Question for Short Debate
My Lords, 30 March 2016 ushered in a new era for Myanmar. The first elected civilian president in more than half a century took office. Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the key role in the new Administration as State Counsellor. Although barred from the presidency, she said she would rule by proxy. The handover completed the transition that began after the NLD won a landslide victory in the November 2015 elections. Today we have the opportunity to consider what the reality of that new era has been so far and what the future may now hold.
UK parliamentarians of all parties and none have demonstrated a strong commitment to Burma’s successful transition from the military domination it suffered before to democracy, which should bring peace, human rights and economic progress to all the peoples in Myanmar and resolve the devastating crisis in Rakhine. The large number of Peers participating in our short debate today is proof of that parliamentary commitment, and I very much look forward to their contributions.
The key test of any democracy is how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalised populations, such as the ethnic Rohingya and other minority populations. Burma’s Government and security forces should respect the human rights of all persons within its borders, and hold accountable those who fail to do so.
I visited Myanmar back in November 2016 in my capacity then as a Foreign Office Minister and the Prime Minister’s special representative on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative—roles now carried out so ably by the Minister. I felt a cautious optimism. I was impressed by the dignity of the peoples who had survived so long in such difficult conditions and by their willingness to give the Government time to put things right. The Government had been in office for only seven months at that stage and had made some progress, including signing the national ceasefire agreement, which was vital for areas outside Rakhine.
But was my optimism misplaced? I shall focus today on the crisis for the Rohingya, but we should also note—I know we will hear about it today—the long-standing conflict between the Kachin Independence Organisation and government troops which escalated severely last month, despite the existence of the ceasefire agreement. Thousands have been displaced in Kachin and Karen states, and there are fears that many women, children and elderly people are trapped near the border with China. Can the Minister update the Committee on this crisis and say whether humanitarian aid organisations have now been allowed by the Government to gain access?
I turn to the crisis facing the Rohingya community. They have suffered decades of persecution, have been denied citizenship and been marginalised. They have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The Myanmar Government continue to implement laws and policies that discriminate against the Rohingya and are designed to drive them out of the country, including by using starvation, harassment and intimidation.
In the summer of 2016 there was an outbreak of violence in Rakhine. Border police were attacked. The response by the military was swift and brutal. In November that same year, I met the Defence Minister in Naypyidaw, the seat of government. I was told that the military did not consider that the Tatmadaw had committed any offences, and that if evidence were produced that offences had taken place, action would be taken by the Burmese Government. I was not convinced then, and I am not convinced now. In August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army carried out attacks which we rightly condemned. Twelve soldiers were killed. Far from exercising courageous restraint, the military’s reprisals were swift and even more brutal than ever. Thousands were killed. Approximately 1 million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape the systematic rape, gang rape, torture and murder of men, women and children carried out by the military. The Burmese army appeared to be trying to destroy an ethnicity, not end an insurgency.
The Rakhine advisory commission reported last autumn. It was established by Daw Suu and chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General. The report analyses the underlying issues such as the entrenched poverty of all those in Rakhine. What has the UK done to press for implementation of its recommendations? What is the Government’s assessment of the current situation in Rakhine? What steps can and should be taken to hold the military to account?
This year, the UN Secretary-General has for the first time included Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, in his annual list of parties that have committed sexual violence in conflict. A report presented to the UN Security Council finds:
“The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorizing and collectively punishing the Rohingya community”.
Will the Minister update the Committee on the work being funded or carried out by the UK to tackle sexual violence, improve human rights, and hold the perpetrators to account?
The Government of Bangladesh have sheltered up to 1 million refugees and should be thanked for that. Recently, they signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar about the return of the Rohingya. What are we doing to promote the citizenship rights of the Rohingya and facilitate their safe, voluntary and dignified return to their villages to rebuild their homes and livelihoods?
The UN reported just two days ago that 93 refugees who have been in Thailand for decades have now been returned to their place of origin in south-east Myanmar with the support of the UNHCR and its partners. But what about the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Is there any progress on their safe return to Rakhine?
Last month, there were three potentially significant developments. The UK co-led a visit of the United Nations Security Council to Burma and Bangladesh and issued a brief statement yesterday. The principle of the statement is clear, but it is how that principle should be put into practice that I wonder about. What steps does the UK now expect to be taken by the Security Council as a consequence of that visit? As one of the P5, we continue to play an important part. Also last month, the Foreign Secretary co-chaired in London a meeting on the Rohingya crisis with fellow Commonwealth Ministers, a welcome development. What conclusions were reached at that meeting? Thirdly, the EU imposed further restrictive measures on Burma, strengthening the EU’s arms embargo and targeting the Burmese army and border guard officials. How confident is the Minister—who is also the Sanctions Minister—that these will have the right effect?
