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Volume 730: debated on Thursday 13 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Burma regarding their protection of the human rights of ethnic Burmese people.

My Lords, our ambassador in Rangoon regularly raises our human rights concerns about Burma's ethnic people, most recently on 19 and 20 September, with the Ministers responsible for border affairs, agriculture and irrigation, home affairs, and labour and social welfare, and with the President's office. He urged the Government to start a genuine dialogue towards national reconciliation and to address accountability for past and current human rights abuses. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials made the same points to the Burmese ambassador in July.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that some recent developments deserve a cautious welcome, such as more meaningful dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese Government; the announcement of the release of more than 6,000 prisoners, some of whom may be political prisoners; and the decision to suspend the construction of the Myitsone dam in Kachin state? However, does he also agree that serious concerns remain over military offensives against the Kachin and Shan peoples, many tens of thousands of whom have fled for their lives and are now hiding in conditions of terrible deprivation in the jungle? Will Her Majesty's Government raise with the Burmese Government concerns over these military offensives and can the Minister say what help can be given to those who have been forcibly displaced?

I agree that there have been recent developments that we should welcome. We are encouraged by the steps taken by the Burmese Government, including dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the creating of greater space for political debate. We also welcome news of the release of 206 prisoners so far—that is the number we have a record of—and we look forward to seeing news of further releases and progress on other important issues.

As to the other concerns that the noble Baroness rightly raised, we agree that there are grounds for very serious worry over conflict in the ethnic regions, including in Shan, Kachin and Karen states. We will continue to raise these issues with the Burmese Government and press for an immediate end to hostilities and for the start of a genuine process to build long-term peace. The Department for International Development has agreed funding that will reach displaced Kachin people. UK aid is reaching people in all ethnic states, including Shan and Kachin. Most is delivered through nationwide programmes for health, education, rural livelihood and civil society. DfID also provides cross-border aid where that is the only way to reach vulnerable people, including £1.5 million a year for Burmese refugees in Thailand. As for forcibly displaced people, we are getting strong wording into the upcoming UN resolution on that matter.

Does my noble friend think that the Burmese Army’s military offensive against the Kachin armed opposition was because of their obstruction of the Myitsone dam project? Since the indefinite suspension of that project was announced last month, does he think that there is scope for the UN to respond to the appeal by the Kachin independence organisation for help in stopping the conflict and achieving national reconciliation?

Yes, I do think that there is scope. We are striving at this moment. As my noble friend knows, there is an upcoming annual resolution by the third committee which will survey the whole human rights scene in Burma. We are putting forward very strong texts to be included in that resolution to meet precisely the points that my noble friend has mentioned. As for the decision to suspend the Myitsone dam project, it is important that the Burmese Government listen to the needs and interests of their people in deciding the future of this project. We note that Aung San Suu Kyi supported the President’s decision to suspend the construction during her meeting with the Burmese minister of labour on 30 September. We welcome this further stage of dialogue and urge the Burmese Government to ensure that it continues.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his Answer to the original Question. Of course we take comfort from the fact that there have been some releases, some of them of political prisoners, but presumably the Government are aware that there have been many occasions previously when the Burmese Government have made token releases of prisoners. Can the Minister give some assurance about the confidence that can be derived from this being a rather more successful long-term process?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. Of course this is in a sense just a beginning, an opening. There have been abuses, and a long history of political imprisonment which is totally unacceptable. We are again trying to put all these points into the strong text in the UN third committee resolution and we shall press them very hard indeed.

Does the Minister agree that the progress that Aung San Suu Kyi has made with the Government in Burma represents a great deal more than window dressing and that she should be given every encouragement to continue the dialogue that she is now engaged in? Does he also agree that the reregistration of the NLD is an essential step if Burma is going to move towards any form of democracy?

Yes, I agree with both those things. We strongly support and welcome the Aung San Suu Kyi dialogue and believe that it should be encouraged and supported at every stage.

Does the Minister agree that, notwithstanding these tentative and welcome steps, there are still 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, some who have been sentenced to 65 years in prison? Given that some 40 per cent of Burma is comprised of ethnic minorities, has he had a chance to consider the impact of the talks with Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime on those minorities, not least because of the recent reports from the Shan state by Amnesty International that troops are using innocent civilians as human shields and minesweepers and are using systematic rape, including the rape of a 14 year-old girl?

These are deeply worrying developments, and although we welcome the release of these initial prisoners, there remains a great deal to be done. The noble Lord’s comments indicate what challenges there are and where we have to seek major changes and major improvements. We are currently working to secure the toughest possible resolution at the UN General Assembly which we hope will repeat calls for Burma to release all political prisoners and to start working towards national reconciliation in a nation that is obviously deeply divided and riven by ethnic problems of all kinds. As the noble Lord knows, a famous book by Martin Smith on Burma’s ethnic problems reminded us of that long ago. There are many problems ahead.

Does the Minister agree that the very limited prisoner release announced by the regime in Burma yesterday is merely cosmetic? Is it not clear that the Government are in fact a legalised dictatorship and that they are undertaking action in an effort to get sanctions lifted, not to advance democracy in Burma? Will the Minister give an assurance that the UK will strongly oppose any relaxation of European Union sanctions, especially when there is clear evidence that, as the Minister said, the regime has increased the use of torture, rape and other unspeakable abuses against ethnic nationalities in Burma?

I can give an assurance that we will not review or dilute the sanctions yet, and indeed it is the view of Aung San Suu Kyi and others that we should not do so. The noble Baroness is absolutely right about that. I would take a slightly different tone from that which the noble Baroness uses in her comments. It is, of course, only the beginning. There is a horrific past, and horrific atrocities, to be accounted for, and people held to account for them. There are many problems ahead. However, this is a step that Aung San Suu Kyi herself recognises could lead to a more constructive dialogue with the Burmese Government. We should not do anything to discourage it at this stage, while keeping an eye open that there are many more difficult problems ahead.