Skip to main content


Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of ethnic tensions and progress towards democracy in Burma.

My Lords, we have seen positive steps to end ethnic conflict and strengthen democracy. We welcome the agreement in Kachin to work to end hostilities and to establish political dialogue. However, concerns remain, including recent attacks against minority religions, especially in Rakhine state, where we support humanitarian work, and have called for accountability for the violence there and for citizenship for the Rohingya.

My Lords, having seen for myself quite recently the spread of violence against the Rohingya to other parts of Burma and following last week’s violence in Lashio, in Shan state, and this week’s reports of the escalating exodus of people from the Rakhine state into neighbouring countries, what pressure is being put on the authorities in Burma to prevent such violence, to bring the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice, to ensure the rule of law and to resolve the Rohingya’s demands for full citizenship and constitutional rights, which after all lie at the heart of the problem?

The noble Lord always comes to these matters hugely informed, usually having just travelled back from the place that we are speaking about, and I am grateful for that. I think the noble Lord is aware that the United Kingdom has been one of the most front-footed and vocal critics of the violence within Rakhine state. Concerns have been raised by the Prime Minister to the President and by the Foreign Secretary to the Foreign Minister; and Huge Swire, the Minister with responsibility for Burma, and I raised these issues specifically with two Ministers, the Minister responsible for ethnic reconciliation in the President’s office and the Minister with specific responsibility for Rakhine state. We discussed, among other issues, the long-term settlement of citizenship. There has been some progress, but I completely share my noble friend’s concerns about the violence that is spreading beyond Rakhine state.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the recent human rights report on Burma concluded that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have taken place against the Rohingya? In view of those views, does she agree with the conclusions? A simple yes or no answer will suffice and will tell us all we need to know.

I think the noble Baroness will be aware from her own experience as a Minister at the Foreign Office that it would be inappropriate for me to give a simple yes or no answer to a report that clearly needs to be supported by further independent investigative work. I am, of course, hugely concerned about the concerns raised in that report, and our ambassador has already raised them with the Burmese.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the broader problem in the transition to democracy in Burma is that the legal, security and police forces have not come to terms with the idea that Burma is now a multilingual, multireligious and multiethnic state? In advance of the 2015 elections, what are the British Government doing to assist in bringing about reforms in those areas, particularly if that involves training and practical assistance?

I can inform my noble friend that we are doing specific work on police reform. There have been a number of visits both ways to try to progress that work. We are also working on reconciliation after conflict. Burmese Ministers have visited Northern Ireland, colleagues from Northern Ireland have visited Burma, and officials on both sides have been in touch. We are clearly focused on this area.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as a result of the Burmese army’s continuing offensives and violations of human rights in Rakhine and Shan states and still in Kachin state, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced and are living in destitution? I have visited many of them and witnessed their suffering. What representations are being made by Her Majesty’s Government to the Burmese Government to allow access by international aid organisations to all people in need in Burma?

Noble Lords may be aware that there will be a full debate on Burma during the dinner hour later today, so this is very much an opener; we will have the full course later on. I will be able to give the noble Baroness a lot of detail later about that issue, and about the work that the human rights and refugee commissioner is doing.

My Lords, the discussion in the European Union has focused in recent weeks on whether sanctions were lifted too early. I want to be clear that I have not formed a view as to whether that is the case. What have the United Kingdom Government said in EU foreign service circles about that matter, and what course do they plan to take?

The noble Lord will be aware that the sanctions were first suspended, and that every member state had to agree to those sanctions remaining in that suspended state. If a single member state had agreed to those sanctions not remaining, the whole regime would have failed. We felt that we needed to put our energies into getting agreement across member states to make sure that the arms embargo remained in place.

After President Obama’s visit to Burma last year, the Burmese Government agreed to allow the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to open an office. What representations have the British Government made on this matter to try to speed things along?

We continue to make representations on this matter. We, too, felt hopeful when President Thein Sein said that he would allow this office to be opened. He reiterated that commitment when he met President Obama, and we continue to press him to make real that commitment.

My Lords, all these concerns about Burma/Myanmar are very welcome and reflect very well on noble Lords and Members of this House who are concerned about these things. However, could we also add the thought that it is something of a miracle that the country of Burma/Myanmar is now moving towards rejoining the comity of nations? In the longer term, if we work positively and closely with the authorities and face their terrific and very difficult concerns, we will bring them to the democratic pattern that we all admire and maybe even to being members of the Commonwealth. Will the Minister recognise this positive side of our work with Burma for the future?

I absolutely recognise the comments made by my noble friend, whether those concerns relate to prisoner release, freedom of the press or political participation. Of course, we must recognise and congratulate the Burmese for moving in the right direction.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Empey and I had the privilege of being invited to speak with representatives of the Government of Myanmar and, subsequently, with the opposition caucus. They wanted to look at lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland, although the sizes of those countries have very little in common: 1.8 million against 57 million. The one thing missing is a Senator George Mitchell, someone who can be picked, I suggest, from Australia, New Zealand or somewhere in that region and who will act as the honourable broker in resolution. That is something that we as a Government should be committed to.

Clearly, the noble Lord comes to this matter with expertise and experience. We can take heart from the fact that out of the 11 disputes in Burma, 10 ceasefires have been signed and a reconciliation process has started. The challenge is now whether the Burmese Government have the political will to see through into real action the commitments that they have made in these reconciliation agreements, but I take the noble Lord’s points.