“from the military is obviously a fraction of the scale of this repugnant practice, and the Burmese military has a long way to go in tackling this problem and reigning its rampant troops in to accord to the rule of war.”
They also have to teach their troops what is right and what is wrong. Human Rights Watch continued:
“Even Ban Ki-moon recently called for an investigation by the Burmese government into sexual violence in conflict.”
When a country’s army is engaged in something as odious as sexual violence, it is time that its troops were held accountable too. The issue also brings into question our relationship with Burma, particularly in relation to our training of their troops. Action has to be taken in all cases of sexual violence and reports of prosecution of offenders in courts should be published.
Burma Campaign UK has said that last year 133 Burmese civil society organisations wrote to our Prime Minister about Burma, but they have not had the response that they had hoped for. I hope that today the Minister can give us some indication of the way forward.
In conclusion, this abuse that I have talked about is just the tip of the iceberg. We are greatly troubled by it, and we seek the Minister’s response and thoughts on how we can go forward in a constructive fashion. What can the EU do to assist us to help the Burmese people? What is the United States of America and its Government doing to ensure that we can address these issues together? What are the Burmese Government doing to protect Christians and other minority groups in Burma? What steps can be taken to ensure that Burma complies with international standards of human rights?
It might help if I point out that a considerable amount of time is available to the two Front-Bench spokesmen. They are not obliged to use it all, because there is a provision for me to suspend the sitting until 11 o’clock if we happen to finish early. It is their decision, not mine, whether to use the time.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) for securing this debate today. Although it is undeniable that Burma has made considerable progress in recent years, many Burmese civil society representatives who I have met have made the point that the hon. Gentleman made: in some ways the narrative has been established that there has been so much progress in Burma—it is moving towards democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and elected to Parliament, and, I think, 42 of the 43 seats in by-elections were won by her party—that everything is well and good in Burma. However, people have expressed their anxiety to me that that narrative has allowed some of the real concerns that have been highlighted today to be overshadowed by it, almost to the extent that there is a degree of complacency about Burma’s progress. Obviously, we have to be vigilant that that is not the case.
We have discussed the plight of the Rohingya on several occasions in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has had to leave to attend another meeting, but she and my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) have a particular interest in this topic, mainly because their constituents have raised it with them, as was the case with the hon. Member for Bradford East. Sadly, however, there is little sense that much has changed since we started talking about this issue.
Since the outbreak of inter-communal violence two years ago, hundreds of people have lost their lives, as we have heard, while 140,000 internally displaced persons are living in camps, where their freedom of movement is restricted.
Following a visit to Burma earlier this month, the UN deputy humanitarian chief described conditions in one camp as
“appalling, with wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation”.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East quoted, she witnessed
“a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before”.
We have also heard that aid workers came under attack in March. It is not just the local community that is impeding the efforts of aid workers; the Burmese Government suspended Médecins sans Frontières’ work in a number of states and were alleging bias towards the Rohingya community.
Such is Burma’s rejection of the Rohingya that they are commonly referred to as Bengalis and, as we heard, there are disputed reports that UNICEF had to apologise for using the word “Rohingya”. The Government have yet to bring the perpetrators of the attacks on NGOs and the UN to justice and aid workers continue to put their own safety at risk.
Questions have been raised about whether the treatment of the Rohingya and the systematic denial of basic rights amount to genocide. Human Rights Watch has previously warned of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state and the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma voiced his alarm at the deteriorating crisis, warning that
“recent developments in Rakhine state are the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity”.
These are allegations of the utmost severity, yet the gravity of the situation does not seem to be matched by the response from President Thein Sein and it is not matched by the international community’s response, which lacks urgency. Concern has been expressed, but expression of concern is simply not enough to deal with the situation.
