I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.
It is a privilege and an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Owen.
Burma is a nation at a crossroads. It faces huge challenges, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. Recently, I was fortunate to go on a visit with Benedict Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He is a fount of knowledge on Burma. As well as being a fantastic advocate for human rights and religious tolerance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is an amazing source of information on that and other parts of the world.
I have a personal interest in Burma, because my father was born there. My grandfather was born in Mandalay. During world war two he served on the docks and took part in the scuttling so that the Japanese could not get in and use the docks or anything there. When I visited, I found out that when my father was a schoolboy aged 13, he was walking past the Secretariat on the day that General Aung San was assassinated. Imagine a 13-year-old boy seeing the chaos in the aftermath of that and not knowing quite what a pivotal moment that was in the country’s history.
In 1962, during the coup, my aunt was a tutor at Rangoon University when the student union was blown up, and she lost many of her friends and colleagues that day. She also lost her job. For the next two years she had to work unpaid at the generals’ behest, doing whatever they wanted, including going up and down the streets chanting to pretend that the generals had far more support than they actually did.
It was therefore an absolute privilege and honour for me to create another tiny chapter of my family’s history in 2016, at another pivotal moment in the country’s history. Following the 2015 elections, the Government are transitioning to what we hope will be a far more open, fairer and freer democracy. The visit was more than just a personal episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”; thanks to Ben, I was able to criss-cross the country and meet a number of people to talk about religious tolerance, human rights and ethnic conflicts. I also met a number of national and regional MPs.
I joined an international delegation in Naypyidaw, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), both of whom I know wanted to participate in the debate. Unfortunately, they have events elsewhere. The international delegation helped to train the new Burmese MPs, and one thing that was uncovered was that the first basic risk for the future is the capacity of the newly elected politicians. They have worked so hard and given up so much to be elected, but they need knowledge and direction to be effective at drafting and scrutinising legislation and to be able to challenge Ministers while still dealing with their constituency work to the best of their ability. We take that for granted here. When I was elected, I had support from experienced Clerks, staff, Doorkeepers and colleagues. I stepped into a mature system with people who could guide me smoothly on the way. The system in Burma was previously run by a military junta, so that barely exists in Naypyidaw. The opportunity to scrutinise is very new.
Mr Speaker has also been to Burma with Ben Rogers, and is a former chairman of the all-party group on democracy in Burma. He has already provided a lot of support and has promised more. Experienced British parliamentary Clerks are seconded over there, sharing our knowledge, and that is fantastic. Delegations of Burmese Clerks have visited here, too. Most people, when they look at my campaign to get to this place after two and a half years and a hard-fought election, say, “Paul, you worked very hard”, but I basically did a lot of simple things many times over a couple of years. I look at the Burmese MPs in awe. They have given up so much. My old sales manager used to liken commitment to an English breakfast. He said that the chicken that gave the egg was mildly interested, but the pig that gave the bacon was totally committed. What the Burmese MPs have given up is remarkable. They are eager and chomping at the bit, but it is important for them to focus. There is a huge weight of expectation, and that needs managing in the parliamentary and party structures.
Most Burmese people are tolerant, understanding and determined, but they know that they cannot change things overnight. With vision, determination and a framework, however, things can change. Aung San Suu Kyi is an incredible woman, but she cannot do everything on her own, and that is why the framework will be important. We need to enable MPs to find the right balance between their work for their country in getting the rule of law, legislation and changes in place, and their constituency work and family life. That is very difficult given the situation in Naypyidaw. The extraordinary parliamentary building that Members might have seen on the internet or television is something to behold. Even Ceausescu would be amazed by the extent of the building. Frankly, it is big enough to give MPs a desk and somewhere to do their constituency work. Not all the changes need a lot of money, which obviously Burma does not have a lot of at the moment.
The election observers I met while I was over there saw a number of cases of fraud, intimidation and threats of violence, so it was not a perfect election by any stretch of the imagination, but it was as good as could be expected, and I do not think anyone can be in doubt that it got the result that the vast majority of the country wanted to see. In that regard, it was a good result, and it was as free and as fair an election as we could expect. Will the Minister tell us what more parliamentarians and the Government can do to support politicians in Burma—we are obviously not going to be telling them what to do or how to run their country—as they transition to parliamentary democracy, which we take for granted in this country?
Members will have seen that the military has been undertaking considerable negotiations with Daw Suu on the presidency and the constitution. U Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Daw Suu, has now been appointed as President, which is to be welcomed, but the approval of the military’s choice for vice-president, Myint Swe, is difficult for many to swallow. He is a hard-liner. He was the military commander who supervised the crackdown on the saffron revolution in 2007, and he was a close confidant of Than Shwe. Ironically, Myint Swe’s son-in-law held Australian citizenship, which prevented him from taking up the vice-presidency in 2012 under the same rules that prevented Daw Suu from taking up the presidency, but the son-in-law has reportedly now renounced his citizenship. As first Vice-President, Myint Swe has a seat on the 11-member National Defence and Security Council and would serve as acting President should the presidency fall vacant for any reason. Although the transition is looking optimistic and there are many reasons to look forward to what is to come, threats and situations may arise that could bring Burma back to terrible dark times, as has happened in the past. We must err on the side of caution.
When visiting places outside of Naypyidaw, we have to look at what is going on with religious tolerance and ethnic conflict. I met a number of Muslim leaders and campaigners, including Khin Maung Myint, Wai Wai Nu and Al-Haj U Aye Lwin. The first two are Rohingya representatives. Wai Wai Nu is a phenomenally articulate 29-year-old. Her father was previously an MP, but he was not able to stand this time around because he no longer was a citizen of Burma due to the citizenship rules. Like many people I met, and despite being only 29, Wai Wai Nu had already served seven years in prison with her family, pretty well just because she was the daughter of a former MP and an activist. The people I met, albeit that they were a self-selecting community because of the human rights and religious tolerance aspect of my visit, had all been to prison, some for 14 years or 18 years. That was not extraordinary for the people I met, although those people were themselves extraordinary.
Wai Wai Nu told me that the Government’s policy towards the Rohingya in the past had led to hatred and discrimination among the community as a whole. However, despite the severity of the situation, more Burmese people are becoming more open, and misunderstandings about the Rohingya can and must be addressed. She considered that the 1982 citizenship law would need to be revised to amend the indigenous and national races list, or to grant citizenship to those whose parents were citizens before 1982.
For the internally displaced people in the area, especially women, the major problem is healthcare. They are not allowed to go to hospital freely; they need permission and have to pay bribes. Often, even when they are in hospital, they are treated inhumanely.
