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Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will next make representations to the Government of Burma about Aung San Suu Kyi.

My Lords, the Prime Minister released a statement on the morning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest, condemning the actions of the regime. Our embassy in Rangoon registered the Government’s deep concern with the Burmese authorities immediately on receiving news of the arrest. The Foreign Secretary has worked with his counterparts in the EU to deliver a clear message to the regime, and we are talking to UN Security Council members to consider the next steps.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has just said. During those discussions with members of the Security Council, will a reference to the International Criminal Court be considered for some of those who have been responsible for crimes against humanity in Burma and who are responsible for putting Aung San Suu Kyi through not just 5,000 days—nearly 14 years—of house arrest but now imprisonment in Insein prison in Rangoon, which is notorious for the torture, squalor, filth and the illnesses that have occurred there? What are we doing to work with our European Union partners on targeted sanctions and to put pressure on the Government of China, who are probably in a far better position than anyone else to ensure that humanitarian concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s well-being are to the fore?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows well, Burma is not a signatory to the ICC, so a reference by the Security Council would be required. Our view is that we would not secure one because some countries on the Security Council have made it clear in previous consultations that they would oppose such an action. Yesterday conversations were initiated in Brussels by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, which will lead to a statement by the EU, and last year we led in pressing for sanctions to be strengthened at the European level. As the noble Lord is aware, however, when it comes to global action through the UN, we are constrained by the position of China and others which resist further isolation of the regime.

My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government had any discussions recently with Indian and Chinese Ministers regarding Aung San Suu Kyi? If not, will they do so in Hanoi next week at the Asia-Europe meeting, bearing in mind the influence that these Ministers may have on the Burmese Government through their considerable economic investments in Burma and their total disregard for any sanctions on Burma?

My Lords, there are continuous and frequent discussions at Security Council level. Last year I had occasion to talk to Ministers in both countries about this issue. Unfortunately, economic competition between India and China for a greater stake in Burma makes both of them reluctant to be parties to sanctions or further isolation of the regime.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever pressures are brought to bear on Burma by western nations, other ASEAN nations are complicit in many respects? The leader of the Shan people said to me that Burma opened its treasure chest of jade and jewels and ASEAN nations bought into it. Therefore, will Her Majesty's Government make representations to the other ASEAN nations not to allow commercial interests to undermine political pressure for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and the cessation of all human rights violations in Burma?

My Lords, following Cyclone Nargis last year ASEAN has tried to play an increasingly constructive role in the case of Burma, and a number of ASEAN leaders have come quite far out on this issue. I say again, however, that the essential dilemma in our policy on Burma is that whereas we in the West have relied on sanctions and isolation, ASEAN neighbours have preferred limited engagement. That contradiction of strategy means that the regime has survived very nicely, thank you.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will join me in welcoming the statement by the presidency of ASEAN expressing grave concern about the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi in view of her fragile state of health. Does he think that it would be worth while asking the UN special envoy, Mr Thomas Quintana, to visit both Beijing and New Delhi to see whether China and India can be persuaded to line up behind that statement and to join the EU in imposing sanctions on the regime?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord draws attention to that ASEAN statement, which confirms my point that ASEAN is moving forward on this. In fact, ASEAN leaders frequently complain to me that the Burmese compare unfavourably their openness to Western support for Aung San Suu Kyi to the position of other neighbours which are more hard-line and reluctant to come forward. As far as UN action goes, the most promising prospect is that the UN Secretary-General has made clear his intention to visit Burma in the coming months, and it now seems that the regime will accept that visit.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned sanctions. Is it the Government’s position that no British Government should have any trade relationships with Burma unless and until Aung San Suu Kyi is released?

My Lords, the British Government discourage all such trade links. Our embassy in Rangoon does not help any British company with trade and we advise against it. We also have a number of EU-wide sanctions, particularly on arms; but, as I said, the difficulty is that it has not been possible to globalise these steps.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the British Government continue to have a twin-track policy of maintaining and perhaps strengthening sanctions while at the same time increasing aid to non-governmental organisations which have no connection to the Burmese regime? Is not a steady increase in that aid to non-governmental organisations one way of making it clear to Burma’s other neighbours that we are not seeking to destabilise the country or to punish the citizens of that country but merely to deal with an obnoxious regime?

My Lords, I must again thank the noble Lord, who is always able to state British policy much more elegantly than I can. He is completely right: it is a twin-track policy. It is very important to weigh against the fact that we have led the push for sanctions, and are proud of that, the fact that we are also the biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to Burma, working exclusively through NGOs and not through the Burmese Government. We think that both tracks are vitally important so that people see the sanctions for what they are—targeted at the regime and its economic interests but not intended to adversely impact the desperate lives of ordinary Burmese.

My Lords, are the Government doing anything at all to try to dissuade British travellers from taking holidays in Burma? We have the trade sanctions, and the Minister has now told us about the aid sanctions through the NGOs, but many travellers are still going to Burma, and something should be done about it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has a point. I will have a look at our FCO travel website and see what we say about Burma. I think that it makes clear the different sanctions and restrictions which are in place. For many people, however, that chance of citizen-to-citizen contact brings them home even angrier about the regime than they were when they went.

My Lords, with its repeated commitment to the principle of human rights, does the Commonwealth have a part to play in this dreadful story? If so, what is that part, and what are we doing to ensure that it is played?

My Lords, Burma is not a member of the Commonwealth and it points to its history to show why that is so. In this case the Commonwealth would probably be a somewhat provocative vehicle or track to pursue.