Over many years, even before I came here, I watched the way in which Parliament and the UK generally saluted the work of Aung San Suu Kyi, before and when she took office. Her championship of human rights was exemplary, but I now feel somewhat confused, to put it mildly, by her apparent inaction in this crisis. I appreciate the challenge of walking the tightrope between international condemnation and Burmese public opinion in her attempts to bring an end to the generals’ power and bring democracy to Myanmar. But we now see the worst kind of abuse of human rights under her custodianship. As my noble friend the Minister said in this House six months ago, it is time,
“for Aung San Suu Kyi to use her moral authority to challenge directly herself the military ruthlessness and ethnic prejudice that lies behind the suffering”.—[Official Report, 11/10/17; col. 223.]
It is also time for the UK and the international community to do so much more to hold her to her words.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for securing this debate and giving us such wonderful evidence of what she understands to be the case. The United Nations and respected organisations such as Human Rights Watch have, as we know, described the actions of the Burmese army against the Rohingya people of Burma as nothing more than ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and have said that acts of genocide have taken place. Since last August, the military has devastated Rohingya communities with murder, rape and burning, driving 700,000 people out of Burma, and those atrocities continue. As assistant Secretary-General Gilmour recently reported, there has been,
“terror and forced starvation … to drive the remaining Rohingya from their homes and into Bangladesh”.
Clearly, the Government of Bangladesh are to be commended for their response to the mass inflow of Rohingya refugees. They endure terrible conditions, currently worsened by the flooding and landslides of the monsoon, and have no means of mitigating the danger and agony. Naturally, I welcome the resources committed by the British Government, and urge that they be increased.
Meanwhile, the visit to Burma by UN Security Council envoys has been useless. It is clear that repatriation could be justified only if there was rapid, transformative change in the policy, practice and citizenship law of Burma. For the Rohingya, anything else would mean a return to hell. The testimonies of countless survivors and satellite images give appallingly conclusive evidence of the guilt of the Burmese military, but only international action will make it accountable. That must mean referral of Burma to the International Criminal Court, and I urge our Government to seek such action through the United Nations. The crimes against humanity of the Burmese military will continue as long as its arrogant sense of impunity is unchallenged, which is why it is vital to subject it to international law.
The UN has long described the Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority. They have been subject to unimaginable horrors; they are stateless, utterly powerless and almost voiceless. We who have voices must provide mercy, security and some hope of justice for these wretched people. Prosecuting their oppressors would be a start.
My Lords, I too warmly thank the noble Baroness for promoting this important debate. I share the deep concerns over the suffering of the Rohingya people, but I shall focus on northern Shan and Kachin states as these have received less media coverage and desperately needed humanitarian aid. Renewed offensives by the Burmese military are causing mass displacement of civilians throughout north-east Burma. There has been sporadic fighting over several years, but recently this has intensified with daily attacks, displacing thousands and killing hundreds in the past few weeks. On 1 May, the UN expressed grave concerns over increased fighting in Kachin state. Many civilians are trapped in conflict zones, without access to humanitarian aid. UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee has made repeated calls for the safety of civilians and provision of aid, but the Burmese Government have blocked access to all humanitarian aid international organisations and the UN in ways similar to their treatment of the Rohingya.
The latest wave of displacement adds to the over 100,000 already displaced from Kachin and Shan states. Many remain trapped by the military in conflict areas, forced to seek shelter in nearby forests, without access to food, water or medical supplies. More than 3,000 are confined in dangerous conflict areas in Kachin state.
The suffering inflicted by military offensives is exacerbated by frequent violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, with reports of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and torture. Interviews with internally displaced peoples, or IDPs, in Shan camps tell of horrific stories of civilians beaten and used as forced labour by the military, farms taken from villagers and children recruited by the military. The Shan Human Rights Foundation reports arbitrary arrests and Amnesty International found treatment of ethnic minorities in Shan and Kachin states similar to that of the Rohingya. There are also reports of extortion, of villages being levelled to make space for hydro projects along the rivers, and land-grabbing for the expansion of mining and hydro projects.