The source of much of the religious tension has been Ma Ba Tha, a politicised militant nationalist group of Buddhist monks who were supported by the previous Government. We hope that it will wither on the vine now that Daw Suu is in charge. One of the leaders, U Wirathu, a radical monk, has released a new trailer for an anti-Muslim video, and has promised to release the full video. There is a suggestion that the new chairman of Ma Ba Tha, Insein Sayadaw, may be more flexible, because he is a former political prisoner with a good understanding of politics.
However, we need to continue to hear the voices not only of the moderates but of people such as Cardinal Bo, Bishop Philip in Lashio and the Venerable Badata Seindita, also known by the extraordinary name of Asia Light, who is a Buddhist monk from Pyin Oo Lwin. He speaks out vociferously about the true meaning of Buddhism. Whenever I hear the words “militant Buddhism”, or “nationalist Buddhism”, I think that the words simply do not go together. The Burmese people are generally the most peaceful, tolerant, placid people, albeit very determined. They exude all the qualities that we would expect from a mainly Buddhist population, so it is extraordinary to see the extremes to which Ma Ba Tha will go to divide the population.
Christians have not been exempted from religious intolerance, either. They have not been allowed to build churches in certain areas, and they have been told that they cannot even worship in their own homes in certain situations.
I went to Lashio in northern Shan state to see the ethnic conflict. I think I am the first MP to have been up there. There are worrying developments in Kachin state, where drugs are rife. It is believed that a huge percentage of young people in northern Shan are addicted to drugs, as part of a deliberate policy by the military. Human trafficking into China is common, with little action taken. I met representatives from the Ta’ang community—a women’s organisation and the students and youth union. There are 1 million Ta’ang people in northern and southern Shan state. We discussed the conflict that has recently begun between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State. After the ceasefire agreement was concluded, the RCSS signed it and went around Shan state to explain it. However, when it entered TNLA-controlled territory, clashes between the two armed groups began.
There are allegations that the RCSS is trying to extend its territory, and also suggestions that the military may be stoking the conflict to create divisions. Although things in Naypyidaw are hopefully being sorted and opened up, Burma is a big country with a lot of ethnic states, each with its own values, conflicts and tensions. It is very difficult for someone in the centre to be able to get to grips with all that.
The rule of law was a phrase that kept coming up time and again from every politician I spoke to. We met solicitors and other advocates in relation to various legal cases, which I want to raise briefly. Niranjan Rasalingam, a British citizen, has been in prison for 14 months without charge. He was accused of a cashpoint scam along with two Indian nationals who were not even in the country at the time the crime was supposed to have been committed. Niranjan Rasalingam is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has taken up his case.
We also met the solicitor who is dealing with the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers on the night of 19 January 2015. Their bodies were found in a village 140 miles from Lashio. Investigators were able to reach the village only one month after the incident and were able to interview some villagers, but none of the 48 soldiers stationed nearby. We saw harrowing photos of the teachers’ dead and mutilated bodies. Their hands had been slashed to the bone, ostensibly with machetes, possibly by the military, to check that they were not playing dead. That is how brutal and savage such killings are. For that not to be investigated properly is an absolute scandal.
We met Robert San Aung, who is dealing with U Gambira, a former Buddhist monk who was a leader of the saffron revolution and an outspoken voice for religious freedom, who was arrested on his return to Burma for illegal entry. There are many other such cases. People have got six-month and nine-month prison sentences simply for sharing stories on Facebook, for instance. People talk about too many cases of the police abusing their power of arrest for the purposes of their own influence, and they talk about judicial corruption and constitutional abuse. Power needs to be exercised out in the villages and towns to open things up. We heard from a civil activist:
“Democracy has only reached the upper levels—the regional and township levels—but we need to reach the local level and elect local leaders.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentions democracy having reached the upper levels. Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that the Burmese people at ground level see the benefits of the transition, and that they need to see the assistance of the west in trying to deliver on-the-ground democracy and tolerance and respect for all?
The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Daw Suu is insistent that her MPs work in their constituencies to make sure they are seen to be working for the people who elected them. I know that the Department for International Development is doing a lot of work on democracy building. It is fantastic that Mr Speaker and many other Members here are helping directly, and it is vital that people on the ground see that work and see how it benefits them.
As I said earlier, it is not for us to tell the people of Burma how to run their country or their legal system. However, we are critical friends, and we should raise points where we can. Imagine if the boot were on the other foot. People complain about the possibility of President Obama telling us what we might do in the European Union referendum. Frankly, I am more interested in how Narendra Modi came over here, extended the hand of friendship and talked about partnerships and working together as equals. We will have such opportunities in Burma. There can be further work by DFID and by Parliament, and hopefully there will be opportunities for trade in the future. When I was over there, it was fantastic to see Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon visiting Yangon as part of a regional tour to talk about opportunities for transport infrastructure.
I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He is absolutely right about the rule of law. Unfortunately, Burma comes in the top or bottom quartile, depending on which way we look at it, of the most corrupt countries in the world. Although it is not up to the UK to tell Burma how to run itself, how does the hon. Gentleman think we can best help it get rid of corruption?
I would look to the example of places such as Bangladesh. It is not a perfect country by any stretch of the imagination, but look at how it has moved on from being a corrupt state. Opportunities for business are starting to open up there as people realise that the level of corruption is unsustainable. A lot of investment has been coming into Burma from China, but it is starting to realise that cheap is not always best and that, frankly, China has little regard for the country—it has regard for the dollar and the kyat. Burma is looking to the west for investment and knows that for that to happen it will have to open up and tackle corruption. Hopefully we can help.
I want to put on record my thanks to Andrew Patrick, our ambassador in Burma, Gavin McGillivray, the head of the Department for International Development over there, and Kevin Mackenzie from the British Council. I also thank the many different people I met who spoke so eloquently and articulately. It gives me such hope for the future to know that a new generation is coming through. The politicians in Burma—Daw Suu and her colleagues—have been elected with their own vision. I hope that we can support them, but we must also let them deliver their vision. We should see how we can help them and then get in there and support them as partners. We want to be able to trade and do geopolitical work in that really important part of south-east Asia. I am looking forward to a constructive debate and would welcome the Minister’s comments on the points I have raised.
Order. I remind Members that I shall call the three Front Benchers for the wind-ups at 10.30 am. The Minister might like to give Mr Scully a couple of minutes to sum up at the end, if possible. A number of Members have indicated that they would like to speak. If they keep their speeches to around six minutes, we can get everyone in. Another Member has asked to speak and will be joining us later.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who I think is the longest-serving Minister with this brief, so it is great to see him here. He has done his job very well. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), has really taken Burma to her heart and turned up at all the relevant debates.
