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Volume 700: debated on Monday 31 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their assessment of the prospects for a meaningful dialogue between the Government and the Opposition in Burma over constitutional reform; and what they are doing to increase humanitarian aid to that country.

My Lords, the regime appears intent on resisting the UN Security Council’s call for a meaningful dialogue with the Opposition. It maintains that position, despite the fact that only an inclusive political process stands any chance of bringing stability and national reconciliation to Burma. UK humanitarian aid to Burma will increase from £9 million in 2007-08 to £18 million a year by 2010-11. The United Kingdom is one of the country’s biggest donors. In addition, the EU programme for Burma in 2007 was €19 million.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, depressing though it is. It illustrates well why we should not allow events in Tibet to distract us from the plight of the long-suffering people of Burma. Does it not serve to show that the Burmese regime’s dialogue with the UN Secretary-General’s special representative is little more than a sham designed to gain time while the regime rams through its own constitution? What is the international community going to do about that? On the question of humanitarian aid, the Answer was certainly more encouraging. We have imposed targeted sanctions but do we not need more, together with more targeted humanitarian aid designed to reach those who need it most?

My Lords, we believe that the United Nations should continue to play a leading role in resolving this crisis. We welcome the personal engagement of the Secretary-General. He has the support of the entire Security Council and the wider international community in taking forward his good offices mission. I agree with the noble Lord this far: we are very disappointed by the outcome of the latest visit of the UN special envoy, Mr Gambari. No progress appears to have been made by the regime in meeting the reasonable expectations of the Security Council.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 10 March the European Union announced its new upgraded sanctions on the Burma regime? What is his opinion of those? Is there not a danger that they will hit mostly smaller enterprises which have nothing to do with the unpleasant regime in Burma and leave untouched the generals who are awash with petrodollars and who are developing trade, through their businesses, with China and Thailand? What is his opinion of that?

My Lords, we do not agree with what the noble Lord suggests. We believe that EU sanctions send an important and clear message of our determination to seek change in Burma and the new sanctions are specifically designed to target senior members of the regime and their business associates. There have been constant regime calls for them to be lifted and some anecdotal evidence of their impact: for example, Air Bagan, the airline closely linked to the regime, has had to suspend operations. I emphasise that they are just one part of a broader strategy towards Burma. Another part is to increase humanitarian aid, not through the regime, but through the United Nations and NGOs.

My Lords, China is obviously the key influence on the Burma regime and now it must surely be on the defensive, not only because of the events in Tibet and in Darfur, but also because of the Olympics. Is not now the appropriate time for the European Union to press China to intervene more positively in respect of Burma?

My Lords, we encourage and we expect China to use its great influence positively and constructively to urge reconciliation and genuine reform in Burma. My noble friend knows, of course, that China supported the UN Secretary-General’s good offices mission and signed up to the clear demands for progress in the very significant 11 October Security Council presidential statement. We look to China to maintain the pressure for change and my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised Burma with the Chinese leadership during their visits in February.

My Lords, in the circumstances, what will the Government do to follow up the recommendation of Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special envoy, that the Human Rights Council should find a means of following up its recommendations? In particular, will the United Kingdom at least draft a resolution for presentation to the Security Council, considering that presidential statements have previously been ignored? On the humanitarian front, will the Government take steps to increase the supply of cross-border aid to affect the tens of thousands of people who are displaced by military action by the regime in the border regions?

My Lords, on the UN and the Security Council resolution, we are in discussion with our partners about options for that. Whether we take it forward will depend on how much progress the Secretary-General and his envoy, Mr Gambari, are able to make towards establishing a reconciliation dialogue. It is very important that we understand that the regime has not really moved at all.

My Lords, having returned last night from the region, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that the plight of the ethnic national groups, such as the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan, the Rohingya and the Kachin peoples, continues to deteriorate as the SPDC military offensives continue against innocent civilians? More than 60,000 Karen have been displaced since 2006 and more than 80,000 Karenni are living in hiding in the jungle. The Minister has said that DfID has been increasing its aid, but last year there was a commitment to cross-border aid and we have been told that so far none of that has materialised. Why has there been such a delay and can the position of cross-border aid, which is needed by those people in order to survive, be addressed urgently?

My Lords, we certainly appreciate the huge difficulties of the ethnic minority population in Burma. We are of course talking with Burma’s neighbours, where the refugee problem is great indeed. The noble Baroness should be pleased, though, that we are going to double our humanitarian aid in the next few years. As regards what the noble Baroness says is a lack of progress over the past year or so, I will write to her.