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Volume 600: debated on Thursday 22 October 2015

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

I am very pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, as the parliamentarian who has done so much to further the cause of Burma and her people. I also thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond to the debate. He has had a busy day. He must be the first Minister to respond to both an urgent question and an Adjournment debate on the same day.

It has been two years since our visit to Burma and there are just 17 days to one of the most eagerly anticipated elections in Burma. I want to raise the growing concerns that the elections must be free and fair by international standards. They are being held against a background of increasing sectarian and racial tension. I hope the Minister will reassure us that he considers the elections to be free and fair, alongside the fact that we have trade agreements with the Burmese Government.

I want to deal with three main areas—the political prisoners who are still in jail, the disfranchisement of the Rohingya and breaches of election law—as well as human rights, which underpin them all. There is not universal suffrage as we know it. Some 25% of the current quasi-civilian Government are military and will not be taking part in the elections. We have already had some compromise. There has been no constitutional change, even though it was called for, to allow everyone of Burmese descent, or who was born in Burma, to stand in the presidential elections.

On political prisoners, the United Nations says journalists are being jailed again. Amnesty International has put the number of political prisoners at 91, but says the figure could be higher. Burma Campaign UK, which has people on the ground, says the figure has risen to 157, with 1,500 activists and peaceful protesters awaiting trial, some on charges linked to previous protests—for example, detained student leader Phyo Phyo Aung and more than 100 other peaceful student protesters are facing charges. Naw Ohn Hla, a peaceful human rights protester, was charged, six years after supporting farmers and others in land disputes, with causing a religious disturbance for saying a prayer at the Shwedagon pagoda. Mr Speaker, you will remember we rang the bell of peace at that pagoda. All she did was say a prayer.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Is it not important that promises of releasing prisoners of conscience be kept and that committees such as the Burma prisoners of conscience affairs committee and the human rights commission involve more than just posturing? They need to be independent, have teeth and do the job of releasing prisoners of conscience and actively promoting human rights.

The hon. Gentleman is a well-known activist lawyer, so he knows it is not sufficient just to have people there on a committee; they have to actually do something. It is simple. The Burmese have to hear these cases and let them out, but, as I have said, some people are being charged with things that happened some time go—six years, in some cases. Htin Lin Oo, a writer who criticised groups that used religion to stir up discrimination, is in jail. Trade unionists are in jail. People in Burma are saying that the authorities are targeting activists and journalists by taking them off the streets instead of allowing their voices to be heard and using them in election monitoring.

I wish to raise the case of Philip Blackwood, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and now an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, as well as that of his two Burmese colleagues, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, who were given two and a half years’ hard labour in March 2015 for “insulting Buddhism”. Have the Government asked for Philip Blackwood’s release, or just raised the case with the Burmese Government? There is also the case of another British citizen, Niranjan Rasalingam. Will the Minister respond to that? Has he raised the issue of the release of all these political prisoners or prisoners of conscience?

On the Rohingya, the Minister, one of the first Ministers to visit the camp, will know that 140,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes, are living in temporary camps and have therefore been disfranchised. They were not counted in the recent controversial census, and they have had their white cards removed, meaning they cannot vote, even though some of them have lived in Rakhine state for more than a century. Out of 6,200 candidates, only 11 are Muslim.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate and her tireless campaigning for the people of Burma. Does she share my concern that more than 10% of the Burmese people will not be able to vote in the election, not only because the Rohingya have had their temporary citizenship cards revoked, but because internally displaced people, migrant workers and refugees cannot vote either?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She was part of Mr Speaker’s delegation to Burma and saw for herself the difficulties there. It is a cause of serious concern that we do not have universal suffrage. There are cases of people not being given the vote.

Cardinal Charles Bo, on his way to Rome for the synod on the family, was asked not to use the term “Rohingya”, but he did. Pope Francis is one of the few world leaders who has used it and that is how they define themselves.

There have already been complaints under election law. Thant Zin Tun, who is standing for the National League for Democracy, has made a complaint against his opponent, Zaw Weit, a central committee member of the Union Solidarity and Development party. The complaint alleges that Zaw Weit delivered defamatory pamphlets handed out at events hosted by a group called Ma Ba Tha, whose members have warned the electorate that a vote for the NLD would leave Buddhism vulnerable, pointing out that the NLD opposed a controversial set of laws promulgated by Ma Ba Tha on restricting interfaith marriage, birth rates, polygamy and religious conversion. In another pamphlet, it wrote:

“If you vote for the party based only on the fact that the leader is the daughter of General Aung San, the country, race and religion will be under unimaginable harm.”