The recent trip to Burma by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam must have been incredibly emotional. He went with Ben Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide; anyone who has read Ben’s book would be astounded at how he has managed to slip into and out of Burma for so long. At least now, under a new democracy, he is able to travel freely. His book is almost like a James Bond novel.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union held a very important meeting with a top-level group of former Ministers. I am sorry that I could not be a member of the UK delegation, which was led by the former Member for Sheffield Heeley, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Norwich North (Chloe Smith.
There are lots of phrases we can use to describe the situation there, but Burma is on the edge of a new era. For the first time in more than 50 years, a civilian President has been elected, and Daw Suu is now in the Burmese Cabinet. Think back and reflect on her incredible journey. She returned to Burma to look after her mother. Both her parents are now dead. She was separated from her young children. She could not say goodbye to her husband when he was dying. Now, because of some petty little rule, she cannot take her place as President, but she is there in the Cabinet, serving her country.
Hers was an incredible journey. All of us sitting here in a democracy know we are lucky when we think of the terrible things she had to face. She was under house detention and in jail, and there were threats to her life, but she had the incredible courage to stand in front of the military—almost like standing in front of the tanks. We saw pictures beamed across the world of her confronting the military with no fear whatever—I am not sure I could have done that. She has been on an incredible journey and has now turned her country into an overwhelming democracy.
Nevertheless, the military still have that 25% of seats: it is like someone having two arms and two legs, but one arm tied behind their back. That is why the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right that we need to support Burma, with human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its democracy, but at the same time allow it to make mistakes and to move on and form a democracy in its own way, making its own compromises. We must be careful of how we raise the issues and ensure that we are helping Burma, as we have done throughout. I was delighted when the Burmese Government’s first move was to establish an Ethnic Affairs Ministry; the President said that that will be one of the most important things at the heart of their Government.
There also needs to be a truth and reconciliation forum. Whether or not it is something that our Government could help with, and whether or not it is done under the auspices of the United Nations or the EU, it is very important to do it. Perhaps the elders have a role to play. It seemed to work in South Africa, and I think Burma needs something similar to move on. Perhaps members of such a forum could include the heads of, or representatives from, all the religions. The Rohingya have to be part of it; they have to be able to tell their story. Another major issue is that of internally displaced people. Whether they are Rohingya or other people, we have to help them to go back to their villages. Many of them are still living in poverty. The non-governmental organisations have to have an opportunity to provide humanitarian aid to all those internally displaced people.
There has been a long-standing debate, with the Burma Campaign UK raising issues that sometimes many of us who are elected find difficult to raise. Its current campaign, to which I am a signatory—I encourage all Members to become signatories—is called “Standing with the women of Burma to end rape and sexual violence”. Some 110 high-profile women have already signed up to it, and it would be nice to see more signatories.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the atrocity involving the two Baptist teachers in Kachin state. What of the grandmother, Ngwa Mi, who was sheltering in a church? They beat her and gang-raped her. She is now back in her village, but is understandably mentally unstable. How can someone ever deal with something like that? Will the Minister ensure that the UK Government direct their assistance to those women and give them help and support to rehabilitate them? They are survivors, and they are very strong. The former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was very active on Burma. A Burmese delegation came in 2014 and we met them at a brilliant round-table event set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would be nice for some of that effort and initiative to be directed to help those women.
We have an important role to play as part of the international community. We cannot stand by and see atrocities happen; we cannot stand by and see the rule of law broken or human rights abused. This is a global issue. Wherever we see injustice, we have to raise it. International pressure is important. Rather than try to influence particular pieces of Burma’s legislation, will the Minister make representations that the 2008 constitution in Burma be amended so that the guarantee of impunity for military perpetrators is removed? We also have to keep up the international pressure to remove the rule that somebody cannot become President if they have children who were born outside the country.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I were part of a Speaker’s delegation to that country, and we met some very brave women. I hope the Minister will make representations to ensure that women become an equal part of life in Burma. Whether it is in politics or through NGOs, their voices must be heard. The hon. Lady will remember the lovely children we saw going to school—that is where they should be—wearing backpacks with the United Nations logo stamped on the back. Hopefully, in years to come, we will ensure that they end up in school without needing that logo. We want those children to grow up not knowing hatred or judging people on the basis of their religion. They must have mercy and compassion for each other and use their talents for a new Burma.
Pope Francis has declared to all Christians that this year is an extraordinary jubilee of mercy. How fitting it would be for Burma to become the embodiment of equality, justice and peace.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this debate, which allows us, like the hon. Lady, to celebrate this opportunity, to express our hopes and to talk about how we can help that extraordinary country with its challenges.
I want to talk about the work that I was part of in February at the behest of the United Nations Development Programme and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in association with various Departments and UK Aid. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were led by Meg Munn, a former Member. We were part of a multinational, cross-party group of MPs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere, which helped to train the newly elected MPs in Myanmar.
The challenge of working with a military quota in that Parliament has already been mentioned, but I want to offer some optimism based on what I saw of MPs of all parties. There is a wide range of parties, given the ethnic situation, but I hope that they will be willing and able to work with each other across those divides. It will be new for them, but, as has already been said, the situation in Myanmar is almost entirely new. Although it is the second Hluttaw, or Parliament, in official terms, this is the first opportunity they have had to work together constructively, and we wish them all luck with that. We helped them to develop the skills they need to do that. We chose the themes of scrutiny, accountability and representation, which are bread and butter to us—we are very grateful for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said, we have the privilege to take our places in an established democracy. It is an entirely different situation in Myanmar. I was glad to help those MPs to develop the skills that they require to perform their work.
Our training took place over a week and was delivered to about 400 MPs—that is, most of the MPs in Myanmar. As anybody who has done professional training knows, it is hard to train 400 people in any context. We had a blend of plenary work and speeches on the chosen themes, and we used examples from the countries represented in the delegation. To echo what the hon. Member for Walsall South said, we did not try to tell them how to do it. Instead, we offered examples of how we have seen it done in our countries. We supplemented the plenary sessions with a workshop approach. Each international facilitator worked with about 40 Myanmar MPs, which allowed us to go into a level of detail that was inspiring to me and everyone else involved. I hope it was constructive and detailed enough to encourage the Myanmar MPs to begin to think about how to apply those techniques.
We went into detail on subjects such as how a parliamentary question should be put and how constituency matters should be run, which is a brand new concept for many of those MPs. There will be some logistical challenges, but we gave them some ideas about how they can structure that work. We drew heavily on resources that are typically found in Parliaments. It is important that this Parliament continues to provide that support. The Clerks have already been mentioned, and the Library service is sharing skills, techniques and resources in a way that I hope will allow that fledgling democracy to take root.
