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Burma: Karen

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 24 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will make representations to the Government of Burma with regard to continuing offensives and threats of further offensives against the Karen people inside Karen state and in camps for the displaced in Thailand.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has been in the forefront of international efforts to highlight human rights abuses, including the attacks on civilians in conflict areas. On 23 April, European Union Foreign Ministers issued a statement calling for an end to the military campaign. We intend to set out our concerns directly to the Burmese Foreign Minister at the Asia-Europe meeting of Foreign Ministers in Hamburg next week.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging and sympathetic response. Is he aware that, in the past year alone, 27,000 civilians in Karen state and a further 59,000 in other states in eastern Burma have been displaced from their villages by SPDC military offensives and are now hiding in the jungle, living and dying in appalling conditions as internally displaced peoples? Will Her Majesty’s Government consider taking further initiatives to instigate proceedings to bring the SPDC regime to account for crimes against humanity?

My Lords, we will consider any new initiatives, including those that the noble Baroness has just identified, that would help us to promote reform and positive change and bring an end to human rights abuses. This is a continuing crisis for the civilians who were caught up in recent fighting between rival armed ethnic groups, which has added to the alarming number of displaced people already affected by the offensives of the Burmese army. The Government give £1.8 million to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which provides humanitarian aid to internally displaced people and refugees, and we are spending £8 million per annum in Burma on fighting HIV, TB and malaria. We need a comprehensive policy across these fronts.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is right to keep bringing this issue before us. Are there not 7 million Karen people in Burma, and another 400,000 in Thailand, and have they not been subjected steadily to the most appalling atrocities, being rounded up, shot down and slaughtered in manners reminiscent of the Nazi era? Are not 40 per cent of them Christians? Are they not a people to whom we in Britain owe a considerable debt, since they supported us against our enemies during the Second World War? Will the Minister assure us that their plight and our efforts to carry on with the initiatives that he described are continually to the forefront in his department and in government policy? We need to maintain our reputation for looking after our friends in the world—a reputation that is unfortunately in tatters in other parts of the world at the moment.

My Lords, I do not accept the last element of what the noble Lord said, but I completely agree with the rest. This is an obligation on us, and we will continue to meet it. It is a matter that has engaged us as Ministers in making representations. We should not cease to take the opportunities that we have. We are talking about a terrible regime, although I add, without by any means trying to mitigate the terror that it inflicts, that inter-ethnic fighting is making the whole problem worse.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the measures that they have taken to persuade the Government of Burma to live up to their requirements, but is not the problem that ASEAN members have not joined in? At their recent meeting in Manila, the question of Burma was not even on the agenda. While I congratulate the Government of Thailand on playing host to the large number of refugees mentioned by the Minister, would it not bring home to ASEAN its responsibilities if UNHCR apportioned the costs of supporting these refugees to the neighbouring states and sent them a bill?

My Lords, I am not sure that the United Nations has a mechanism for increasing the charges to particular groups of countries, but I am completely at one with the noble Lord about the responsibilities of ASEAN. That is one of the reasons why my right honourable friend Ian McCartney, I and others have made representations to those nations, bilaterally and to them as a group. I am glad to say that the European Union has been doing so, too, in relation to them as a group. It is without question a scar on ASEAN’s performance.

My Lords, the Minister referred in his initial Answer to a number of initiatives. Will he consider providing support and assistance, and funding if necessary, for an international independent inquiry into what is going on and the violation of human rights? I consider what is going on to be a form of genocide, which should be a matter for investigation by an international inquiry, too.

My Lords, I can confirm that discussions about what form of crime against humanity this is are proceeding in the international fora. My priority would be to ensure that Ibrahim Gambari, who represented the previous Secretary-General in Burma in November of last year, resumes his efforts now that he has been reappointed by Ban Ki-Moon. It may be that an inquiry should come along in due course, but I am eager to see the most senior people in the United Nations directly involved in trying to find a solution in Burma. It would be well worth our adding our weight to that effort.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Sunday will be the 17th anniversary of the 1990 elections in Burma, when the National League for Democracy won more than 80 per cent of the seats? It will also be the day, one year on, when the extension of the house arrest order on Aung San Suu Kyi will expire. Will he take this opportunity to support the statement made recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and other former heads of government, calling for her release? Will he also tell us why the European Union common position was not recently strengthened when this matter was discussed, including the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, about the plight of the Karen people?

My Lords, I do not think that there is any question about the level of support in the European Union. I appreciate the efforts being made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. However, rather than speaking for her—she has never needed us to do that at any time in her history—perhaps I can say on behalf of the Government that I unreservedly condemn the detention of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. I sincerely hope that her house arrest will not be extended this weekend. That point will be made to the Burmese Government. She should be released, as should all other political prisoners. The Burmese Government will be in no doubt of our position as this unfortunate anniversary comes up.