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Volume 750: debated on Monday 9 December 2013


Asked by

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

My Lords, we welcome continuing talks between the Burmese Government and ethnic groups, including the Kachin and Shan, towards a nationwide ceasefire and political settlement. We are, however, concerned by recent reports of fighting in Kachin state and continue to argue for full humanitarian access. We continue to monitor tensions in Rakhine state and press for improved security and accountability, better co-ordination of humanitarian assistance and a solution to the question of Rohingya citizenship.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her encouraging and helpful reply. Is she aware that I have visited Kachin and Shan states, where I have seen massive civilian displacement, widespread suffering caused by the Burmese army’s continuing military offensive and violations of human rights? Therefore, the proposed engagement of the British Army with the Burmese army is causing such anxiety that ethnic national leaders have written a letter highlighting their concerns. What assurance can the Minister give that this co-operation will provide no enhancement of Burmese military capacity for further assaults on its civilians but will be conditional on progress on the protection of human rights and a genuine peace process?

As ever, my Lords, the noble Baroness comes to Question Time with the most up-to-date information, and I very much value her input. As she will be aware, the Burmese military is a core political force in Burma. It is therefore important that professionalism and human rights as an essential element of the work they do is part and parcel of their training. The focus of our defence engagement in Burma is on adherence to the core principles of democratic accountability, international law and human rights. We have been delivering a course—a course which has been delivered in many other parts of the world—that specifically focuses on the professionalisation of the work that the army does. The Chief of the Defence Staff visited Burma earlier this year to deepen that engagement. I can assure the noble Baroness and other noble Lords that we will not be involved in the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment or play a part in military combat. We are involved in the professionalisation and accountability that the Burmese army needs to be aware of when conducting operations.

My Lords, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that Nelson Mandela made us all understand that nobody should be penalised for the colour of his skin or the circumstances into which he was born. Sadly, the Rohingya Muslims are still being persecuted on grounds of their race, ethnicity and religion. What representations are Her Majesty’s Government making to the Burmese Government that they should sign up swiftly to the basic international norms in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? Without such a commitment, how can the Minister assure the UK taxpayer that our aid is being distributed without discrimination?

The discrimination against the Rohingya community and, indeed, against Muslims in other parts of Burma, is a matter of huge concern. It was raised at the highest level by the Prime Minister in discussions with President Thein Sein when he visited earlier this year. It is important for us to respond to the deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground in relation to the Rohingya community and to deal with the long-term issue of citizenship. My noble friend has made an incredibly important point. The basis of the argument used by the Minister who raised the issue with me was that the Rohingya were not really members of the Burmese community because they looked different, they had not been in the country long enough and they were from a different religion. I am sure that the irony of that was lost on the Burmese Minister when he was talking to me.

My Lords, a national census is due to take place in Burma in 2014, as I am sure the noble Baroness knows. It has largely been funded by the United Nations and, as I understand it, the UK will contribute $16 million. In view of the appalling levels of religious and ethnic discrimination in Burma, does the Minister anticipate that the Rohingya—who are not officially recognised, as we have heard, as one of the country’s ethnic groups—will be included on equal terms in that census? In view of that reality, how do our Government intend to ensure that the UN guarantees a complete count of the population of Burma?

This is a hugely controversial issue in Burma. There are concerns about the way in which the Government would like to define the Rohingya community, not so much as Rohingya but as Bangladeshis—I think that they want to define them as Bengalis. We have raised this issue. Some recommendations were made in the internal report that was done, and the President made some positive comments. We have also put forward evidence that shows the length of time that the Rohingya community has lived in Burma. I am not sure that I can give the noble Baroness a specific answer but I will write to her with further details.

My Lords, given that my noble friend has mentioned humanitarian assistance, can she tell us what discussions the Government are having with Burma’s neighbours about the people from all the tribes that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned, who are displaced across Burma’s boundaries? Particularly in light of the forthcoming census, are the Government supporting efforts to identify those who should rightly be identified as Burmese but are displaced externally?

We have of course had discussions not just within Burma but with the Thai authorities. I had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Bangladeshis and, indeed, had an opportunity to visit Cox’s Bazar, where there are large numbers of the displaced community. We have committed £180 million up to 2015, which is specifically humanitarian assistance. Some of that is for use in relation to individual communities, such as the Kachin and the Rohingya, within Burma, but some is for peacebuilding and support along the Thai-Burmese border. I am not sure that I caught all of my noble friend’s question because of the noise but I hope that that answers it.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness had the opportunity to look at the Human Rights Watch report that has categorised what is happening to the Rohingya people as genocide, and said that what is happening in Kachin state amounts to war crimes in the perfectly technical sense, not just in the rhetorical sense? Given those allegations, can she tell us what the Government are doing about raising that issue, particularly in the Security Council? Does she accept the underlying point that the ethnic minorities in Burma are in grave danger of being exploited more and more as the country opens up, and that more needs to be done to protect them during this process of opening up?

Yes, I am familiar with the report; and alongside that report we have our own disturbing and specific allegations which have been backed up by comprehensive evidence. However, at this stage we feel that rather than a UN-mandated inquiry, it would be better and probably more likely to be effective if it were done internally by the Burmese, and we have been encouraging them to go down that route. The noble Lord will also be aware that the Burmese Government have agreed to open up an OHCHR office. The President made a commitment to an office with a full mandate but it has not at this stage been fulfilled. The noble Lord may also be aware of a recent UN Third Committee resolution which focuses on concerns about the delay to the opening of that office. We think that the opening of an office with a full mandate is one of the ways in which we could take forward some of these concerns.