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Burma: Military Coup

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reported military coup in Burma.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare that I am vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Burma.

My Lords, we wholeheartedly condemn this coup. The military seizure of power, detention of the State Counsellor and other political and civil society leaders, and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of recent election results are totally unacceptable. We are pressing for confirmation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s safety, the urgent release of civilian leaders and the peaceful reconvening of the national assembly. The results of the 2020 election must be respected.

My Lords, I welcome the statement that the Minister has just made to the House. He is right robustly to condemn the military coup in Burma and the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, will he go further? What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to make it clear to the military that, unless it reverses course, respects the election result, releases those who have been arrested, reinstates Ministers and returns to a constitutional parliamentary system, engaging in dialogue with the National League for Democracy to chart a peaceful course towards political progress in Burma, the UK will impose robust targeted sanctions not only on military leaders but on military enterprises and assets?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, he will be aware that the UK, along with other European partners, led on the sanctions that were imposed. Indeed, the current head of the military and his deputy have sanctions against them. Let me assure the noble Lord that we are looking at all actions. Later this afternoon we are convening, as president of the UN Security Council, an emergency meeting on the situation in Myanmar, and we are also talking to allies quite directly about further steps that can be taken.

My Lords, the Burma Campaign UK, in which I declare an interest as a board member, has received many messages from within Burma for concerted and robust international action. The Minister will know that the Magnitsky sanctions do not target the financial interests of the military but are, effectively, a holiday ban for 16 generals during the pandemic. Will the British Government join the new Biden Administration in the US and review our policy on economic sanctions as well as supporting a ban on all, but especially British, companies doing business with companies owned by the military, and work towards a coalition on a global arms embargo?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that we are working closely with our allies, including the United States, in this respect. I have already outlined the first action that we have taken as president of the UN Security Council. On the issue of the international arms embargo in Myanmar, let me also assure the noble Baroness that, at the end of the transition period, the specific restrictions that applied as part of our membership of the EU were rolled forward into domestic law. Of course we will consider any further action that needs to be taken in this respect.

My Lords, the military coup in Myanmar is hugely worrying, so can the noble Lord say more about how the Government are building a coalition of countries willing to impose embargos, as others have mentioned, and sanctions, and also protection for the Rohingya, who will now be in even greater danger, including by joining the genocide case at the International Court of Justice?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s final point, of course we are very supportive of the action at the ICJ, and we are looking at the situation of a formal intervention. Myanmar was supposed to come back in January, I believe, with its challenge to the action. We have not yet been formally been told of that, but I understand that it has been put in by Myanmar. In terms of international coalitions and actions, as I have already alluded to, we are working with international partners and directly with the Myanmar Government—yesterday my honourable friend the Minister for Asia summoned the Myanmar ambassador to convey the sentiments that I expressed in my original Answer.

My Lords, I have spoken to several people in Myanmar who are now terrified of what lies ahead. Could my noble friend reassure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will use all the tools at their disposal and keep all options on the table to ensure that the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar are adequately protected? These include the ongoing ICJ action but also the ICC action, the universal jurisdiction case and working constructively with those countries that have influence over Myanmar’s military.

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we are working as he has suggested. Among those that exert the greatest control over the military authorities in Myanmar is China, and it is important that China, as an important member of the international community, also recognises the election and that the civilian Government should be restored to their position of government as soon as possible. On the issue of the Rohingya, which the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, mentioned, we will of course keep that at the forefront of our considerations as penholders, and I am looking to engage with Bangladesh on this important issue hopefully later this week.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I visited Burma many times to provide aid and advocacy for ethnic minorities suffering offences by the Burmese army? Just today, I have spoken to colleagues inside Burma, who report continuing attacks by the Burmese army in Kachin, northern Shan and Kayin states, with thousands of displaced people. My colleagues’ urgent requests are for the international community to engage directly with leaders of ethnic groups and for aid to be sent across borders to them and to NGOs working with them, as aid sent to the Government will not reach those in greatest need. Will the Minister give some reassurance regarding these urgent and serious requests?

My Lords, the noble Baroness and I have often spoken about these important issues. In light of the coup, the Foreign Secretary has today announced a review of all support, including that sent to the Myanmar Government, with a view to suspend it unless, as the noble Baroness has suggested, there is direct exceptional humanitarian reasons not to do so. We will be working with people and NGOs on the ground to ensure that vital humanitarian access.

My Lords, many of us have spoken out over recent months for the protection of Rohingya Muslims. There is a deep worry at the moment that the Government of Bangladesh may continue their repatriation of the refugees. Are Her Majesty’s Government talking with Bangladesh? Also, what are the prospects for freedom of religion or belief, not least for the Christian minorities in the country, who are under threat at the moment?

My Lords, on the issue that the right reverend Prelate raises of freedom of religion or belief in Myanmar, the situation is, frankly and very candidly, dire—there is no other word that I can use for that. On the situation with Bangladesh, as I have already alluded to, we are looking to engage directly with the Bangladeshi authorities, but equally they have stated their support for the democratically elected civilian Government.

