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Myanmar: Rohingya People

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what it is doing to respond to the crisis facing the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are deeply concerned by the situation in Rakhine and the plight of the Rohingya. We immediately raised the situation in the United Nations Security Council on 30 August, where we urged a restrained security response and that all sides de-escalate tensions. Our priority now is ensuring that urgent food and medical assistance can be provided to displaced civilians. Our heads of mission in Rangoon and Dhaka have been discussing the situation in Rakhine with their respective host Governments, including enabling humanitarian aid to reach where the need is greatest.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. The United Nations is reporting that 35,000 people have crossed from Myanmar into Bangladesh in the past 24 hours alone. The two UN camps for refugees are now full. What action do Her Majesty’s Government plan to take in response to this humanitarian crisis? In particular, what representations are being made to the Myanmar Government concerning the blocking of vital humanitarian aid to certain parts of Rakhine district?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for a very important Question. As he will be aware, the UK has long been one of the biggest bilateral development and humanitarian donors to Burma and to Rakhine state. We have provided very significant sums of money in humanitarian assistance, including food and sanitation. We are very concerned by the recent developments. We are monitoring the situation closely through our embassy in Rangoon. We raised the current situation in Rakhine in the United Nations Security Council on 30 August. Our ambassador has lobbied the Burmese Government, and our high commissioner in Dhaka has discussed the situation with the Government of Bangladesh. We also urge the Burmese Government to do everything they can to facilitate the transportation of aid to the communities that most need it.

My Lords, there are two consequences of the situation here. There is of course the impact on Bangladesh, as the right reverend Prelate referred to, but there is also the situation of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which has been ongoing for a long time. Could the noble Baroness explain what actions the Government are taking to put pressure on the Government of Myanmar? I know there are a lot of views about Aung San Suu Kyi, but the people responsible in the Myanmar Government are the ministry of defence and the military. Can she explain what actions we can take and what pressure we can put on those responsible for these actions?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The United Kingdom Government have been active at diplomatic level. He will be aware of the facts surrounding the regime in Burma: the military remains heavily involved in Burmese politics and in the political institutions, and controls some of the primary ministries. The UK continues to support Burma’s ongoing transition from military dictatorship to civilian-led democracy. It is an ongoing process. We have to be respectful of that democratic structure, but we regularly make clear our concerns and indicate our anxieties about some of the developments within Burma.

My Lords, yesterday saw nearly a million people take to the streets in Chechnya, so this crisis has the potential to cause instability beyond the region. In response to a Question back in July, my noble friend mentioned that the UK Government since 2014 have given £8 million to the Bangladeshi Government to help support the Rohingyas who have crossed the border. Could my noble friend outline how much additional money has been given in the last week or so to enable the Bangladeshi Government to support those crossing the border?

I do not have information to hand on that specific point, although I have information about the general trend of contributions made by the UK Government. As I said earlier, the UK Government have been one of the largest development and humanitarian donors to Burma and to Rakhine State. Within Bangladesh, we are the largest bilateral donor and are supporting displaced Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable communities that host them. My understanding is that DfID has allocated £20.9 million for responding to humanitarian needs between 2017 and 2022. That is a general indication of the position, but I do not have information on the specific amount of money within the timeframe of a week or a fortnight.

My Lords, the noble Baroness talked earlier about the Minister of State for the Foreign Office bringing in the North Korean ambassador. What have Her Majesty’s Government done vis-à-vis the Government of Myanmar? Have there been diplomatic representations, and what actions does the noble Baroness envisage the Government taking to demonstrate our abhorrence at what is happening in Myanmar at present?

There has been regular diplomatic activity. I indicated earlier that the UK Government are extremely concerned about developments, and we are concerned. We condemn these attacks on police posts by Rohingya militants and urge the security forces to show restraint and all parties to de-escalate tensions. To respond to some of the questions posed earlier, our immediately priority is how urgent food and medical assistance can be provided to displaced civilians from all communities. That is where we are focusing endeavours, and I hope I have given some indication of how we are trying to assist with meeting that need.

My Lords, during a visit to Burma I was able to visit a village where Buddhists and Muslims had coexisted for many years and where there had been a savage attack on the Muslim community: homes had been burned down and the madrassa had been destroyed. I had the opportunity of raising this, and the treatment of the Rohingya, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She specifically said that one of the problems has been the recognition of the citizenship rights both of those legitimately in Burma and of those who had come there illegitimately. Are we able to help in sorting out the constitutional issues to ensure that those who are entitled to citizenship are given it urgently? Can the Minister also say a word about those Rohingyas who have taken to the seas, many of whom now again face devastating consequences as those little boats are wracked by storms?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who as usual speaks with authority and knowledge on these matters. He raises a very important point, but I do not have a specific answer as to when an initiative has been undertaken by the UK Government in that respect. The noble Lord makes a positive observation, and I will certainly undertake to investigate that further.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses. She used the word “condemnation” in a previous answer, and that is the first time I have heard that. Have the Government officially condemned the actions, which are being described as genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the appalling scenes that we are witnessing, on social media and our TV screens, of families and children being driven out in the most horrible circumstances, thousands dying and villages being burnt down? I have heard her say we are sensitive about the transition from military to democracy, but surely there is no excuse for these actions in that transition.

I reassure the noble Baroness that, after the violence broke out on 25 August, the UK immediately spoke out. We issued a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID statement. We are monitoring the situation through our embassy in Rangoon, and we raised the current situation in Rakhine in the UN Security Council on 30 August. In addition to that, our ambassador has lobbied the Burmese Government, our high commissioner in Dhaka has discussed the situation with the Government of Bangladesh and on 2 September the Foreign Secretary released a statement calling for an end to the violence, so I think the UK is clearly on the record as making obvious to those involved our profound unease at what is going on. We condemn this violence and, along with other partners, are trying to look to ways both to assist Burma and to assist the plight of those who are directly affected.