During that week, we received a warm welcome from the Myanmar people—from the MPs and from the translators and interpreters, who were passionately keen to see the project succeed. They were touched by the friendship of other countries. They are all involved in that project. I hope that people outside those parliamentary circles will be able to draw on that friendship and support in the knowledge that others are looking at Burma and wishing it well. I hope they will be able to draw on that in the years to come.
There is great diversity and strength among that group of MPs. I am sure it will be the foundation of a thriving democracy if they can apply those skills to the country’s many policy challenges. Among the group were men and women. There are some very impressive new women MPs, who knew what they had to contribute, and young MPs. As the chair of the all-party group on youth affairs, I was keen to share my thoughts with them about how they can inspire young democrats in their country.
I am grateful to have had the chance to put on the record my reflections on that work. I hope to help the cross-party spirit in this Chamber to do more in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate. The last time we met in Westminster Hall, we were on different sides of the debate about the Government’s threshold for the tier 2 visas, but it is clear that there is a lot of consensus today. I pay tribute to the passion and commitment that he has brought to this issue, which was reflected in his speech.
This is an important and timely debate. The National League for Democracy is preparing to take power in Burma on 1 April, following the elections last November. I will be brief, because other Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has joined us, want to speak. I want to reflect on a few issues that have already been mentioned: the opportunities following the election, the issues facing the Rohingya people and the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) spoke about.
I, too, pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi. I remember as a youngster learning about the situation in Burma on “Newsround”. My parents had to explain the concept of house arrest to me. At the time, getting to hang around the house and not having to go to school seemed like quite a good idea. In reality, it is a very difficult situation. Aung San Suu Kyi lived with it for 15 years and remained a champion for justice and democracy throughout that time, so she deserves our respect and the tributes that have been paid to her.
In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was the first non-head of state to address Parliament in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker, in his own lyrical way, described her as
“the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity”.
That is a good way of encapsulating the fact that peaceful protest can eventually make progress to where we are today, with an elected Parliament in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself as an elected Member, and a new President. That should be an inspiration to others fighting for democracy and freedom under repressive regimes elsewhere.
I pay tribute, too, to others who have fought for justice in Burma, not least the Burma Campaign, which provided useful background information for the debate. The Burma Campaign was supported by my former employers, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has also provided support to the people of Burma. It is now providing support to refugee children in the border areas, with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Mention has been made of Cardinal Bo, and I am looking forward to meeting and hearing from him when he visits Parliament later this year, in May.
The elections are, of course, the beginning and not the end of the story. The newly elected Government now have to live up to the promise. There is a role for the military, which must respect the dismantlement of the junta and not seek to overrule the elected Government, ensuring a clear separation between the military and the state. A lot of the challenges, as we have heard, can be seen in the challenges facing the Rohingya community. The measure of a democracy is how well minorities are treated and respected, and the Rohingya people are a minority whose religion is not recognised, let alone their citizenship.
I attended an Adjournment debate led by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that highlighted the migration crisis—not something that is restricted to Europe, because there is a migration and refugee crisis in that part of Asia as well, of which the Rohingya community forms a substantial part. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet, in its reckoning, the legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In the Scottish National party, therefore, we support the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK in its call for action against hate speech and the extremists, the removal of restrictions on international aid in Rakhine state, the reform of the 1982 citizenship law, and a credible independent investigation, with international experts, into the charges of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possible genocide.
Related to that is the broader need to tackle sexual and gender-based violence, especially the use of rape as a weapon. The continuing reports of increasing rape and sexual violence by the military are deeply concerning. Sexual violence seems to have been used as a weapon of the Burmese army for decades as part of its warfare against minority groups in the country. It has to be tackled.
I pay tribute to the campaign in which 110, or 111, women, including my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), made a declaration on International Women’s Day calling for an investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese military; an end to the impunity with which it seems to be carried out; support for the victims; the inclusion of women at every political level in Burma, including the peace negotiations between the Burmese Government and the ethnic armed groups; and for Burma’s rape law to be brought into line with international human rights standards that outlaw rape in marriage.
As part of the UK Government’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, many countries around the world have signed up to that declaration to end rape and sexual violence in conflict. The declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity and promote accountability. We call on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider how that programme can be extended in Burma and to provide more support to the Government there to ensure that the PSVI principles make progress.
To allow time for others to speak, I will leave it at that. I echo the positive tone of optimism that we heard from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and other speakers. Progress towards democracy is clearly being made in Burma, but it needs support. I hope that today’s debate demonstrates some of that support and that, when we hear from the Minister, he will demonstrate what support the UK Government will provide.
I join my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on his eloquent speech and on his close and direct interest in Burma, which he has shown since he entered the House. That has been most welcome, especially by those of us who have had an interest for some years.
I welcome, too, the long-awaited democratic elections, which recently took place, and I join my colleagues in praising the bravery of millions of Burmese citizens who campaigned for decades, often at great personal cost, for liberty and democracy in their country.
I also join my colleagues in thanking the staff of this House who have been out to Burma, certainly since the visit of the Speaker’s delegation in 2013, which included me and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). We learnt, including directly from Aung San Suu Kyi, how much the Burmese wanted and invited help with such issues as library facilities and research resources. It is to be commended that some of our staff went there—at least one for well over a year, away from home and family—
Indeed, almost two years—to provide substantial help. I want to recognise that Mr Speaker has stayed true to his word, which he gave on that delegation, that we would provide help.
I am encouraged by the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on how much constructive help has been given to the MPs in Burma—again much needed. When we were there, they were quite surprised to hear that we went back to our constituencies every week. I remember providing a modest training session on Select Committees—again with the hon. Member for Walsall South—and people were surprised, because in this country Select Committees are not given the subject that they are to look into by the Government and, once they have looked into it, do not submit their report to the Government to be checked before it is published. I am encouraged that there has been a great deal of progress, so I commend my hon. Friend and the others involved.
As we are joyful, so we are cautious. Burma remains a nation in a delicate state. Hate speech, religious intolerance and the powerful remnant of the military still threaten to slow or prevent the next stage of Burma’s growth. As we speak, forces continue to destabilise and halt the hard-won progress to date. The delicate balance of joy and caution is summed up in the words of the moderate Cardinal Bo, who has already been mentioned in the debate. He is a greatly respected and long-standing champion of human rights in Burma. He said:
“My country is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn...But our young democracy is fragile, and human rights continue to be abused and violated.”
We rightly extend our support, therefore, to Aung San Suu Kyi and the new President, U Htin Kyaw, who face the challenge of nurturing the fragile democracy. Even as we speak, nationalists have been protesting against the appointment of Vice-President Henry Van Thio, because he is a Christian and a member of the Chin ethnic group. The ultra-nationalists find it an offence that a member of another religion and of a minority group should be in a position of such authority.