None of these cases has been investigated. There are other similar cases, all reported to the electoral commission, but this state of affairs is not surprising because the chair of the electoral commission is a member of the USDP.

The Minister will know that there is support from the British Government for the Burmese army. He has acknowledged that in replying to a written or oral question, but can he look again at the Government policy of supporting the Burmese army, and ensure that this Government’s own preventing sexual violence initiative is fully implemented in Burma?

I want to raise the sad case of two teachers, which has apparently not had much publicity around the world. Two volunteer teachers—their names are Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin and Maran Lu Ra—were raped and murdered in Shan state in January this year. I say their names in this House in their memory, so that people in Burma will know that we will not forget them and that they are not forgotten by this Parliament. It is alleged that they were raped and murdered by the Burmese army. There has been no response from the Government; no one is taking responsibility for these murders. The Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand has worked with the Kachin Baptist Convention for which the two teachers worked, and after taking some advice, wrote to the President three times—but has not received a response. It suggested a 17-member truth-seeking committee with legal experts to carry out its own investigation, but it cannot get access to get witness statements or even look at documents. Does that not make a mockery of the Burmese Government’s signing last year of the declaration of their commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict?

The human rights record of Burma will be reviewed by United Nations member states at the 23rd working group session in Geneva on 6 November 2015—two days before the election. The Burmese Government, however, have failed to ratify core international human rights treaties—any of them—since 2011. The case of Khin Kyaw, who faces up to six months in prison and revocation of her legal licence, should be considered. She acted for 58 protesters, and she filed a motion to hold police officials responsible for a violent crackdown. The motion was dismissed, but in the interim, Khin Kyaw was charged with disrupting the court.

We were stunned to hear that the elections were almost postponed because of the floods; in fact, the waters were receding, and this was turned around some eight hours later. Another issue is the signing of the limited ceasefire agreement, the national ceasefire agreement. This is nothing new; the eight groups who had signed it had already been involved, and there are still seven others who have not signed it. Is the Minister aware of whether there are independent election observers, and could there be a role here for the elders—people such as Mary Robinson—who could visit Burma during the election?

Many independent organisations—Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Amnesty International, even the United Nations and Human Rights Watch—are involved in what goes on in Burma. I do not know whether you saw the sign outside yesterday, Mr Speaker, of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, saying “If you have liberty, then make sure that we have ours”. That is why we get involved in other countries such as Burma—to uphold human rights. The British people who want to help Burma are not spies.

You will remember, Mr Speaker, that we visited the legal rights clinic and the school when we saw those children. We were followed and photographed until you had to send them away. We are probably on a file somewhere in Burma! There has been a great support from this House through your offices, ensuring that expertise from this Parliament has gone across to support the Burmese Parliament. We have seconded staff—they put their lives on hold—helping to train staff with research and development, tabling questions and even setting up Select Committee hearings. All that is why we must be involved in what happens in free and fair elections in Burma.

Cardinal Charles Bo said that Burma is at the crossroads of hope and despair. We all want to see the Burmese people fulfil their potential and their destiny. We have seen how religion can be used to divide people, and this is far removed from the Buddhist ideals of “Karuna”, universal compassion, and “Metta” or mercy. At a meeting of the ambassador’s residence, we met the leaders of all the religions, and they were very keen to ensure that Burma and all her diversity—in religion and otherwise—moves forward. All those ideals are embodied in those religions.

Let me mention a few more issues that I hope the Minister will be able to help and influence. Will he ensure that the growing issue of child soldiers is raised with the Burmese Government? Does he know whether the United Nations office, which was agreed on quite a few years ago, has now been established? It would provide a useful monitoring presence, ensuring, for instance, that access to humanitarian aid reaches places such as Rakhine state. What immediate steps will he take if the army steps in, as it has done previously in order to overturn an election result that it has not liked?

