Skip to main content

Burma: Aid

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

What are the prospects for an immediate inflow of aid following a visit to Burma by the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch-Brown.

My Lords, I visited Burma on 17 and 18 May. In my meetings with Burmese Ministers I pressed them to remove obstructions to the international aid effort. The situation has improved but it was clear from my discussions with NGOs and UN experts operating in Burma that the scale of need is enormous and too little aid is getting through too slowly. We estimate that as many as 2.5 million people may be in need of emergency assistance and we look to the ASEAN/UN conference to be held in Rangoon on 25 May to establish a logistic mechanism to channel aid in an effective and efficient manner to those most in need.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Could he tell your Lordships’ House a little more about the position that the UK Government will take at the ASEAN conference, and say whether he thinks that this initial visit on his part has helped to open the way for other political contact in that country?

My Lords, I think the visit has helped restore some dialogue with the Burmese Government. After all, the last visit by a British Minister was over 22 years ago and it was only possible in this humanitarian emergency to put aside the long held political objections we have to that regime and its behaviour. But I assured the Ministers I met that obviously dialogue and co-operation around this humanitarian emergency, if successful, might open channels of communication and trust which were previously not there. Equally, however, I made it clear that, while we have put aside our political agenda for now, our support for Aung San Suu Kyi and for democracy in Burma remains unshaken.

As to the relief, by introducing the idea of an Asian/ASEAN-led operation in partnership with the United Nations, we were able to break the gridlock that had prevented aid delivery by proposing a mechanism that will have the confidence of the Burmese authorities.

My Lords, it is good that the Minister was able to identify a funnel by which aid could get through the deadlock he described, even though obviously that will involve some delay. When Mr Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General, arrives in Burma either today or tomorrow and sets up this grouping in Rangoon, which he calls a logistic hub, are there ways in which we can contribute to the mechanism even if we cannot be part of the transfer of aid funds directly, because they have to go through the other ASEAN countries? Does this whole tragic affair lead to any revision of views about how sanctions placed on Burma could operate in the next phase?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, already today the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, was able to announce that nine UN helicopters will be allowed immediately to start operating in the country. An air bridge has now formally opened between Bangkok Don Muang Airport and Rangoon, which will allow a steady acceleration of flights. Those flights will remain British and American, and will be provided by all donors. In addition to aid through this funnel of the ASEAN/Asian route, there will continue to be aid through British NGOs and British aid directly through UN agencies. The British NGOs are doing a remarkable job of expanding access already. On sanctions, like so much else which falls into the political realm, the time to draw lessons will come later. But let us hope that this, in different ways, will open a new chapter for the future in Burma’s sorry political history.

My Lords, many of us in this House will want to offer the Minister our congratulations on the delicacy and the tact with which he has clearly conducted a very difficult mission. While he was abroad, we heard a lot of discussion here and elsewhere about the responsibility to protect, the question of sovereignty and how far the definition of a new doctrine of international intervention by the United Nations changes the context in which we, the international community, should operate in the face of such disasters in authoritarian regimes. How does the Minister think that the discussions so far should have affected our understanding of this very delicate area?

My Lords, the fact that we are where we are and that the countries of Asia have risen to the challenge of partnering us to get aid into Burma demonstrates a new international consciousness of the responsibility to meet the needs of victims of a humanitarian tragedy of this kind. The fact that the Government of Burma have given ground and allowed this to happen equally reflects that they understand that they face an international community to which they cannot ultimately say no. Equally, it gives us pause for thought as to whether the approach briefly adopted last week of trying to come in through the Security Council is the right way to handle a humanitarian situation of this kind. We have got there through putting politics aside and engaging in intense humanitarian negotiation. We need to bear in mind that this proved more promising than the attempts to batter down the front door of the Security Council.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on his pivotal efforts, however frustrating things must have been at the time. Is he confident that there would be no further hindrance on western experts coming in under a framework agreement, if there were to be one? Since every day counts, what is our estimate of the real danger of epidemics arising in the delta? He said some optimistic things about an air bridge, but what can he say about a sea bridge, as proposed by Bernard Kouchner and the French and American ships which lie offshore?

My Lords, on each of my noble friend’s points, I share his lack of confidence that we will necessarily have clear resolution of the issues. We will not have as many western experts as we would ideally want. It was the fact that the offer to deploy western experts on a wide scale had been so resisted by the Burmese that led us to pursue this other route, but western experts will be there as part of the UN team that is deployed and as part of Save the Children, Merlin and the other British NGOs and indeed American and western NGOs operating in the country.

The risk of secondary infection remains huge and we are in a race against time. This less-than-perfect funnel that we have created is nevertheless ratcheting up aid, and we will need to keep a close focus on whether it is ratcheting up fast enough, because there is a risk of cholera or other water-borne disease. Five thousand square kilometres are still flooded. The incidence of diarrhoea among children is rising alarmingly. We should not be complacent. This is going to be an extremely difficult operation.

As to the third point, many of these areas are better reached by river than by road even when the roads are not flooded, as they currently are. Building in a water-borne distribution system and allowing the supplies on the British, French and American ships to be unloaded through some ASEAN formula and to be distributed is a critical goal of the coming days.

My Lords, the Minister rightly mentioned the high profile of British NGOs, but does he agree that it is only because of their partnership with indigenous NGOs—I am speaking of India and Burma—that it is possible to achieve such results? Will he comment further on India’s role and the efficiency of its own non-governmental organisations, since we have chosen to take that path?

My Lords, the implementation model that the British NGOs working in Burma have adopted has been one where they have much larger local national staffs than normal, because of their reluctance to work through any government entities in Burma. The good news is that this means that hundreds of Save the Children and Merlin staff, and similarly UN agency staff, are now working in the delta, which is a substitute for the limitations that have been placed on the deployment of international staff from the same organisations. These are dedicated, committed people who have been working for those organisations despite the political risk to them posed by their own regime.

India is one of those countries that will now help. I have had profitable discussions with the Indians about how they might provide naval assets. They are certainly well trusted, so one can imagine that their government teams as well as non-government teams will be a critical part of the Asian deployment into Burma going forward.