That is an important example to dwell on, because freedom of religion and belief has been under extreme pressure in recent decades in Burma. Minorities of all religions have suffered, as well as Buddhists, who stood up to the state-sponsored interpretations of Buddhism that we have heard about. So we celebrate the appointment of Henry Van Thio, and we hope that he will be a symbol of encouragement to many from the minorities in the country, who to date have been excluded from a voice in government.
Particularly persecuted, as we have heard, have been the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Previously, the regime promoted an ideology of hate that rejected the idea that Muslims could be fully Burmese, or that the Rohingya people had any right to live in the country. They were grievously targeted by military forces, and hundreds were killed and 140,000 reportedly displaced by violence in 2012. We need to ensure that they are given appropriate support and help.
Of comparable concern are the military offensives still being waged by the Burmese army against civilians in northern Shan and southern Kachin states. Gross violations of human rights have forced tens of thousands to flee, as we have heard. They either live as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in dire conditions, or eke out a living as refugee migrants in other countries. In that context, I commend in particular the work of Baroness Cox from the other place and of her charity, HART, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.
HART has done great work to assist oppressed people in Burma and to bring that oppression and the violations of human rights to the attention of the wider world. I will refer to some of Baroness Cox’s work in more detail. In Burma, HART works to provide lifelines among the Shan, Karen, Chin and Karenni peoples. Shan Women’s Action Network—SWAN—runs health, education and women’s empowerment programmes. HART works only with local people, and through its remarkable work it is transforming in particular women’s perceptions of their roles in their communities—as the hon. Member for Walsall South mentioned, that is much needed—and enabling them to become strong agents of change. I want to extend my best to HART for that vital work in strengthening civil society.
If the good people of Burma are to realise their potential, it is critical that civil society is strengthened and encouraged, particularly at a time when concerns are increasingly being expressed about the shrinking space for it across the globe. I ask the Minister to consider how civil society can be supported. I commend him on his sincere personal commitment to Burma over many years. I know that he is a Foreign Office Minister, but may I request again that DFID looks at how it can support small charitable organisations such as HART? It receives no support from DFID and yet it reaches right to the heart of the issue in Burma, helping women in their local communities to make a real difference. There is much more that I would like to say, but time prevents that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate and for giving such a personal, passionate and comprehensive speech, which really set the groundwork and showed the commitment of all of us across the House over many years to championing the cause of democracy in Burma. The path we are on is a good path. We can all take so much comfort that, at long last, there is a democratically elected Government. That brings great hope, but there are still such challenges.
As many will, I recall that, back on 21 June 2012—which interestingly was a Wednesday—Aung San Suu Kyi spoke just a few metres from this Chamber in Westminster Hall about her hopes that Burma would one day have Prime Minister’s questions like we have here, which would be more raucous and informal than is currently the fashion in Burma. Whether we really want her to have to face the full extent of Prime Minister’s questions, we look forward to the time when it is Aung San Suu Kyi at the dispatch box and she is free from the ridiculous constraints of the constitution and free to take up the formal leadership, for which obviously she already has a democratic mandate.
As has been mentioned, Daw Suu has also asked Britain to consider what it can do to help to build sound institutions needed to build a nascent parliamentary democracy. It is therefore welcome, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and others have said, that our Parliament has stepped up and will continue to step up and work alongside those institutions.
When I visited Burma two years ago, I was humbled by the democratic warriors who have fought long and hard and paid the cost—some lost their liberty and others lost their lives—for the democracy that we take for granted. Those people, who have walked the walk for so many years, asked me to speak to them about how to build their democratic engagement. Their appetite for democracy is insatiable, it is growing and growing and it cannot be put back in the bottle. We need to do all we can to support them.
In the brief time I have available, I want to draw attention to the fact that my visit took me to the border areas. Burma is wonderfully diverse, but my visit revealed that what happens in Naypyidaw and the decisions taken there—indeed the influence of the NLD and Daw Suu—do not reach the border areas that have been in conflict for so long. We therefore need to recognise that, while there has been such great democratic progress, for those areas of conflict, where there is still evidence of landmine explosions, rape of women, indiscriminate killing of people and forced displacement, there is still a long way to go. Certainly, given that the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs are still directly under military authority and appointments are made by the commander in chief, we must do all we can to encourage change in that regard.
On 18 March in Geneva, the UN special rapporteur, Ms Yanghee Lee, highlighted the opportunities and hope, but also the challenges in relation to human rights. She properly drew attention to the fact that the new Government have
“an opportunity to break from the tragic status quo”.
She also recalled that 1 million Rohingya Muslims are deprived of basic fundamental rights and how progress needs to be made in removing restrictions on freedom of movement and in increasing support for groups working to build bridges between communities. We have heard about Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is foremost in that work, but there are others and our country in particular, through DFID moneys and others, can help to support that.
I should highlight, as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and others mentioned, sexual and gender-based violence. The PSVI initiative, championed by Lord Hague of Richmond, needs to continue. I would welcome him and others visiting again to see what progress needs to be made in that regard. There is hope and there are challenges, but we need to recognise that many in the IDP camps have been displaced for nearly three decades, so we need to see voluntary solutions for hundreds of thousands to be able to return. In the Kachin and northern Shan states, Christians have faced discrimination and persecution for many years. There are 4 million of them in those areas.
We need to recognise that the challenges also bring hope. There is an opportunity in Burma for progress in relation to respect for religious belief. It was welcome that at the UN a Catholic cardinal, a Buddhist monk and a Muslim activist stood together with one voice, saying, “We want a Burma that has equal rights for all, where all are protected without discrimination.” In the words of Cardinal Bo, who has been mentioned before:
“We have a chance—for the first time in my lifetime—of making progress towards reconciliation and freedom as a nation.”
Thank you, Mr Owen, for giving me the chance to speak in this debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for making time for me. Members know that this issue is very close to my heart—I have spoken about it before—and I wanted to be here earlier, but I was unavoidably detained.
For decades, successive regimes and Governments in Burma have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan state, which right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about. Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet the legal definition of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The humanitarian crisis started when the Rohingya fled to camps in 2012, and senior members of the nationalist Arakan National Party continue to whip up hatred against them.
I am conscious that I can say only so much in the short time available. Under the current constitution, the Ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs must be filled by army representatives. I want to put on the record some of my concerns. Managing high expectations and maintaining party discipline will be a major challenge for the NLD. There is also a risk that, if the NLD Government challenge military interests too directly, army hard-liners will try to destabilise them.