As always, my hon. Friend is making an eloquent and purposeful contribution to a very important debate. Under the current constitution, 25% of the seats in the Burmese Parliament automatically go to the army, and the army dictates the composition of key offices such as the Foreign Office and the Home Office. Does my hon. Friend believe that there is any possibility of a free and fair election without a fundamental change in the constitution?

We must wait for the election result and its outcome before we can move to some sort of change in the constitution. As I said earlier, however, we stand ready here—in the British Parliament, and in Britain generally—to help the Burmese Government, and whatever new Government there may be after the election, to ensure that there is proper constitutional change, and that every Member of the Burmese Parliament stands for election.

We urge Burma to step out from behind the faded, divisive politics of the past. I know that the whole House wants to let the Burmese people know that we support them in their journey towards peace, justice and prosperity. I hope that they grasp this opportunity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on securing the debate, and on speaking so eloquently and passionately about the human rights situation in Burma. She made some fantastic points, and I offer my support in regard to, in particular, the cases that she raised.

I do not feel that, at this stage, I can add anything to what the hon. Lady said about human rights, but I want to make a couple of brief points about the election on 8 November. As many Members will know—because I have spoken about the issue a few times—I am, I believe, the first Member of the British Parliament to be of Burmese heritage. I am greatly looking forward to going to Burma early next year, and, although I may be too optimistic, I hope very much to be able to engage with a number of Burmese parliamentarians. It would be good to know that both a British parliamentarian and a Burmese parliamentarian had been elected in a free and fair manner.

Although we shall all take an earnest interest in what goes on during the Burmese election, it is obviously not for us to influence the will of the people, who will decide in their own way. However, it is important for the candidates who are going about their business, and the authorities of the day, to ensure not only that the election is as free and fair as possible, but that it is seen to be so. It is also important for the Burmese people themselves to take an interest. We heard from the hon. Lady about a number of barriers to some potential voters in Burma, one of which is the registration system. Because of the difficulty of registering an interest in voting, a number of people have still not done so. We do not want significant disfranchisement on the day itself.

I say to the people of Burma—should Hansard be read that far away—that the campaign that I have observed so far has been vibrant and interesting. Although some people in Burma may worry about the fact that the election may not be free and fair, it is important for them to become involved if they want their voice to be heard. They must register their vote, and they must vote for their favoured candidate. As we see in this House, we do not always agree and we do not always get the results we want, but it is only by people registering their vote and making it count that their voice will be heard. I greatly look forward to seeing what I find post-election next February when I visit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on securing this debate and I thank the other Members for their contributions.

We believe 2015 could be the most significant year in Burma’s modern history. The elections on 8 November are a litmus test for the reform process that started in 2011 and the most important democratic opportunity Burma has had in more than 50 years. Successful, credible elections would represent a huge step in consolidating an historic transition from dictatorship. They would bring an enormous amount of good will from the international community, and would be a true legacy for all those whose efforts have taken the country this far.

That is not to say that we should make any presumptions about them. We do still have serious concerns. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) reminded us, the constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in Parliament and bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for the presidency. There is a rising trend of Buddhist nationalist rhetoric, which the hon. Member for Walsall South referred to and which has been used for party political purposes. There is the disqualification of parliamentary candidates from Burma’s Muslim minority and the disfranchisement of the Rohingya community, despite our strong protests. There are the arrests of activists and candidates for engaging in peaceful protests and social media posts, for example Patrick Kum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandi Tun, which raise particular concerns about freedom of expression. There are also reports of inaccuracies and omissions in the voters list, as well as problems relating to advance voting.

The British Government have worked very hard to make the election process as robust as possible. We have funded the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ work with Burma’s election commission, we are providing £1.5 million to train 5,000 national election observers, and we are contributing towards a substantial EU election observation mission. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and the hon. Lady asked about independent observers and particularly the role of elders such as Mary Robinson. We are supporting the EU observation mission and there are already various other international observers either there or scheduled to be there, not least from the Carter centre, which I believe is involving Mary Robinson as part of its observation mission.

As I have repeatedly made clear to the House, the elections will not be straightforward, and the vote itself will not be “perfect”. Ultimately, it is for the people of Burma, and their political representatives, to decide whether the elections are credible. We will look to them, as well as local and international observers, in assessing the credibility of the vote.

