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Volume 704: debated on Monday 13 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they have made to the Government of Burma about the treatment by the State Peace and Development Council in Burma of ethnic national people, in particular the Karen, Chin and Rohingya peoples; and whether they will provide assistance for the relief of famine in the Chin State.

My Lords, we consistently raise human rights issues with the regime. Our ambassador in Rangoon has repeatedly made it clear that Burma’s many problems will be solved only through dialogue between the Government, opposition and ethnic groups. DfID is providing £600,000 of emergency assistance in response to food shortages in Chin State. This year, DfID is also providing £1.8 million to assist Burmese refugees in Thailand and internally displaced people in Burma.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very encouraging reply. Is he aware that on a recent visit to the peoples of the Chin hill tribes in Burma, we found evidence of a serious famine which had already killed hundreds of people? Many hundreds more were ill and dying. Since we left, in just one week in one village whose people we met, seven people died—six of them children. Will DfID’s welcome commitment to provide relief ensure that food reaches those most affected, particularly in view of extremely disturbing news received this morning that the SPDC authorities are not going to allow the World Food Programme or the NGOs access to those in need? The situation is desperate and I hope that the Minister can give some specific reassurance.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her work on this issue and for prior notice of her Question. The situation there is truly desperate, and any delays will be very serious. DfID’s staff in Rangoon have become aware of the reports, but we do not know how substantial these situations are going to be; we will use all efforts to follow them up. The £600,000 will be routed through our UN partners, the World Food Programme and the UN Development Programme. If it goes ahead smoothly, we expect it to get to most villages within a week and the more remote villages within the next 10 to 12 days.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the famine was largely caused by a massive infestation of rats? Can he further confirm that that infestation was clearly predictable, because it was associated with the blooming of the bamboo, and that the Indian Government intervened quite successfully in Mizoram to prevent a similar tragedy? Are the Burmese Government prepared to discuss famine relief with aid organisations outside, or does my noble friend share the widespread belief that the failure to act was deliberate?

My Lords, it is clear that Burmese preparation for this famine, which is predictable because it happens every 50 years when the bamboo goes through a particular stage, was inadequate. However, that is more symptomatic of the Burmese Government’s failure to commit adequate resources to the needs of their people than poor organisation. We believe that United Nations organisations on the ground are best placed to raise these issues with the Burmese authorities. They did so in developing the aid package that DfID recently agreed to finance. We believe that a bilateral approach from the United Kingdom to the authorities on the situation in Chin State would not be effective.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the suggestion made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last May that the quarter of a million Rohingyas in Bangladesh should return voluntarily—a forlorn hope as long as their relatives are being treated as non-citizens? What can be done to step up the pressure on Burma, called for by the EU a couple of weeks ago, to engage in dialogue with the ethnic groups? In particular, would the EU be prepared to visit the unofficial camps in which the quarter of a million Rohingyas are suffering appalling conditions in Bangladesh?

My Lords, the efforts of the EU on the political level have been significant—it is the strictest regime that has been introduced. The United Kingdom and the EU are constantly concerned about it. Whether we will be able to make more direct progress is difficult to foresee. The situation, certainly among the minorities, is terrible, with dreadful human rights violations. At the moment, we are working through the EU, the United Nations and neighbouring countries to bring pressure on the regime.

My Lords, reverting to Chin State, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, asked whether it was possible that the failure of the Government of Burma to bring relief was in any way deliberate. Is the Minister aware of reports that their troops in Chin State are not only resorting to what appear to be customary methods of forced labour and rape, but destroying the population’s remaining minimal stores of food? In one case, a village’s entire herd of pigs was shot by the military who then demanded payment for the bullets.

My Lords, the Government are aware of the dreadful behaviour of this particular regime. Nevertheless, we were hopeful that the United Nations partners had agreed effective understandings with the regime that this aid would get through. We will monitor these reports carefully to see whether there is more that we can do, but at the moment we continue to believe that pressure through our UN partners will be most effective.

My Lords, can the influence of India, China and Thailand be brought to bear on this state? They are the only countries in the area that Burma is willing to listen to. Can we exercise our influence through them to do something about this terrible regime?

My Lords, I am sure that we will. The adjacent nations, ASEAN and the UN achieved an agreement with the regime about the cyclone, which has actually worked quite well: aid is getting through. I am therefore sure that, if we have more problems than we originally thought in getting the aid through, the strong influence of adjacent nations will be brought to bear.

My Lords, my colleague Andrew Mitchell in the other place has been pressing for more aid to Burma for a long time. Further to the Minister’s Answer, what support have Her Majesty’s Government been giving to the cross-border aid from Thailand?

My Lords, we only resort to cross-border aid in extreme cases, when it is not getting through any other way. However, we are providing modest financial support for cross-border aid from Thailand.