The Minister is always responsive and I look forward to his comments. We have to take note of the Buddhist nationalist movement known as Ma Ba Tha, in which Buddhist monks play a leading role. During 2015, that movement managed to pass four race and religion protection laws, which are seen by opponents as highly discriminatory against non-Buddhists. The 1982 citizenship law denies the Rohingya rights, including freedom of movement and access to health and education services. There is no way that these issues can be avoided, and it would be much better for the NLD Government to deal with them at the start of their period in government, when they have a new and strong mandate and strong party unity, and elections are years away.
Members have referred to ongoing conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic armed political groups and I have to put my concerns on the record as well. The Burmese army has used rape and sexual violence against women for decades as part of its warfare against ethnic minority groups in the country. That cannot go on unspoken about. It is possible for the new Government to initiate a domestic investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese army, ensure that support is available to victims, include women in peace negotiations and politics overall, and repeal the laws, such as the rape law, that discriminate directly against women. Let us do something constructive and positive about those things.
Open Doors lists Burma as the 23rd worst country in the world for the persecution of Christians. If you will bear with me, Mr Owen, I will take two minutes to give an example. Amod is a Christian convert from the Rohingya tribe. He described the double discrimination that he faces as a Christian in Burma in this way:
“The Muslims in the village still wanted to kill me. One day, they came to do just that. They attacked me but some believers shielded me from harm. Another night, Muslims surrounded my home while I was sleeping and pelted stones on our roof.”
Amod is on the run. He is from the Rohingya tribe and converted to Christianity after 33 years as a Muslim. Christians from the Rohingya tribe are doubly disadvantaged. The country refuses to acknowledge Rohingyas, saying they are Bengali immigrants. Bangladesh, on the other hand, says they are indigenous to Myanmar. In addition, the Rohingya tribe rejects Christians who have converted from Islam.
Amod applied for permission to create a church for Rohingya believers, but was refused. After that he was hounded so much that he eventually took his family to Bangladesh, but his life was no easier there. So with seven Christian Rohingya households they fled to India, where they continued to be pursued from town to town. Amod maintains his witness and pastors the families, who are now scattered. I conclude with that, and I thank Members again for the opportunity to participate in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your convenorship, Mr Owen. I commend the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate, and for the deeply passionate and moving way in which, through his family’s experience, he brought the situation in Burma right into the Chamber. I commend the other speakers in the debate too; there has been a strong degree of consensus, and that is something that Burma’s new parliamentarians might want to pay attention to—that sometimes, when things really matter, even those whose views come from across the political spectrum and who come from a range of backgrounds and different parts of these islands can agree on the fundamentals. I think it was the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) who reminded us that, although we must respect the right of the people of Burma to settle their own future, there are issues on which there are no borders. Whether fundamental human rights are protected or abused is a question on which national borders do not exist. We have human rights because we are human. They can and must be respected equally for all 6 billion-plus of us who share this tiny corner of the solar system.
Other hon. Members have spoken powerfully about the apparent situation—incomprehensible to us—in which the constitution gives legal protection to mass rapists but does not recognise the victims even as citizens in their own country, and gives the army the right to take power any time it sees fit. The army has an absolute veto over any attempt to change the constitution and people’s rights depend on where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from, and their choice to worship whatever deity they believe in, or not to worship. We would all see those things as deeply troubling and a sign of a seriously backward society. However, we have to try to put ourselves into the mindset of those who are handing over power. From their point of view, Burma has been through a revolution in the past 10 years or so. They see themselves as having made huge concessions to the democracy movement, and we have to understand that, and recognise that from their point of view they are already reforming at a pace that some of their supporters would see as reckless. I cannot remember which hon. Member pointed it out, but some voices are being raised in Burma to say that it is unacceptable that someone from an ethnic minority should be allowed to become vice-president. Incidentally, trying to limit someone’s worthiness for public office on the basis of their ethnic origin is not nationalism, but racism, and we should not be afraid to describe and condemn it in those terms.
Rightly, much has been said about Aung San Suu Kyi, and there is something immensely inspirational about the fact that an army that is still effectively all-powerful has to change the rules to protect itself from a 70-year-old woman who does not carry a gun. It is an example that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has reminded us, is a shining light to all of us who believe in peaceful, democratic, lawful protest. Regardless of how powerful and well armed the forces of oppression might be, ultimately the voice of reason, reconciliation and peace will always come through. Perhaps, for those of us for whom this weekend holds particular significance, those thoughts are highly topical.
What do we want to happen next? We must continue to be a critical friend to the people of Burma and recognise that, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, there is a generation of Members of Parliament in Burma who do not know what a Parliament is. They got elected, and had never seen what a Parliament was and how it was supposed to behave. I am not sure that I would use Prime Minister’s questions as an example of the best of the traditions to implement, but even as a severe critic of this place I think there are aspects of the way the House operates that provide a good example to Burma and elsewhere.
We must remember that probably there is no one serving in the police force in Burma who has ever known a time when the police force was there to protect people rather than oppress them; there is no one left in the Burmese army who knows what armies and soldiers are supposed to be for. That is another way in which we and others can help to set an example. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what is happening or being planned with a view to UK and other European police and military forces helping to demonstrate, to those reluctant to hand over the reins of power in Burma, that when the army returns to serving its correct purpose of protecting rather than oppressing citizens and the police go back to upholding the rule of law equally for everybody they are held in higher esteem. There is no doubt that although the army is deeply feared in Burma, while it is not particularly feared here, our soldiers are much more respected than I suspect most soldiers are in Burma. That is not because of the power of the weapons they use, but because of the restraint with which they do not use them, and because although there are sometimes incidents that cannot be defended, the military forces in the United Kingdom and most other parts of the developed world publicly condemn any abuse of power by their serving officers, and ensure that those are investigated and the culprits dealt with under the law.
It is impossible to finish my speech without referring to the appalling abuse by the Burmese army of the human rights of a generation of women and girls. There are no words that can describe the revulsion we feel at reports that a mother is forced to watch her 12-year-old daughter being gang raped by soldiers who are effectively immune from ever being held to account for their crimes. We have to make sure that those who will be in charge of the Burmese army in the near future fully understand that that kind of behaviour cannot be condoned or accepted.
Would the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it is important that small charities working at grassroots level to support women in Burma, such as the one I mentioned, HART, should be supported in turn by DFID? We need DFID to look more widely at supporting small charities that make a difference on the ground.
I appreciate that that is a subject close to the hon. Lady’s heart. What I will say is that there are certainly occasions when organisations at arm’s length or independent from Government, which will not be seen to be interfering on behalf of another Government, are what is needed. Also, sometimes smaller organisations can be closer to the people they are trying to support. Whether their funding is best coming from DFID or elsewhere may not be for me to comment on.