The numbers of IDPs has grown alarmingly. On 14 March, over 800 people were displaced in three towns in northern Shan state; on 17 March, 200 civilians were displaced from the Namtu township in Shan state; on 28 April, following a month of intensified military attacks, 4,000 more were displaced from Kachin state; on 6 May, another 500 civilians were displaced from Shan state, seeking refuge in monasteries and churches; on 8 May, the figure increased to over 6,000 civilians displaced from Kachin state and a further 600 were displaced from the Namtu township. Around 2,800 villagers in Kachin state are seeking refuge in churches in the capital or nearby villages. Displacement continues and the chance of return, as is recommended by current policy, is prevented by continuing offensives, destroyed homes and landmines restricting access to villages. There is also restriction of access for essential aid supplies and the blocking of escape routes for civilians by the destruction of bridges and road closures.
The Rohingya crisis has shifted the provision of aid from the eastern border to Rakhine state, where it is much needed, but this has caused severe malnutrition for many living in camps on the eastern border. Humanitarian and local agencies have been refused access to townships in Kachin state. For example, on 23 April, a Red Cross food convoy was reportedly blocked from entering Man Wai village, where over 100 civilians are trapped.
My small NGO, HART, with which I work and with which I have visited these people, works in partnership with the Shan Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, which provides healthcare and education in camps in Burma and for Shan civilians forced to live in Thailand. In 2017, it lost its DfID funding. Could the Minister tell me what the UK position was regarding the policy change which led to the cessation of funding for local aid organisations along the eastern border in favour of working with government-approved organisations? Will a reversal of that policy be considered to allow direct funding to NGOs such as SWAN, which carry out vital work for local people? Finally, what representations have the UK Government made to the Government of Burma to cease military offensives in Shan and Kachin states, to ensure the protection of civilians and to allow for urgent humanitarian assistance?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for her championing of this issue and for the way she has kept it in front of us. Her Majesty’s Government are to be applauded for their leadership on many aspects of this issue and in particular for their commitment to supporting refugees in Bangladesh as monsoon season approaches. However, as has already been pointed out, the scope of the crisis is enormous. The International Organization for Migration estimates that around 688,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August last year. Cox’s Bazar is now, in effect, the world’s largest refugee camp. The implications of this for the host community and for refugees, in the light of the forthcoming monsoon season, are huge, even before one considers the root causes behind why these refugees have had to flee and the appalling treatment that many have suffered.
The statistics are so enormous that it is easy to forget that, behind each one, is the individual story of a person. One such person is Rajuma, a young mother who was beaten by a group of soldiers with their rifles, her baby snatched from her and thrown into a fire in front of her, before she was gang-raped. As well as losing her baby son, she has also lost her mother, her two sisters and her younger brother. There is no easy way to respond to that sort of suffering. She is going to need long-term, practical help but also support and counselling to rebuild her life.
As the Government support vital, urgent work to improve conditions for Rajuma and many other people with similar, equally appalling stories, I hope that more work will also be done to move towards long-term plans to secure the rights of all in Burma, particularly these minority groups. There have been reports, as we have heard, of continuing and escalating armed conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Kayin states. A ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid are urgently needed in these states, as well as in the west in Rakhine. Can Her Majesty’s Government assure us that they will make representations about the treatment of these minorities and other internally displaced people in these other states as well? Will they work with partners, through the United Nations, to ensure that the rights of these minorities are upheld and protected? What is being done to get the appropriate levels of aid and medical relief into the more remote parts of the country, where people are in a desperate state?
In the long run, peaceful political solutions to these conflicts must be found. It is critical that the international community unites to engage with the Myanmar Government, to encourage, cajole and help this political compromise and discussion—to find a solution that can help, rather than have simply more armed conflict. I hope that as well as formulating long-term plans for this tragic situation Her Majesty’s Government will also consider how reconciliation work, particularly with young people, can be put in place to help foster a mutual commitment to peace and the cessation of violence.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on this debate and I am reminded of many other occasions when she spoke with feeling and authority at the Dispatch Box. I have not visited Burma since it became Myanmar but I have strong memories of the resilience of the Burmese people, whether soldiers or civilians. My host was a Karen war hero in charge of a church programme and a very precarious old Toyota jeep. That visit as Christian Aid’s representative taught me how the Burmese, having endured so much hardship, can combine physical strength with great sensitivity.
Refugees in the Middle East have taken almost all of our attention. Until recently I was ignorant of the details of the Rohingya crisis, though it is one of the worst and most complex the world has known. Close to a million have fled to Bangladesh, most escaping the violence in northern Rakhine state on 25 August only last year. An attack on the border guard police on 9 October 2016 had led to military operations involving serious human rights violations. Among many tragic scenes, the most depressing and distressing have been those affecting young children. Children arriving in camps have described the killing and maiming of other children, their parents and other adults, and attacks on their homes, schools and hospitals. Because of rising numbers, conditions in some camps are now appalling.
