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Human Rights: Burma

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 18 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which areas of concern relating to human rights were raised with President Thein Sein of Burma by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on 15 July.

My Lords, the full range of human rights issues were raised. Ministers called for the release of all political prisoners and for an end to ethnic conflict. They invited Burma’s support for the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. On Rakhine State, Ministers welcomed the abolition of the Nasaka security force, raised concerns about the two-child policy and pressed for citizenship for the Rohingya minority. On anti-Muslim violence, they stressed the need for accountability, welcoming recent arrests.

Does the Minister agree that history shows that the only language that the Burmese generals understand and respond to is firm, sustained pressure? What steps did the Prime Minister take to set out explicit benchmarks by which progress in Burma will be measured, a specific timeline by which we expect to see progress, and the possible consequences if there is no such progress? The Burmese President is very good at offering the right words and promises when required, but less good at fulfilling them.

My Lords, I would agree that history shows that one of the most difficult periods in a country’s history is when it is attempting to move away from a highly authoritarian regime. The question whether it can move from that without a bloody conflict is, of course, always one of the difficult ones. We have taken the choice to encourage the moves currently under way in Burma; things are improving a good deal there but, of course, they have a long way to go. The opposition, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have very much encouraged the move that the British have taken.

My Lords, is it not crucial that we take our lead from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as the noble Lord has just said? I met her just before Easter, when she said that we must engage in dialogue—but also that we must be realistic. During the discussions with Thein Sein, were limits placed on the new military relationship that has been announced by the Prime Minister? In particular, have we raised the Burmese army’s use of child soldiers, forced labour, sexual violence and land mines? Can he confirm that it is not our intention to sell arms to Burma?

My Lords, I can confirm that the first thing that Aung San Suu Kyi asked the British Government to do was to appoint a defence attaché to Burma some months ago. We are now offering military training to a number of Burmese officers in this country to help them through the transition. Requests have also been made to assist in retraining the Burmese police. These are all things that we think will help through a transition—not, of course, towards full democracy and a perfect resolution of all these problems, but we see the situation as improving. We are doing our best not only to help it to improve but to monitor how far it goes.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, raised the Human Rights Watch report on ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state, she was told that it clearly needed to be supported by further evidence. What has happened to the independent investigative commission announced by the Burmese Government as long ago as last September? Is it going to be established in the near future? To ensure its credibility, will my noble friend suggest to the Burmese that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, be asked to nominate the members of that commission?

My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Lord with a specific answer to his question, but I can confirm that Alan Duncan, from the Department for International Development, was in Rakhine state in June, that my noble friend Lady Warsi was looking at the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar shortly before that, and that British officials are very regularly in and out of Rakhine state.

Is the Minister aware that the Burmese Government refuse to allow the UN access to military sites so that it can identify and discharge children present in the Burmese army border forces, border guard forces and other armed groups? Following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in the issues that the noble Lord said were raised, there was no mention of any representations by the Prime Minister to the Burmese President during his visit about ending the recruitment and use of children, some as young as 11, as soldiers in Burma. Can he give an assurance that the issue was not overlooked during the visit?

My Lords, noble Lords will have seen the Written Statement issued yesterday on the visit. It does not specifically mention the issue of child soldiers, but it touches on a very large number of human rights issues. I will check and get back to the noble Baroness on the specific issue of child soldiers. We are monitoring the situation; we recognise, for example, that the Kachin ceasefire has been agreed but not yet fully implemented. The President promised, when he was here, that all remaining political prisoners will be released by the end of this year, and we will of course be watching to make sure that that promise is carried out.

There is a sort of race here. The Chinese are pouring in vast sums of money and investment into Burma, which is potentially a very rich country indeed. While we must obviously maximise our pressure, counselling and support for overcoming human rights abuses, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has specified, the right approach must be to embrace as fully as we can that country in its efforts to modernise and move away from military rule, and we should consider supporting it and working with it, perhaps in the context of a future membership of the Commonwealth.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on managing to get the Commonwealth into this discussion. Burma is currently the poorest country in south-east Asia. If it is to pass through this transition successfully, it also needs economic assistance. My noble friend Lord Green has also been in Burma. We are engaged in the question of how far British companies, as well as British technical advice, can assist in the transformation of the Burmese economy.

My Lords, the Minister used the word “monitoring”. Do we not need some very rigorous benchmarks in discussion with the Burmese Government to ensure that progress is being made on the whole range of issues mentioned in questions today?

My Lords, I think that I would prefer to stick to “monitoring”. We always have to remember the very complex colonial history. We therefore have to be very careful not to be too authoritative ourselves in dealing with the legacy of authoritarianism. We are however actively working to hold the Government to the promises which they are making, and we are working with all forces in Burmese society.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend Lord Alton is a courteous man, and will know that my noble friend Lady Berridge has been trying to get in, and indeed has started her question on four occasions. I am sure that the House might give my noble friend Lady Berridge a chance.

My Lords, the overwhelming improvements are of course welcome, but there is growing concern that Burmese citizens are suffering discrimination on the basis of their religion. Therefore there is a danger that the millions of pounds of UK aid that are now going to Burma will not be distributed equally to all Burmese citizens. What discussions did the Prime Minister have with the President regarding freedom of religion and belief, particularly in regard to the rising intolerance towards Muslims and other non-Buddhists?

We welcome the recent arrest for the first time of a number of Buddhists who have taken part in anti-Muslim demonstrations. We have sadly discovered that even Buddhism is a religion that is not entirely under all circumstances used as a religion of peace. This is part of the discussion which is well under way.