Our concerns are, of course, not only confined to Rakhine state. The Kachin conflict has been ongoing for three years after the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire, and there are continuing troubles in northern Shan state. The UN special rapporteur estimates there are 100,000 internally displaced persons in Kachin and Shan, and reported to the Human Rights Council in March allegations of sexual violence against Kachin women and the arbitrary detention and torture of young Kachin men. He continues to receive allegations of
“serious human rights violations accompanying military offensives”
in those areas, including reports that more than 100 women and girls have been raped by army soldiers since 2010; 47 cases of gang rape; and 28 women dying from their injuries.
Between March and October 2011 alone, the Women’s League of Burma documented 81 rapes in Kachin and Shan states. The Minister will know that there are great difficulties documenting such atrocious crimes, not least because many victims or witnesses have been intimidated into silence by the army, so the real figures may well be much higher. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand looked at 34 cases of rape in the Kachin conflict between just June and August 2011 and found that 44% of the victims were killed by their rapists. Such attacks have been perpetrated with impunity, as we have heard. Ethnic women’s organisations are concerned that President Thein Sein’s Administration is reluctant to work with women’s groups to stem the sexual violence, while the Burmese constitution protects military officers, who can only be tried in military courts. It is difficult to achieve prosecutions either in the usual criminal courts or the military courts.
Women’s organisations have also emphasised to me how land grabs, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, are increasingly a concern in Shan state. It is not only the military who are responsible. If the military seize land in an area, the rate of sexual violence increases, too; it seems to accompany their presence. Mining companies are also responsible. Burma seeks to open its country and economy to overseas businesses, which the UK Government have been keen to support. I will return to that in a bit more detail later. As mining companies come in, there is a real issue—as we have seen in so many other developing countries—with land being confiscated from the people who have sustained a living from it for many years.
It is known that Thailand wishes to return refugees from the Thai-Burma border. It returned 1,300 Rohingya refugees last year. I understand that, with the military coup in Thailand and the new regime there, this demand for refugees to be returned and the lack of consideration for refugees is exacerbated. China has returned refugees, too. The continuing conflict and difficulties in providing humanitarian assistance mean that it is by no means safe to return. It is no longer clear where the refugees would return to, given what I have just said about land grabs: the land belonging to the IDPs has been confiscated.
It had been hoped that this year’s census could provide a breakthrough in upholding the rights of ethnic minorities. DFID contributed £10 million for the census, as we heard, making the UK the leading donor, among contributions from the UN and other states, which obviously puts the onus on us to ensure that the census is conducted fairly and properly. The Burma Campaign was among those to warn that Burma was not ready for its first official census in 30 years, highlighting ethnic groups’ concerns that it could exacerbate inter and intra-communal tensions. It has also been reported that 23 civil society groups wrote to the parliamentary Speaker to ask for the census to be postponed, amid heightened tensions and objections to the categorisation of ethnic groups and sub-groups.
It was notable that the census did not use the preferred names of the ethnic groups themselves and was only produced in Burmese, except for some English copies for foreigners. So from the outset it was not an inclusive process that recognised and respected the language and heritage of Burma’s many ethnic groups. The UN special rapporteur observed that
“the Government has approached the census without sufficient or meaningful consultation with all affected communities”.
As we have heard, the UK received assurances that the Rohingya would be able to self-identify, but Burma’s Government failed to honour that commitment. As the UN special rapporteur highlighted, the decision to prevent self-identification
“is not in compliance with international human rights standards”.
I understand that the FCO subsequently summoned the ambassador, but it is not clear whether any conditions were attached to UK funding for the census or what precautions were taken by DFID and the FCO to reduce the likelihood of further violence caused by publication.
As I have said, I have on a few occasions met women from ethnic minority groups in Burma, most recently meeting women who visited for the summit on ending sexual violence in conflict. I congratulate those who participated in that initiative and, in particular, I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his work. When I met those women we talked, obviously, about sexual violence, particularly in respect of ethnic minority women in Burma. They told me that there are no specific legal protections for women and children, most particularly in the ethnic and rural areas; that Burma’s rape law is based on a penal code from the 19th century and it is, for example, legal for a man to rape his wife; and that domestic violence is not taken seriously.