A critical question for us and for our Government is ethnicity and the extent to which the Rohingya will be accepted as citizens of Myanmar. They have no status either as refugees or as citizens; they are displaced in a foreign state. They have a “right to return”, but that phrase has a hollow ring this week when we remember what has not happened for 70 years in Palestine. I am among those who still believe in Aung San Suu Kyi’s good faith, in spite of the obvious political deadlock she is in. We must welcome her commitment to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, namely to ensure basic rights for all that state’s communities. Army training and discipline, proper investigation of human rights and the co-operation of Bangladesh through a joint commission seem to be crucial, but inevitably none of this works unless there is a genuine will on all sides to implement those recommendations.
Can the Minister say how close aid donors have come to the UN’s target of $434 million for Myanmar? I know that UK aid has been essential, but can we afford more, knowing that the world has to cope with the needs of some 60 million other refugees and internally displaced people? Many MPs and human rights agencies have spoken out about the barbarity of gender-based violence and rape by the army. Our Parliament and media should be congratulated on making us aware of these atrocities. It was a disgrace that the IDC was unable to visit, but does the Minister think it right to reduce our embassy staff at this time?
I understand that access to northern Rakhine is strictly prohibited, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, for non-governmental organisations. It seems that even our DfID has been unable to make an impact. Could the Minister confirm this and explain why our Government are apparently unable to work even with British NGOs in an area of such acute need?
There has also been intense fighting in Kachin for several months between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army. Civilians have been victims of airstrikes and many more are trapped in conflict in situations reminiscent of Syria and Sudan. An appeal was sent out last week by humanitarian agencies calling for immediate cessation of hostilities there and in northern Shan. This is another desperate situation. Does the Minister hold out hope for both a ceasefire and greater access to those in need?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for securing this timely debate and for her continuing commitment. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Burma Campaign UK. As has been so graphically described in the speeches before mine, and as I am sure will follow in the speeches to come, the Burmese military is ethnically cleansing the Rohingya from Burma with impunity. It is the fastest refugee displacement since Rwanda.
Because the military has paid no price for its actions against the Rohingya, it is now turning its attention to military action against the ethnic Kachin. It has broken the ceasefire in Kayin state, while continuing its policies of starvation, harassment and intimidation to drive the remaining Rohingya from Burma. The extra aid DfID is providing to the displaced Rohingya is to be welcomed, as is the generosity of the British public and the role of the Bangladesh Government in providing shelter to the refugees.
What is happening in Bangladesh would be a strain on any country, let alone an emerging economy with some of the highest poverty levels in the world, but I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to say what representations he has made to the Bangladesh Government about the proposed relocation of the Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. Along with colleagues from all sides of the House, we have written to the Foreign Secretary and the Bangladesh high commissioner, expressing concern that this planned settlement is more like an exceptionally unsafe and inaccessible prison camp.
While concern is being expressed for the refugees who have fled to Bangladesh, we must not forget the ethnic groups in IDP camps in Burma, where access by humanitarian groups is very limited and the media spotlight cannot reach, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. The treatment of the ethnic groups who remain in Burma is not conducive to the,
“voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees”,
according to the UN high commissioner, but I agree with the other calls that have been made for more action on an international stage to stop the Burmese army continuing on its path of ethnic cleansing. Surely that must be a referral to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council. A Minister speaking in a Westminster Hall debate this week said that,
“calling on the Security Council to refer Burma to the ICC will remain an option”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/18; col. 260WH.]
I therefore ask the Minister if he will explain to the Grand Committee what is needed to get the Government to move from referral being “an option” to declaring publicly their support for such an action and beginning the process of building the needed consensus. Everyone is aware of the possible veto from Russia and China, but the UK as penholder should take the first step. There is precedent for Ministers supporting other draft Security Council resolutions that had even less chance of success.
We know that the Burmese military responds to pressure and public exposure on the international stage, hence the ban of the proposed visit of the International Development Committee, so why are the UK Government not supporting a UN-mandated global arms embargo? Economic measures have in the past affected the behaviour of the generals, so I hope the Minister will also explain why the Government rejected calls for targeted sanctions preventing British and European companies doing business with military-owned companies.