The world is rightly watching these elections intently, but I also personally remain extremely concerned, as do many Members on both sides of the House, by the appalling situation of the Rohingya. I was determined to return to Rakhine during my third visit to Burma in July. As the monsoon rains began to fall, I saw how desperate the situation remains for so many. Indeed, I was struck that for some of those housed in what were after all supposed to be temporary camps the situation has appreciably worsened since my last visit in 2012. I sensed some of the desperation which led increased numbers to attempt the extremely dangerous journey from the Bay of Bengal earlier this year, and I saw yesterday’s tragic report by Amnesty, and no one could fail to have been moved by the harrowing images in today’s Times, which are a reminder of the risks of this happening again. We have pressed the Burmese Government repeatedly on the question of the basic needs of the Rohingya: security, humanitarian access, freedom of movement and a pathway to citizenship. I set out our concerns again in September in New York with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

The hon. Lady asked about the United Nations monitoring mission in Rakhine. There will be another UN resolution in New York this autumn, and we will again support a strong resolution to extend the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma. I also attended the UN Secretary General’s partnership group on Burma, which was once again chaired by Ban Ki-moon.

We must of course remain conscious that tackling Rakhine will be one of the biggest, most complex and sensitive challenges facing Burma’s next Government. We already provide significant practical assistance to all people in Rakhine state, including more than £18 million of aid since the violence of 2012, and that will remain a priority for us. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) has been closely involved in that, and I am pleased to see him in the Chamber this evening.

On the issue of human rights, we are clear that many serious issues remain to be addressed and that, in some areas, the human rights environment has deteriorated over the past 12 months. We welcome the release of thousands of political prisoners under the current Government, but we remain concerned by the continued arrest, detention and sentencing of political activists. We are also concerned by the estimate of a minimum 180 people remaining behind bars at the end of August 2015, with 450 more being detained under repressive laws and awaiting trial following arrests throughout 2014 and early 2015. I raised these issues with the Minister for the President’s Office, Aung Min, when I was in Burma in July.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of Phil Blackwood in the context of human rights. Mr Blackwood travelled to Burma on a New Zealand passport, so this is rightly a New Zealand lead, and it is they who are discussing case handling directly with him. However, I met Mr Blackwood’s cousin on Monday, along with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who is in his place. Our ambassador has raised the case directly with the President’s office and I have committed to doing so again at the appropriate moment. That would also provide me with an opportunity to raise the case of the other gentleman the hon. Lady mentioned, Mr Niranjan Rasalingam.

During my visit in July, and again in New York in September, I pressed the Burmese Government on a number of human rights issues in addition to the elections and to Rakhine. On the issue of preventing sexual violence—the hon. Lady recounted some harrowing stories in that context—I was delighted to launch the international protocol on preventing sexual violence in conflict when I was last in Rangoon. I made it clear at that time that real progress was critical.

The hon. Lady raised again the issue of our engagement with the military, which has been raised in several debates in the past few months and years. Our focus is to encourage it to take its rightful place as a modern military in a democratic system. We are not providing any combat support or training. Yes, we use our engagement to raise our real concerns about issues such as sexual violence and child soldiers. I raised the issue of child soldiers with both the northern commander and the commander-in-chief. If we want the military to play its part in the reform process, it would be a mistake to think that we can achieve that simply by isolating and criticising it. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has visited some of the courses we have run, is of the same mind.

We welcome the signature last week of the nationwide ceasefire agreement by the Government and eight of the ethnic armed groups. A huge amount of effort and compromise from all sides has gone into that. Further work will be needed to ensure that the remaining groups sign up to the agreement and begin the comprehensive political process to turn it into a lasting settlement. We remain very supportive of this work. It will continue right through to the other side of the election, and it will confront whoever wins the election.

We must not forget that, despite such reverses and the continuing open sore of Rakhine, Burma is in a very different place from where it was at the start of the reform process in 2011. I firmly believe that engagement remains the best way to encourage the forces of moderation. Although the reforms are neither perfect nor complete, they have improved the lives of millions of ordinary Burmese. It is clear, with the forthcoming elections, that Burma is at a crossroads. This is the time for us to hold our nerve and to hope that, through the elections, Burma can set itself on a path to a better future. I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to set out the Government’s view once again. Let us all hope that the events of the coming weeks work out in favour of the Burmese people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.