I think it is important for the House to reiterate the point that wearing an army or police uniform does not give someone the right to abuse, rape or violently attack a girl or a lady. What we need, I respectfully say to the Minister, is to put that forward to the Burmese Government and ensure that they understand that it is morally and globally wrong, and they have got to stop it.
Absolutely; I do not think anyone in this House or in the other place along the corridor would disagree with a word of that. I would apply the same to Members of Parliament and those elected to high office; we should see ourselves as elected to positions of responsibility rather than positions of power or influence. That, again, may be an example that we will have to continue to present to colleagues who have been elected to serve in the Burmese Parliament.
As has been said, Burma is going into a period of enormous optimism. There will be setbacks and problems. It is not all going to happen peacefully and quietly. I hope that not only the Government but parliamentarians and the rest of civil society in the United Kingdom and elsewhere will offer a helping hand where possible, so that the next generation of Burmese police officers, parliamentarians and soldiers understand that they are there to protect the rights of a flourishing democracy, and not to oppress it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate? Members may wish to know that at my daughter’s secondary school, she is in Aung house. It is lovely to be able to explain to her and the other girls why their house is named after Aung San Suu Kyi.
I, too, have met Ben Rogers; I loved his book and read it during my Christmas break. It is clear from his book and from the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide that Burma is a difficult place geographically, because so much happens in villages and it is difficult to scrutinise things happening a long way away. That presents us with a real problem in tackling human rights issues. Although we are all well apprised of what is happening with the Rohingya people, what is happening to other minority groups is less well known. Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other groups can perhaps help us understand the fuller picture of what is happening in Burma.
It has been fabulous to hear such a great range of voices today, and to hear about the trip that colleagues undertook to discuss parliamentary business. The hon. Members for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of the training courses they undertook with local parliamentarians in Burma-Myanmar and how exciting it was to hear about the experience of new MPs there. They also spoke about how we can take over all the knowledge about how we manage our constituencies here, which enriches the work of Burma’s Parliament.
I was delighted to hear the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) about corruption. We have not really touched on that sufficiently in this debate, but perhaps there is a separate piece of work that we could undertake on it, because it is crucial. British businesses going into Burma in the coming years must be aware of the corruption problems in Burma and, indeed, other countries. Our approach to foreign policy must be balanced. It is important that we have trade at the centre of our foreign policy, but it is also crucial that we tackle difficult and entrenched issues such as corruption, human rights abuses and the repression of certain minority groups.
I appreciated hearing from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about how difficulties with citizenship hold back Burmese members of Parliament from taking on their roles. I thank him for his speech. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the particular issues facing Christians and the testimonies of girls who have been abused in churches, which is a doubly awful situation. I have read such terrible stories myself, having been involved in the work of Burma Campaign UK to end rape and sexual violence.
It was good to hear the hon. Member for Congleton focus on the Shan women, who face particular issues that go right into the heart of their villages, and to hear the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) talk about the basics—the things that we take for granted that need to be worked towards in Burma. Indeed, the Parliament there has had the support of our Speaker for many years, and it is exciting to see the fruit of that coming to bear, with our own parliamentarians going abroad and making sense of the reality there.
I want to focus on Burma Campaign UK’s pledge to end rape and sexual violence. We have heard some stories, and we have read about the two Kachin teachers aged 20 and 21 who were raped in Kaunghka village, in northern Shan state. No one has yet been charged or put on trial for that crime. Originally, when the former Foreign Secretary, with the support of Ms Jolie, made a big push on sexual violence, it took quite a bit of pressure to get Burma on to the list of countries that were going to be focused on. I am pleased that we eventually got Burma on to that list back in 2012, but it is a country that sometimes suffers from not being in the limelight enough. That is why it is special that Members have taken such an interest in it. While many countries immediately came to mind, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it took quite a while to get Burma on to the list of countries that the then Foreign Secretary was going to focus on. I make a plea to the Minister today that he focuses on the role of women and girls, as we know from DFID’s important work over the years that educating women has a long-term effect.
The pledge to which many of us have signed up calls for an investigation into rape and sexual violence, particularly involving the military. We heard a good intervention on that from the hon. Member for Strangford. It also calls for an
“end to impunity for rape and other forms of sexual violence”
and “support for victims”. We could do a lot to provide such support, hopefully through the DFID budget—for example, helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder and providing counselling and confidence building, which we know are crucial for women who are survivors of sexual violence. The pledge supports the
“inclusion of women at every political level in Burma including the peace negotiations between the Burmese government and the ethnic armed political groups”,
between which there is tension. Finally, the pledge calls for Burmese law
“to be in line with international human rights standards to outlaw rape in marriage.”
Those are the five elements of the pledge that we have signed up to, and I look forward to the Minister confirming that he will redouble his efforts to put them at the top of the agenda when speaking to Burmese Ministers.
I emphasise the importance of a rounded foreign affairs policy. We would like to see a much more high-profile debate on human rights as well as trade. There is a triangle of national security, human rights and trade, and the last two sometimes tend to be less high-profile.
We have not debated press freedom enough today. It is difficult to put that on an agenda between Governments, because it is about freedom, but allowing press freedom is a crucial part of knowing what is happening in terms of human rights. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the punishment that is meted out to people who use Facebook. Finally, if the Minister would be so kind, I would like him to mention the anti-corruption stream.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing the debate. I thank him for his personal insight, which always gives flavour to a debate, following his recent and, I think, first visit to the land of his forebears. Many Members of both Houses have close personal connections to, and a close interest in, Burma; he probably has the closest connection to Burma, in many ways. Many Members who have spoken this morning have been following developments in that country for many years, which has provided a good repository of knowledge and understanding in the House—perhaps more than of any other country. I welcome that, as it helps to better inform debate.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has also just returned, with a number of colleagues, from Naypyidaw. I was not quite sure what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam meant when he said that every Member of Parliament could have an office in Naypyidaw. Was he suggesting that when we come to refurbish this place, we should model it on Naypyidaw? I do not imagine he was. The chances of having a 20-lane highway while the Mayor of London is around, unless it is for cyclists, are rather small.
This debate comes at a remarkable time for Burma. Last Tuesday, President U Htin Kyaw became the first civilian head of a democratically elected Government there for more than 50 years. Next week, his National League for Democracy Government will finally take power. That is the culmination of a lifetime’s effort by many committed individuals and lobbyists who have worked tirelessly and courageously for democracy. More than 100 of the NLD MPs in the new Parliament have endured long spells in prison. Others who have supported the cause of democracy have not only paid with their freedom; some have paid with their lives.