It is eight months since the latest crisis with the Rohingya began. In a month’s time, thousands of women, young and old, will start to give birth to children conceived from the sexual violence of the Burmese military. They will give birth under the most dreadful circumstances in the most appalling conditions, with the monsoon and cyclone season upon them. We cannot stand by and let Burma’s military and civilian Government go unpunished for the genocide of ethnic groups in Burma, because the consequences have very grave implications for the whole world.
My Lords, I will also start by saying how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for giving us an opportunity to say the things which are in our hearts.
I went to Burma some years ago. My visit was arranged by the Burmese ambassador at the time, who had been here for some years. When I arrived in Yangon, I was met by a captain, so I thought, “Ah! I will be put under close scrutiny—that’s why they’ve sent a captain to receive me”. It was very interesting, because when we got to the hotel, he said, “Here is my telephone number and my office number. If you need any help, just call me, but I will only come when you need me”. I thought, “My goodness! This bodes well”. I have to say that I had a wonderful visit. What I want to share with your Lordships is my feeling about Aung San Suu Kyi.
Even at that time, many people in Burma felt that she had polarised opinions against Burma, because everybody adored Aung San Suu Kyi so they hated everyone else. That is not entirely true. However, I know that at that time there was no trade with Burma—it had all stopped—and no airlines were coming in except for Biman from Bangladesh. It was isolated. My view was that if we wanted them to change, we should start making contacts, but nobody wanted to do that because Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and, “Oh, she was the most wonderful person of all”.
Your Lordships may have got the feeling that I am not totally enamoured of Aung San Suu Kyi, nor have I ever been. She thought she was going to do good, and I am sure she intended to, but she has no opportunity. There is no possibility of doing things that the generals do not want, no matter what kind of position they accord you. In 1995, she was offered the prime ministership, but she refused because she said that they would not give her the power. No, they will not give her the power. Why would they ever part with the slightest amount of power? This is what we have to remember. We can say, “Oh, how wonderful—democracy and all that!” but there is no democracy. “How wonderful—human rights!” but there will be no human rights. I am fully convinced that the generals are in power and will stay in power unless something cataclysmic happens, and Aung San Suu Kyi is not a cataclysm.
In addition, all the people who used to support Aung San Suu Kyi in the early days, when she won the first election, have got too old or have died, so there is a new lot of people supporting her. It appeared that there was a chink of light, but I do not think she is up to it, because you have to be very strong to stand up to the sort of pressure she is under. It is not her fault entirely, but she is not a strong person. A lot has been made of the fact that she was not allowed to go and see her dying husband and so on. That may be so, but she lived in great luxury, in a beautiful house, with lots of people looking after her. I met a lot of people there, but one of the boys I met was her houseboy, who said that she took one to two hours to get dressed in the morning before she met the people who had come to see her in her home. I also met Professor Taylor, who said that she applied to do a doctorate at SOAS. He said that he looked at everything she had done and written, and that she was not up to a doctorate. So she is not a brilliant lady with a brilliant past, and possibly she will not have a brilliant future.
My Lords, I declare a personal interest in Myanmar. I have visited three times over the past three years, once as Chief of the Defence Staff and twice in an advisory capacity, assisting in efforts to bring about a resolution of Myanmar’s multiple internal conflicts through reconciliation.
On my visits, my status has permitted me exceptional access to Aung San Suu Kyi, to wider government, to the leadership of the Tatmadaw and to representatives of several of the armed ethnic opposition groups. My visits have left me with a varied set of impressions about the complexity, scale and diversity of the challenges that Myanmar faces. They have left me, on balance, with as much sympathy for those who face those challenges on the ground as for those who sit in often emotional judgment from afar.
I would never be an apologist for those who perpetrate atrocity, utilise sexual violence as an instrument of policy or proclaim impotence as a defence against inactivity. But nor can I unreservedly join the ranks of those—not today’s speakers—whose condemnations lack informed judgment and whose aspirations for action are simply not anchored in reality.
The place is a dreadful mess. The Government lack professional capacity; they are in power but not in control. The armed forces lack sophistication and enlightened leadership—an understatement. The army is internally fractured between an old guard who retain power and an emerging generation who cannot navigate a path to a desired position of civilian control and societal support. Society is riven with deep ethnic enmity and suspicion, united only by a populist hatred of the Rohingya, whose persecution is the one residual thing that keeps the army remotely popular.