The thing that struck me was that, right through the chain of trying to take action against sexual violence, there are obstacles in the way. It is partly to do with a culture that treats domestic violence and attacks on women as acceptable. But the police officers are all male, so when investigating rapes and talking to victims, that is obviously a problem. There is little in the way of rape support services and certainly no official rape support services; it is difficult to obtain a prosecution; victims are intimidated, as hon. Members have said; and prosecutions against military officers have to go through the military courts. At every step there are problems achieving prosecutions.
One outcome of the recent summit was that the Foreign Secretary said that prosecutions have to be the way forward, but it is much easier to say things than achieve them, and so much needs to be tackled. I urge the Government to consider working specifically with women’s groups, particularly from the ethnic minority communities in Burma, to see how we can address some of these issues.
Women have fewer than 5% of the seats in Parliament. That is exacerbated by the fact that 25% of the seats are reserved for the military, although there are now two female representatives in the military section. Women are even more under-represented in the Government. The Global Justice Center cites Burma as an example of the failure of the UN resolutions on women, peace and security and there are particular concerns that women are not involved in the talks to end the ethnic conflicts. I urge the Minister to talk to colleagues in DFID about what further work can be done on capacity building with women’s groups.
It is encouraging that the President has now agreed to sign the declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict, but, as I have said, that can only be the start of the process. The women I met who had been to the summit displayed a degree of scepticism, saying, “It is good that we have got this far, but it shouldn’t just be about the summit. The action has to be matched by words and a detailed plan for implementation.”
I shall, as the hon. Members for Strangford and for Bradford East did, mention the role of the Ministry of Defence and the British Army in offering training to the Burmese military. This gives the UK a certain degree of leverage, as does the aid funding that we have put towards the census and other programmes. The UK needs to use that leverage to challenge the constitutional role of the military—as I have said, it has 25% of the seats in the Burmese Parliament—and, more specifically, the human rights violations, sexual violence and land grabs for which the military are responsible, as well as to question the culture of impunity. Very few military officers have been prosecuted.
Finally, it is important to highlight other recent worrying developments, including the President’s reported support for laws preventing inter-religious marriage and religious conversion. Those would constitute serious breaches of international human rights, which I trust the Foreign Office is discussing with its Burmese counterpart. Human Rights Watch has reported that the electoral commission has tried to intimidate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, and to restrict comments on military and constitutional reform, while Amnesty International has cited the recent arrests of human rights defenders and new prisoners of conscience in detention.
The Government’s cross-departmental paper “UK Activities in Burma” focuses on encouraging responsible investment in Burma. It is welcome that Burma is opening its doors to foreign investment, and there is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations free trade agreement as well. That is important and needed, but efforts to promote the GREAT Britain campaign, run by the Foreign Office, must not overshadow work to promote democracy and human rights in Burma. Last September, the Government published their business and human rights action plan, and I hope the Foreign Office is ensuring that British businesses are aware of the human rights situation in Burma and, in particular, the need to respect land rights when they seek to invest in that country.
“UK Activities in Burma” states:
“We are well positioned to have a positive impact in Burma.”
I urge the Foreign Office to use that position to push for the constitutional reforms that Burma needs for free, fair and inclusive elections next year, including the removal of the barrier to Aung San Suu Kyi perhaps taking on the mantle of President; for basic political and human rights to be respected; for the opening of a country office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and for an end to the conflict. I realise I have focused on the negative; I am not underestimating how far Burma has come—the progress is welcome—but it is a grave danger to underestimate how much further the country still has to go.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing this debate on an important issue. Having said that, I start by apologising to him, because I do not have ministerial responsibility for Burma. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds that responsibility, and he is travelling. I am merely standing in for him. I have had a crash course in Burmese politics overnight.