My Lords, the Government’s decision to bring forward a UN Security Council meeting is very much welcome, and so is the announcement by President Biden that his Administration are considering sanctions. Obviously, I hope that we will be working closely with the US and other allies on this matter. It is vital that the international community imposes the toughest kind of sanctions, including on the enterprises owned by the generals and their families, because it is that network that will have the real big impact. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that we will do that and get collective international action.

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we are working closely with our allies in this respect. We will look at a range of measures, with the aim of ensuring that the wishes of the Myanmar people are fully respected, including for the release of civil society leaders. We also want to consider measures that move us towards that end. It is a fluid situation, but we are establishing the exact facts on the ground. I assure the noble Lord that we are working very quickly, as demonstrated by our convening of the UN Security Council.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly mentioned our term in the rolling presidentship of the UN Security Council, where it is possible that the matter will be discussed today. While there is hardly any good word to say about Aung San Suu Kyi, given the way that she has behaved on the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims, there is hardly likely to be any co-operation from the countries of the Pacific zone; China and some neighbouring countries have already made comments that are not very helpful. Has the Minister had any discussion with the countries of the European Union about whether a targeted action can be taken at this time, as with the two generals?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point, there is already concerted European action—specific sanctions on both the general and his deputy. On the wider point on Aung San Suu Kyi, he is quite right that we have had challenges and we have expressed deep regrets, through interactions by the current Foreign Secretary and his predecessors, about her lack of condemnation of the situation of the Rohingya. Nevertheless, she is the civilian elected leader, and she should be restored. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was due to speak to her on that very issue later this week, but, of course, that is not taking place at the current time.

My Lords, I was working in Burma in 1962 when General Ne Win took over the Government. At that time, the Burmese military were completely naive; they asked a friend of mine in Rangoon University to draft them a manifesto, which he called The Burmese Way to Socialism, but we ended up with more than 40 years of what was, in fact, fascism. Does the Minister recognise that that is the danger now, and will he try to get the United Nations Security Council to recognise this in approving an appropriate resolution? Normally, Russia and China might be hesitant to support it.

My Lords, my noble friend’s personal insights are valuable. Indeed, I recall visiting Myanmar just after the first election and what he talks about—the lack of governance, the inexperience of state institutions and the inability to govern effectively—was very clear to me. I take note of what my noble friend says and, of course, today’s meeting is focused specifically on Myanmar.

My Lords, first, is not the failure of the Chinese Government to criticise and condemn the military takeover in Myanmar shameful, and a warning to neighbouring nations, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, about China’s attitude towards democratic nations? Secondly, in most elections there are external observers. Were there external observers for this election in Myanmar? The army is using the excuse that it was an unfair election. If there were external observers, was their report favourable or unfavourable?

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord said about China. We appeal to China, as a member of the international community, to ensure that the democratically elected Government are restored to their position of governing the people. The 2020 elections were an important milestone on Myanmar’s path and were monitored by international and local observer groups.

My Lords, following the questions of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and several others, can the Minister confirm that the Government of Bangladesh have definitely undertaken not to send Rohingya people back to Myanmar while they are at risk?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness and the whole House that in all my interactions as Minister for South Asia with the Bangladeshi Government I stress that the voluntary, safe and dignified return of the Rohingya community is paramount on any ask that they make. They have again been reassuring on that point. I have not spoken to them specifically over the last day or so, but I am seeking urgent engagement on this very point.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his robust response to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. This outrage is rightly condemned and the world should unite in calling it out. Is there any point in raising this assault on democracy in the Security Council, as has been said, given the lukewarm response so far from China and Russia? Listening to the reports of the overthrow of this democratically elected Government in Burma, the reason given was that the election last November was rigged. I racked my brains to remember when I had last heard this reason and, of course, I recalled that in the United States, the symbolic seat of power was attacked. Does the Minister share the thought that, facing a clear defeat, the tactic of alleging a fraudulent election comes straight from the playbook of the former President of the United States in exactly the same month of 2020?

My Lords, I shall not comment on all the questions raised by the noble Lord. I agree with him, but I also believe that it is important we have a UN Security Council debate on this.

My Lords, on an additional, very serious point, I visited Myanmar just before the previous set of elections, and there was deep worry on the ground that, should there be uncertainty and instability after the election at that time, the people who would suffer most would be those who need, for example, international supplies of HIV medication and that sort of humanitarian support. So, will the Government, in their discussions at the UN Security Council, look not just at the democratic and constitutional issues at stake here but ensure that the UN agencies that provide humanitarian support inside Myanmar are able to continue to do so during this crisis?

My Lords, first, in terms of direct financial aid to the Myanmar Government, as the noble Lord will know, we do not provide any such support. We do provide, as he is aware and rightly articulates, targeted support, working through international organisations and multilateral bodies. As I said earlier, in light of the coup the Foreign Secretary has today announced a review of all indirect support involving the Myanmar Government. However, we retain the importance, as I said earlier, of humanitarian aid getting through and will continue to work on that basis.

My Lords, despite it being a near-run thing, noble Lords managed to ask all the questions in this allocated slot. We are not going to adjourn, but we will take a small breather to allow people to move in and out of the Chamber.