Is the situation hopeless? Yes, if your aspiration is for instant remedy, for a civilian Government in control, for a country unified, for a secular state, for a depoliticised army that enjoys the widespread support of society and for a resettled Rohingya living in peaceful harmony. But the country is not without hope if the international community offers structured, long-term assistance. There are enough enlightened people on whom to build a better future; there is a society that wishes to be led to a better place; and there is an army that wants to rid itself of the burden of politics and unpopularity. I hope that government policy reflects this view. I fear it is not widely shared, but it is one that I hold.
My Lords, I rise in the gap and for only a short while, for which I apologise, but there is one aspect of this subject that could usefully be underlined as it has not hitherto been referred to in detail—also particularly remembering my jaunts to Naypyidaw and onwards. Does the Minister agree that the benefits of trade are twofold, and are as applicable to Myanmar as elsewhere, particularly given our past association?
First, trade plays into the objective of a global Britain, with equal emphasis on being a peace broker. Secondly, there is the undeniable benefit that, when all else fails, it often falls to trade to be the catalyst for a better world by keeping channels open and impacting on the process referred to by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, particularly in respect of those who share ideals with the Commonwealth and well-versed red lines.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this debate on such an important issue. Four minutes is barely time to do justice to the grave injustices that have been meted out to the Rohingya people. However, it is important that details, gross as they are, are recorded in Hansard, just as they are being meticulously documented by those who will hold to account the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, because held to account they must be.
We must suppose that the premeditated and systematic nature of the horrific abuse was calculated to inspire abject terror, and that must strengthen our resolve comprehensively to censure those who had the power to speak out but did not. Does the Minister agree that not only must the generals and their henchmen face the courts, but the lady with moral authority and a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize must answer questions also? Ignorance is something that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot plead.
One of the most sinister moves by the Myanmar authorities is to pull down the shutters: those who have spoken out, however gently, have been punished by being denied access. Ms Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar for the Human Rights Council has reported:
“Despite my efforts to remain impartial, I am now declared unwelcome in Myanmar”.
Members of the House of Commons International Development Committee were denied visas to Myanmar this February. One reason given was that individual members of the committee had signed a letter calling for the senior general of the Myanmar army to be held accountable for military behaviour in Rakhine—good on them.
The repatriation process that has started causes great concern. As I understand it—maybe the Minister could confirm whether this is the case—it is being carried out against a backdrop of secrecy. Independent observers, including UN agencies, are still barred from witnessing the treatment of the returnees. What are they returning to? Satellite evidence shows that whole areas that were Rohingya homes have been razed to the ground and replaced with military bases. Continuing reports of brutal violence against minorities in Kachin, Shan, Kayin and other states show that we are not dealing with forces seeking to appease their detractors. Will the Minister state the Government's position on repatriation?
I shall end with a few words about Cox’s Bazar, where the pre-monsoon rains are already throwing up challenges, some unforeseen, such as the conflict of sharing terrain with elephants, but others that were foreseen. In the debate brought by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, last month on anti-microbial resistance, I voiced concerns conveyed to me by the Malaria Consortium, of which I am a trustee. The monsoon rains, coupled with the combination of poor sanitation and substandard housing, will provide perfect breeding conditions for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. The native population of Cox’s Bazar is highly vulnerable to malaria because the people have not been exposed to the disease recently. To compound the problem, the refugees from Myanmar are coming from areas where drug-resistant malaria has been detected. I know that the Minister responding is not a DfID Minister but I hope he will take these comments back to the relevant Minister. DfID is well placed to take action as a world leader in the fight against malaria, so can the Minister reassure me that DfID is alert to the dangers, and is working effectively with the Bangladeshi authorities, who must be commended for their response to this most tragic of man-made crises?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and for her excellent contribution, which reminded us of the optimism and hope that the dawning of democracy brought to Myanmar. We should not lose that sense of optimism, despite the horrific conditions. Today’s debate has focused on the Rohingya people and we must not forget that they have suffered over decades—denied citizenship and marginalised.
As we have heard, many of the women who fled last August were victims of brutal sexual violence used by Burmese soldiers as a weapon of genocide. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, I would like to hear from the Minister about the Government’s action to respond to the specific needs of women as part of their general response, particularly in Myanmar and Bangladesh, including supporting survivors of gender-based violence and protecting women from further attacks and abuse.
As my noble friend Lady Kinnock said in her excellent contribution, the Government of Bangladesh have rightly been praised for their initial response to the refugees, despite its limitations. I therefore welcome the Government’s additional £70 million helping to fund programmes for the most vulnerable refugees. However, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, we also need to ensure that others step up to the mark. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government have taken to encourage other countries to meet the overall funding shortfall? Access to the camps for the UN and other agencies is being hampered by red tape. Will the Minister assure the Committee that his department is doing all it can to ensure that NGO staff are able to apply for the appropriate visas to plan and implement their work?