One of the things that has struck me in listening to this debate—there have been extremely good contributions on all sides—is that there is a classic Foreign Office dilemma here. I think everyone would agree that the country is in transition. There is therefore a very difficult judgment on whether to stand off it and criticise it or get involved in it and try to influence and affect that change. Doing that, however, can open one up to many of the criticisms that are levelled at the UK Government—that we take too rose-tinted a view of the situation or that we are not tough enough. These are complicated diplomatic matters, and I absolutely understand many of the concerns that have been expressed. I will try to pick them up and answer them.
It is fair to say—I think everyone has acknowledged this—that the last three years in Burma have been a period of remarkable change. The country is undertaking an extraordinarily complex transition. It had an authoritarian military regime and is trying to move to a system of democratic government. The economy was centrally directed and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, is moving to be market-oriented—hence the Foreign Office guidelines. The country has come out of literally decades of conflict, and the good news is that there is peace in much of the country. As the hon. Member for Bradford East said, more than 1,000 political prisoners have been released and there is greater freedom of expression, but neither of those is in itself enough. The judgment is that the 2012 by-elections were credible, but there is clearly an awful lot more to do. The initial ceasefire agreements that have been signed between the Burmese Government and 10 of the 11 major armed groups appear to be holding.
I can sense that some will say that that is typical of the Foreign Office’s complacent approach, but it absolutely is not. Let me recognise at the outset that serious challenges remain. There are political prisoners who are still in jail and more activists have been detained in 2014 as repressive laws have failed to be amended in line with international standards. Small-scale conflict continues in many ethnic areas and there are worrying reports of incidences of sexual violence, which all Members have highlighted. The UN and other agencies struggle to gain unhindered humanitarian access to Rakhine state, where the humanitarian and political situation remains deeply concerning. I would not for a moment pretend that everything is rosy in this garden, and I would not want people to think that we have a rose-tinted view of the matter. We really do not; we absolutely recognise many of the issues that have been highlighted this morning.
There is a view, which I understand, having spent last night looking into this in some depth, that the parliamentary elections in 2015 are the watershed moment for Burma’s transition. It is absolutely incumbent on us here to try to create the conditions for credible elections to take place that involve all the minorities in Burma. I hope that will enable the Burmese people to take part in a democratic process where all their views count. We will be doing everything we can to build and reinforce Burma’s electoral network.
Before I talk about Rakhine, I will try to answer the various questions that the hon. Member for Bradford East and others asked. He first asked me about the Government’s action plan. It might help if I try to address his criticism that the UK’s approach to Burma has been too soft. We have consistently raised the importance of the reform process and human rights at the highest level. It was at the top of the agenda at the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Burmese President last year, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has consistently raised his concerns directly with the Burmese Government, including during his most recent visit to Burma in January. During that visit, he met separately with leaders of the Rohingya and Rakhine. The Foreign Secretary raised our concerns again in a call with his Burmese counterpart. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon did so again with the Burmese deputy Foreign Minister as recently as 12 June. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, the Burmese ambassador—this happens relatively unusually—was summoned to the Foreign Office so that we could express our concern about the conditions in Rakhine state. I hope that gives Members confidence. I cannot think of a country in the portfolio that I directly look after where there has been that level of pressure. It is unusual, and I hope it gives Members some comfort that we are taking the matter seriously.
The hon. Member for Bradford East asked about the Burmese Government’s action plan. We have constantly called on them to share that action plan with us, and I regret that they have not yet done so. It is therefore difficult to form an impression of exactly what is in it. He raised the question of war crimes, and the hon. Member for Bristol East generously paid tribute to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on that. Not in every area are the answers to many of these problems easy, but at least with crimes of sexual violence we have had the largest global initiative. The hon. Member for Bristol East was good enough to say that she had met the Burmese delegation that came over. I cannot remember, but I think some 140 Governments were represented in that initiative in some way, shape or form and enormous numbers of people have signed the declaration that came out of it. We are all clear that signing the declaration is one thing, but action and delivery are the crucial test.