Clearly, however, the person who has been central in this unfolding drama and in bringing Burma to this point is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has consistently shown courage, determination and dignity in the face of challenges that most of us would have found impossible to bear. It is regrettable that a flawed constitution has prevented her from becoming President. We are aware of rumours about what her role will be in the new Government. Such rumours are at present purely speculative until the Cabinet is officially named; we expect that announcement tomorrow.
Credit is also due to the outgoing Administration, who planned and initiated the reforms. Although there is clearly still a very long way to go, their efforts deserve to be recognised, particularly the peaceful and orderly conduct of the elections last November.
At the start of the reform process in 2011, it would have seemed impossibly ambitious to suggest that the political landscape in Burma, and the lives of millions of Burmese citizens, could change so dramatically in just a few years. I am proud of the important role that the United Kingdom has played in that. Through our policy of constructive engagement with the Burmese authorities, we have supported and encouraged positive change in many areas. We have sought to nurture Burma’s growing desire to return to the international community after years of isolation, repression and dictatorship. I very much welcome the moves by Mr Speaker, Clerks and Officers of the House and all the organisations that are helping the democracy-building process, which, as hon. Members have said, is much needed.
Some questioned our policy. Even six months ago, some Burma watchers predicted that the elections would not be allowed to happen, that they would be heavily rigged, or that the NLD would never be allowed to take power. Others dismissed our approach as the path of least resistance, but that, of course, was not the case at all. It has demanded time, effort and resources here in London, in Burma and throughout our diplomatic network, and I very much welcome and appreciate the nice, kind and appropriate comments that have been made about our ambassador and his team in Rangoon. It has required frank conversations in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and I believe that our policy is now beginning to bear fruit.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke about defence engagement. Our engagement with the Burmese military has quite properly come in for particular scrutiny and comment. Not all of it has been either particularly informed or positive, but given Burma’s history I can understand that. As I have repeatedly said, real and lasting change will only come through engaging the Tatmadaw as they move towards reform and through showing them how modern militaries should operate in a modern democratic state—not by criticising them and isolating them from afar, as we did for so many years previously. Under the NLD Government, the military will still hold a quarter of the seats in Parliament, as has been pointed out. They will continue to control three important Ministries and hold an effective veto on constitutional change, so it will remain vital to continue that engagement—indeed, to step it up—with the full agreement of the new Government.
Our work with the military will continue to focus on their role in a democratic system. We would welcome their participation in civilian-led educational courses, such as with the Royal College of Defence Studies. Our engagement will include vital education on the rule of law and human rights, and particularly on countering the recruitment and use of child soldiers and combating sexual violence in conflict. None of that will increase the combat capacity of the Burmese military.
In a written statement to the House, I said that the parliamentary elections represented
“a victory for the people of Burma.”—[Official Report, 20 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 25W.]
They were indeed an important victory, but they do not mark the end of Burma’s reform process. The work of transformation continues and will demand our support. That is why the Prime Minister has spoken to Daw Suu since the elections and offered whatever assistance she and her Government need as they set about tackling the many serious challenges that lie ahead—not least, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, that of corruption.
Challenges remain, including consolidating the democratic transition, energising the peace process, reforming the justice and security sectors and managing the economy for the many, not the few. We are already engaging with the incoming Administration as they prepare for office. When the time comes, we will be ready to respond with practical assistance in support of their priorities.
One of the challenges facing the incoming Government will be tackling the issue of Rakhine and addressing the appalling situation of the Rohingya community there, which we have discussed an enormous number of times in the House. Although much of Burma has greatly benefited from the reform process, the same cannot be said of Rakhine’s Rohingya minority. Large numbers of Burmese turned out across the country in November to vote and to signal their desire for future democratic change. However, the Rohingya were disfranchised for the first time in a Burmese general election. That exclusion, in the face of international concern—led not least by the United Kingdom—is a stark symbol of the extent to which they have been stripped of the most basic human rights and freedoms. We do not underestimate the complexity and sensitivity of the Rohingya issue, but we are equally clear that the incoming Government must begin to address the immediate needs of the Rohingya: improved security, relaxation of the restrictions on movement and a pathway to citizenship.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about religious freedom, as he often does. As well as Rakhine, the new Government face a number of other deep-seated human rights issues: dealing with the remaining political prisoners, managing the recent increase in tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities and, as he pointed out, the growth of nationalist organisations such as Ma Ba Tha. It is also important that they engage in a wide-ranging programme of judicial and legislative reform. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is meeting Cardinal Bo in May, and I hope to do the same.
The challenges remain significant, and we should not underestimate them. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently championed the rule of law, and with more than 100 former political prisoners now National League for Democracy MPs, the new Government will want to take early action to tackle these issues. We will continue to provide support and encouragement across the human rights agenda. We will do so directly through technical advice, programmes and projects, as well as with international partners and through bodies such as the UN and the EU.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about conflict-related sexual violence. We will continue to promote our efforts to tackle that following the visit that we supported last year of Angelina Jolie Pitt, the special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. When I was in Rangoon on 27 July last year, I was pleased to launch the international protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict, which is something we care very much about. The hon. Lady also talked about women playing a greater role in Burma—of course they should—and said that their voices should be heard. What better way to start than at the top, with Daw Suu, probably one of the greatest female icons that there has ever been?
The peace process will rightly be another priority for the incoming Government. Outgoing President Thein Sein and his Government can be commended for the progress that they oversaw, which culminated last October in the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement by eight ethnic armed groups. However, we are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing the Government in reinvigorating that process and achieving a lasting peace. Ensuring that the remaining groups sign up to the process and agree an enduring political settlement will require considerable energy and efforts early in the new Government’s term.
I am conscious that I should leave two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who secured and opened the debate. This is a moment when the United Kingdom can take stock of the situation in Burma. It is not going to be easy from now on. We have come through a very difficult period. The military retain their role, and the new Government are coming in and face many challenges. Managing expectations is going to be incredibly important. We have consistently supported the process and can take some credit for getting them to where they are, but our work has not stopped and now has to be redoubled in all areas.
I am most grateful to hon. Members across the House, because this is not an issue that divides us politically, and I urge them to maintain their vigilance and their support for a country that is in a very difficult period and process.
Thank you, Mr Owen. Frankly, I could have spoken for the full 90 minutes, so I thank all Members who have spoken—many of whom are long-standing campaigners for the country—for sparing you that prospect.
My visit was emotional, not just for my family but because when I was there I realised that in this transition, I can make a difference, and we, Parliament, can make a difference. That prospect is really exciting. I thank everybody very much for their contributions to the debate and I look forward to continuing support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.