Despite the humanitarian response, it is clear that the long-term persecution faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar can be addressed only by a political solution. I support the UK’s efforts in raising the issue at the UN General Assembly and Security Council, which have helped galvanise the international community around the five-point plan, particularly the Annan commission’s recommendations. The Government have said in the past that they are watching closely to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi’s words translate into swift action. I hope the Minister will tell us the Government’s assessment of the Government of Myanmar’s action in respect of the plan and the commission.
Why is there no specific DfID investment in northern Rakhine, despite the information that Rohingya villages still exist there? Will the Minister give us a more detailed explanation of the Government’s position and plans? I have received concerns from NGOs about the in-country response, particularly of the embassy in Myanmar.
Political leadership on the rights of the Rohingya and action against Burma for its gross violations of international law must go hand in hand. As we have heard, it is important that Britain takes the lead. In February this year, 100 parliamentarians wrote to the Foreign Secretary supporting a referral to the International Criminal Court. We saw the response of the Burmese Government to ban individual members of the International Development Committee from visiting Burma. I know that the Minister will say, as he has said before in the Chamber, that a UN Security Council resolution on referral will be vetoed by the Russians and China. How we build support for a referral is key to this. I think that arguing for it is the means to overcome such opposition.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Anelay for securing this debate. She is a well-known advocate for freedom, equality and human rights around the world. It is my pleasure to respond to her today and to welcome her pragmatic and expert advice and insight into this important issue. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions.
I share the opinion of many noble Lords about the onset of democracy in Burma. To reiterate the important points made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the importance of trade, I remember, as a Minister for Transport at that time, that Britain extended an invitation very early on—I think I was the first Minister to visit to look at what opportunities for infrastructure development could be put forward to support the Government of the day. As several noble Lords have said, there has been great disappointment in the civilian Government, but we should not forget that they are much under of the influence and heavy hand of the military.
I will set out to answer most, if not all, noble Lords’ questions. I shall write to noble Lords about any that I am unable to answer in the limited time. Noble Lords will know that when violence broke out in Rakhine state in August 2017, it was the latest episode in the decades-long persecution suffered by the Rohingya community. We have been urging the Burmese civilian Government to take action since they took office two years ago. Yet, since August, thousands have been killed and many more remain unaccounted for. Anyone who has visited Cox’s Bazar has seen the human suffering. Around 700,000 people have fled. Sexual violence, particularly against women and children, has taken place. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans recounted the very personal story of Rajuma. When he spoke of her child being thrown into the fire, that is not an exceptional story; it is, regrettably and tragically, the human suffering of the Rohingya community.
I assure noble Lords that the UK has played a leading role in the robust international response. In November we secured the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma in almost a decade. It urged the Burmese authorities to stop the violence, to hold those responsible to account, and to create the conditions necessary for the safe return of refugees. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, other ministerial colleagues and I have kept international attention focused on the plight of the Rohingya community. Since making high-profile visits—including one by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary —we have maintained dialogue with international counterparts to continue to press for progress, most recently, as my noble friend Lady Anelay pointed out, at the Commonwealth summit and also at the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in April.
The right reverend Prelate asked whether the UK will continue to work with partners at the UN; the short answer is yes. I was present at the debate in the Human Rights Council that was tabled by Burma and we have ensured that we have kept this issue right to the fore—including the situation that exists not just in Rakhine but in Kachin and Shan states, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to ensure that the Human Rights Council continues to hold its intention and focus on these important areas.
The UK continues to be a generous contributor to the UN-led Joint Response Plan, and we recently announced additional funding of £70 million to support Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, among others, in paying tribute to the Bangladeshi Government. Bangladesh is a poor nation, yet it has opened up its borders as best it can to ensure that it provides the facilities. It is right that countries such as the UK and others provide the support that is necessary. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that following the UK’s announcement of a further £70 million, we are lobbying other countries to make further contributions of humanitarian aid. I also assure noble Lords that we have not reduced our embassy staff. The actual issue is that the Burmese authorities themselves are refusing to authorise embassy travel to Rakhine, which is the big challenge.
My noble friend Lady Anelay raised the recent visit by the UN Security Council and follow-up action in that regard. Last night the UK secured a UN Security Council statement, reiterating the council’s calls for Burmese action in ensuring a safe, voluntary and dignified return for refugees, and also stressing the importance of accountability. The UN Security Council is due to convene on Monday and the UK will use that meeting to ensure that the council again sends a clear message about the need for progress in Burma in the coming weeks.