The Minister is right that it is all very well to make verbal commitments, which are a good start, but the message has to get to perpetrators at every level—lower ranks, sergeants, officers—so that it filters down. Anyone who commits a crime must know that they will be accountable under law, which is not currently happening.
The hon. Gentleman, who has extensive military experience, is absolutely right. He would have been interested to hear the absolutely spellbinding speech made by the Australian Chief of the Defence Force on exactly that issue and what needs to happen to ensure success. All those who were there for that speech heard that message loud and clear. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—I would not say anything else—that making it happen will be the real challenge. It is an extraordinary achievement to have signed the declaration, but that is the easy part and making it happen is different.
The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the census, which the British Government, along with other members of the international community, did indeed help to fund because we believed that it would be crucial to the development of Burma as a whole. Reports from international observers suggest that, with the exclusion of Rakhine and parts of Kachin, the process was largely carried out effectively. The Government are deeply disappointed, however, that the Burmese Government simply reneged on their long-standing assurance that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin. That remains a point of dispute and a disappointment, which leads to a judgment of whether it was right to support the census. Looking at Burma as a whole, it is a better country for the delivery of that census, but the decision to prevent the Rohingya from self-identifying is a straightforward contravention of international norms.
The hon. Member for Bradford East asked whether I felt “snubbed”. I am not aware that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who was there, did feel snubbed.
Political prisoners are a matter of great concern that was key during the Prime Minister’s discussions. We have urged both the Burmese Government and Parliament to repeal all existing laws that allow the Government to imprison political prisoners, and all laws that are not in line with democratic standards. We will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that democratic activists are able freely to voice their opinions without fear of arrest.
The hon. Gentlemen asked about military engagement, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The focus of our defence engagement is on democratic accountability, international law and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that the Burmese military, for better or worse, is a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of political reform, which again returns to the judgment of whether to stand back and criticise the reform if it does not succeed or to engage with it and try to affect the situation for the better. We have tried to do the latter and will continue to use our leverage over the Burmese military to get them to tackle issues such as child soldiers, and to bring sexual violence to an end once and for all. I should just add that the EU arms embargo on Burma remains in place following the majority of sanctions being lifted in April 2013.
I was asked about an international investigation. It is absolutely our view that all allegations of human rights abuses must be dealt with immediately through a clear, independent, transparent investigation and, crucially, a prosecutorial process that meets international standards. We have made and will continue to make those concerns clear to the Burmese Government. It is absolutely the Government’s approach to seek an end to those violations and to prevent their further escalation irrespective of whether they fit the definition of specific international crimes.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. We should pay tribute to our Speaker, who has visited Burma on several occasions and has helped to draw attention to the problems. Nearly 30 years ago when I was a Minister, I went out to meet Sir Nicholas Fenn, the then ambassador, who made the claim, which the Minister kindly repeated today, that to be engaged with people is better than to be disengaged. We should pay tribute to the progress that has been made and make it clear that the Burmese people will benefit if Burma pays attention to international norms and applies them to allow its people, including the Rohingya, to prosper in their own country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, with which I entirely agree. The longer I spend in the Foreign Office, the more I begin to realise that engagement with countries that do not accept our norms and standards is uncomfortable; there is no doubt about that, but I am absolutely convinced that engagement is the correct approach. If we fail to engage and simply stand off from a problem and criticise, we will lose both moral authority and the authority to try to influence. Sometimes, even when engagement does occur, influence does not come from making a lot of noise. Change is often effected by years of quiet diplomacy and initiatives such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and those undertaken by the Speaker and others, which play an important role.
Most people would understand the dilemma to which the Minister refers. The frustration, particularly for the Rohingya, is that when they say that things are going badly for them in Rakhine, they are constantly told that things are going well elsewhere. They say, “Violations and murders are taking place,” but the response is, “Yes, but things are going well over here. Be patient.” It is difficult to be patient when crimes are being committed against a number of ethnic minority groups. The continual message is, “Put up with it, because we are making progress in so many other areas.”
