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Burma: Ethnic National Groups

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 7 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will make representations to the State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar (Burma) over reports of continuing offensives against ethnic national groups.

My Lords, we have repeatedly condemned the continuing attacks on civilians carried out by the Burmese army. We remain deeply concerned about the plight of ethnic groups. My right honourable friend the Minister for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs, Ian McCartney, raised the issue of the offensive against the Karen and other ethnic groups with the Burmese ambassador on 15 June and with the Burmese Foreign Minister on 5 July. Our ambassador in Rangoon raises the issue of human rights violations with the Burmese Government regularly, most recently with the Burmese Home Affairs Minister on 23 October.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Are Her Majesty’s Government aware of the sheer scale and intensity of these military offensives against innocent civilians? More than 25,000 Karen and Shan people have been forced from their villages during these recent offensives. Only two weeks ago I met many of them who were fleeing through the jungle. Old people, children and pregnant women were dying on the way. They had no food, no shelter and no medical care. I understand that DfID is undertaking a review of cross-border aid. When will that review be reported? I hope that the Minister can assure me that DfID will not give the excuse that cross-border aid is not suitably accountable. Other Governments support cross-border aid, so will Her Majesty’s Government seriously and sympathetically consider providing such aid to those people who are suffering and dying in the jungle now?

My Lords, the House will recognise the extraordinary work that the noble Baroness does, not only from these Benches but by going to Burma and seeing what is happening on the ground. I thank her profoundly for that. Through our embassies in Rangoon and Bangkok, we monitor the situation as best and as accurately as we can and we are aware of its scale. In August, DfID announced a £20 million contribution to the three-diseases fund. That is a part of further contributions of £55 million in the joint donor programme. The resources are targeted at local level and are delivered through international NGOs, the UN agencies and community groups. We always try to ensure that money is spent wisely, but I take the point—as, I am sure, do my colleagues in DfID—that in these circumstances we should not be so prescriptive that we are mean spirited in the outcome.

My Lords, my noble friend has said that the Government are deeply concerned about the situation. Does he think that the violations that have taken place against people in Burma are war crimes? Are they crimes against humanity or crimes of genocide or attempted genocide? If they are, what action do the Government intend to take to pursue these matters?

My Lords, what constitutes genocide has a very strict legal definition. There is no doubt whatever that the extent of the actions being taken by the Burmese Government falls within the realm of crimes that should be of concern to the international community; that headline covers almost all the kinds of crime listed by my noble friend. We are working very hard, together with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, who visited Burma between 9 and 12 November, to see what kind of process can be got going, more successfully than in the past, at the United Nations. This is bound to be one of the areas to be considered.

My Lords, while I would not favour breaking all contacts with Burma, as some do, has the Minister noted that India—which, nowadays, is our very good friend and ally—is nevertheless apparently involved in supplying substantial packages of arms and equipment to the Burmese regime? This cannot be right. Can he assure the House that there will be discussions with the Government of India, if they are not already going on, to deter them from that particular kind of contact? Such contact, of course, leads only to more suppression of the wretched people about whose plight we are now hearing.

My Lords, that is a very telling point. My right honourable friend Ian McCartney has raised these issues frequently with the Chinese and with the Indians, so that is a process in which we are currently engaged at ministerial level. He has also discussed them with and called for a proactive response from Ministers right across ASEAN, which has, albeit with growing irritation with the Burmese, provided a good deal of sustenance to them. We raise these issues. Other Ministers in the United Kingdom Government raise them all the time. No player in the region, including India, can doubt our view and what we believe is necessary.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the estimate by Human Rights Watch that 82,000 people have been displaced by the current offensive and 232 villages have been destroyed? In view of the fact that this is likely to increase the flow of refugees across the border, will he suggest to ASEAN states that they pick up the tab for the 140,000 people who are now being looked after in camps and for the increased commitment to their livelihoods and welfare that has now been expressed by the Thai Government? Should that expense not be borne regionally, instead of by Thailand and the UNHCR?

My Lords, I understand the rhetorical thrust of the question, but we have regarded it as our task to try to prevent these atrocities in the first place, rather than saying that if they happen we will ask someone else to pick up the bill for the consequences. I believe that we use our aid programme properly. It is right to do so. There is no reason why an action of ours should inflict further suffering on people who are suffering enough.

My Lords, in addition to the barbarities that my noble friend has described taking place inside the Karen state, does the Minister accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that we must do more to aid and support the 120,000 to 140,000 people who have for up to 40 years been in the festering camps along the Thai-Burmese border? What role did Her Majesty’s Government play recently in the welcome increased interest shown by the Security Council in looking at the plight of the ethnic minorities, and holding that plight in tandem with the brave and courageous struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy inside Burma?

My Lords, we are entirely aware of the scale of the problems in the camps, and a great deal of DfID aid is allocated to that. There is continual review of whether that aid is adequate and whether we are capable of doing more. It is clear to us that we have an opportunity now, because of the Gambari initiative, to begin to get a number of steps taken in the UN Security Council. In late October, we were able for the first time to get a discussion without it being blocked by some of those powers that have done so hitherto. We find it difficult sometimes to get these initiatives off the ground when there is such resistance in the background, but we are now beginning to do so. We have to capture the momentum and be absolutely determined to see this through.

My Lords, are the Government prepared to consider any further steps, beyond the existing sanctions, to bring pressure on the Burmese Government to return to the family of civilised and democratic nations? Is he aware, for example, that whenever I have applied for a visa to go to Burma, I have been told that the time is not convenient? If the time is never convenient, that is the equivalent of refusal of a visa. Could we not do something with our European allies to restrict visa movements from Burma to Europe?

My Lords, we have tried to stay very closely in step with other European nations, because any unilateral action encourages others to break away from sanctions in a unilateral direction. That is a foreseeable consequence that we should avoid. We are trying to see what we can do to extend the measures without fracturing the European consensus on this matter.