We see the sight of refugee tents stretching to the horizon, in the knowledge that the cyclone season is fast approaching, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about. She mentioned the spread of malaria. In all our conversations with the Bangladeshi authorities, including with the Prime Minister— most recently, my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development wrote to the Prime Minister in March—we have emphasised the importance of ensuring expert input into this. Again, that issue was raised at the Commonwealth summit, working with the charity Malaria No More for the eradication of malaria across all countries, not just Bangladesh, and we will continue to work in that respect.
The scale and nature of the human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence, perpetrated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in particular have horrified and appalled all right-thinking people. The UK believes that it amounts to ethnic cleansing. The issue of the International Criminal Court was raised by several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nye. We await the International Criminal Court’s ruling on whether it has jurisdiction over the forced displacement of Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh. If proven, this would constitute a crime against humanity and we will support the court, should it judge that it has jurisdiction. Of course, I will keep noble Lords informed of this.
The perpetrators of human rights violations must be held to account. The Burmese authorities have yet to begin a credible domestic investigation. I assure noble Lords that in all bilateral communication, and indeed at the last Human Rights Council, I met Burmese Ministers directly. We continue to raise important issues about access, international supervision and holding to account the perpetrators of these crimes. There should be no doubt that international attention will not cease until a credible mechanism is in place for accountability. Preserving and documenting evidence is vital for effective accountability. That is why we are leading efforts to ensure this evidence is documented appropriately and that this is done in a way that does not further traumatise victims.
Following on from my noble friend’s role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on PSVI, I assure noble Lords that UK-funded training in March by the PSVI team of experts identified just how much capacity building still needs to be done. We will continue to lead on this, ideally with UN and donor support, and we are working closely with the UN in this respect to ensure that Bangladeshi evidence-gatherers are given the skills they need. We have also funded a practical guide, specific to Burma, to help NGOs and other documenters of conflict related to sexual violence, and this was published earlier this month.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, also talked about sanctions. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government have pushed successfully in the EU to impose new sanctions that will restrict the finances and freedom of movement of senior military commanders who were directly involved in the atrocities in Rakhine last year. With our EU partners we are drawing up a list of named individuals and we hope to make an announcement very soon. We have also moved to strengthen the EU arms embargo, which the noble Baroness referred to and which now prohibits the export of dual-use goods and equipment that could be used for monitoring communications.
Ultimately, as all noble Lords have expressed, we want to see the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the Rohingya community to Rakhine—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. For this to happen, it requires, as noble Lords have said, independent monitoring, ideally by the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Questions were asked about direct representations made by Her Majesty’s Government to the Burmese State Counsellor. The Foreign Secretary pressed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi when he met her in February. The sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, in this respect, particularly about the hopes that were held out, were perhaps shared by many when the civilian Government was first formed—and we have since seen the disappointment of and tragic consequences for the Rohingya community. While we welcome moves by both Burma and Bangladesh to agree a memorandum of understanding to manage repatriations, much remains to be done. Returns can happen only when conditions in Rakhine improve and safety can be guaranteed. We will continue to demand that all the concerns of the UN High Commission for Refugees are met, and that the recommendations of the report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which were raised, are also implemented.
I also assure noble Lords that the British Government’s support for transition from conflict to peace will continue, not just in Rakhine but, as has been pointed out by noble Lords, in other states—Kayin, Kachin and Shan. Indeed, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that the British ambassador visited Kachin state in January and met political and religious leaders. I will write to them with the details of that meeting.
In the short time that I have left, I assure noble Lords that we continue to press in our project work to ensure that humanitarian support—which was worth over £4 million in the last financial year—continues to all regions. Our project work particularly emphasises the importance of inclusion of all communities in Burma and of working in areas of the country affected by conflict, including those that my noble friend pointed out near the border with China. However, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have pointed out, it is important that we continue to press the Burmese authorities to give urgent access to allow much-needed aid to be delivered across Burma. We are also continuing to support grass-roots peace-building projects, providing access to the peace-building process. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others asked specifically about lead NGOs. I will write about our policy in that respect. I assure the right reverend prelate that we will continue to support agencies on the ground.
I am running very short of time. I assure noble Lords that the Government—politically, diplomatically and in terms of humanitarian and development support—will continue to work. Ultimately, we hold on to the hope of building a bright future for all Burmese communities, and the return of the Rohingya community to their homes, but only in a safe and responsible manner.