I entirely understand that frustration. The hope is that a policy of constructive engagement will help to move the whole piece along. I acknowledge that the situation may move much more slowly than we all would want, and that those who are affected will be annoyed and frustrated by the pace of change and will wonder why more is not happening internationally. I understand all the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman properly articulates, but I am not saying that progress is fast enough; it is far too slow and the situation has not moved at the desired pace.
I hope that those who arrive at the hon. Gentleman’s surgery will be given some comfort to know that the matter is being raised in a balanced and sensible way in today’s debate. I hope that he will be able to point to the Government’s actions and the assurances that I have been able to give him, and to the fact that we recognise that a huge amount of work still needs to be done. In a sense, this covers the last point in his excellent speech, which was about the sense of disempowerment and frustration at the pace of progress. I understand and acknowledge that the affected must feel that way, but I hope that I have provided some assurance that we are taking the matter seriously. If we consider the list of responses, including those from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, and the summoning of the Burmese ambassador, that is quite a catalogue of actions, and I do not think many other countries receive such a high level of diplomatic attention.
The hon. Member for Strangford raised, as he always does, the plight of Christians, with his customary attention to detail. He also mentioned Kachin province. During his recent visit, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, made a particular point of asking to see members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which is the largest religious organisation in Kachin state, and he discussed a large range of issues with them. He raised our concerns about the Christian community and other human rights issues with senior members of the Burmese Government. He made a particular point of calling for religious tolerance and dialogue during his speech at the British Council. Earlier this month, we also welcomed Archbishop Bo to London for the preventing sexual violence initiative summit.
As I have told the hon. Member for Strangford in our many conversations about my area of responsibility, the Foreign Office gets an enormous number of letters on the treatment of Christians around the world. We take the issue seriously, and it is definitely moving up the agenda. He knows from debates we have had—indeed, we had one yesterday—that I have particularly prioritised the issue. I am off to Lebanon on Sunday, and I will make a particular point of seeing members of the Christian community on Monday. This really is something that we take very seriously.
We have talked a bit about the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. As a specific result of the summit, funding of £300,000 is earmarked for projects in Burma offering greater support and protection to survivors of sexual violence.
In her speech, the hon. Member for Bristol East highlighted many of the issues that have been raised this morning. She said there is a danger that the narrative of progress will breed complacency. I hope my response has given her some assurance that that is absolutely not the case, and that we realise the problems we face.
The hon. Lady talked briefly about the intermarriage laws. The issue is very much on the radar, and she is right to highlight it. We are concerned about the possible implications of the proposed legislation, and we are following the ongoing discussions through the embassy in Rangoon. We have already raised our concerns with the Burmese Government, and we want to make sure all draft laws are in line with international standards. We want to make it absolutely clear that respect for the rights of women and for the freedom of religion and belief must be guaranteed. To give the hon. Lady further reassurance, let me add that the EU also raised concerns at the recent EU-Burma human rights dialogue.
I hope I have covered the various points that have been raised. Let me finish by returning to where I started half an hour or so ago and thanking the hon. Member for Bradford East for raising this issue; he and other Members are absolutely right to raise it. The Government know that much remains to be done and that progress is not guaranteed; there is an enormous way to go. However, it is worth reflecting—this goes back to a remark made earlier—on a comment made by the International Development Committee in March:
“Progress will not happen by standing back, adopting a cynical attitude to change.”
It really is important to have a constructive agenda if we are to try to force the changes we all want to see. The best way to help achieve our vision of a democratic Burma that enshrines freedom and human rights for all is to engage with the parties there. I understand that that will be a frustrating process, and that progress may well not seem quick enough for representatives of minority groups. However, engagement is the key to helping Burma embed reform and to encouraging further meaningful progress towards peaceful and democratic government.