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Burma: Ethnic Nationalities

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of recent developments in Burma with regard to the ethnic nationalities, in particular the Rohingya, Kachin and Shan peoples.

My Lords, despite the continuing process of political reform taking place in Burma, we are concerned by the reports of serious abuses being committed by government forces and armed ethnic groups against civilians, both in Kachin and across the border in Shan. Inter-communal violence in Rakhine state between the Rohingya and the Rakhine communities has again highlighted our ongoing concerns about the plight of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and civil and social rights.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her sympathetic reply. Can she confirm the scale of the suffering caused by the Burmese Government’s policies of violence and oppression to which she has referred? In recent months, many hundreds have been killed, and an estimated 100,000 Kachin, 30,000 Shan and 100,000 Rohingya people have been displaced from their homes to live in appalling conditions in camps or in exile. When I was in Shan state earlier this year one of the Shan leaders said:

“When the lights went on in Rangoon all the world flooded there—and no one stopped to see us in the darkness”.

Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that, during the forthcoming ministerial visit, the Minister will not only celebrate the lights of relative freedom in Rangoon but also engage with the ethnic peoples trapped in the darkness which still covers much of Burma today?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important issue. She will accept that huge progress has been made in Burma but that it is important that that progress is felt by all communities in Burma. It is therefore right that the Government raise these concerns at every opportunity. The Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister raised them earlier this year when they visited Burma. They also specifically met with members of the Rohingya community. Indeed, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised our specific concerns about the Rohingya community with President Thein Sein. My honourable friend the Minister of State hopes to visit Rakhine state when he visits Burma in December.

My Lord, we are accustomed to being encouraged to welcome the new dawn of democracy in Burma but can my noble friend say to what extent the elected members of the Burmese Parliament really represent their electors and to what extent they have any control or influence on the actions and policies of the Burmese Government?

My Lords, we welcome and make much of the progress that has been made in Burma, especially in relation to the emerging of democracy. However, it is right that we regularly raise our concerns about matters where we feel that progress is not being appropriately made. Indeed, on her historic visit to the United Kingdom, these matters were raised with Aung San Suu Kyi.

My Lords, the UN has described the Rohingya people as among the most persecuted minorities in the world. In view of that reality, why have the UK Government been silent and inactive about the callous treatment by Bangladesh of the desperate Rohingya arriving on their shores? Will HMG now press the Bangladeshi Government to offer at least temporary refuge and access to humanitarian aid instead of sending thousands of Rohingya back to sea and to appalling danger?

My Lords, the Government have been neither silent nor inactive on this matter. In fact, I personally raised it with the Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, only a few weeks ago. We continue to press this matter. The former Secretary of State for the Department for International Development raised it earlier this year in a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. We have specifically raised the issue of being allowed to deliver aid to the refugee camps where the Rohingya community live.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what resources from the stabilisation unit and the Conflict Pool are being used to provide humanitarian assistance to the three countries —Thailand, Burma and, indeed, Bangladesh—to alleviate the suffering of these people and to plan in the longer term for their rehabilitation and settlement within the three countries?

The funds currently being provided are not from the Conflict Pool but from humanitarian assistance provided through DfID. We remain the largest bilateral donor to Burma having committed £187 million which has been allocated over a period of four years until 2015. Our aid predominantly focuses on healthcare, responsible and good governance, and improving livelihoods.

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend the Minister has some sympathy with Bangladesh and its management of the vast numbers of refugees entering that country and no doubt she will continue to pressure Bangladesh for a proper solution and an international response to the refugee crisis. Does she accept that ethnic cleansing is in process? Will she ensure that she and the Government use the special relationship which we seem to have with the United States of America to brief her counterparts regarding the upcoming visit of President Obama to that country and on how the Rohingya people are desperately concerned about the indication that that will make to their plight?

I accept that this is a desperate situation for a desperate community which has suffered now for many years. We raise this matter in many of our bilateral discussions both with the European Union and the US and specifically in discussions with Turkey, which has been playing a huge role in humanitarian assistance. The noble Baroness is right that we must continue to press. While we welcome the progress in Burma, I can absolutely assure the House that we continuously raise this matter.

When my noble friend met Dipu Moni, did she tell her frankly that closing the borders against the Rohingya refugees is contrary to customary international law? If so, what reply did she receive from the Foreign Minister?

I had a number of discussions with the Foreign Minister both at the United Nations General Assembly ministerial week in New York and thereafter when she was travelling through London. I specifically raised the concern about the Rohingya community in this country, both in the wider community and among the Bangladeshi diaspora community which is crucial to the Bangladeshi Government. I left her with no illusion about the level of our concern.

My Lords, have the Government pressed the Burmese Government to allow the High Commission for Human Rights to set up an office in Burma? It would not only provide technical assistance to the Government and civil society groups during this transitional period but also be able to monitor not only the awful situation of the Rohingya but the dreadful rapes of ethnic Kachin and Shan women by the Burmese army.

I am not sure what representations we have made so I shall write to the noble Baroness with a specific response. However, I can assure her that our ambassador, Mr Andrew Heyn, has been to Rakhine state twice over the past four weeks, including a visit to Kyaukpyu, the area which Human Rights Watch has been monitoring through satellite imaging.