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Human Rights in Myanmar

Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Myanmar.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead this debate and raise my concerns about the ongoing situation in Myanmar, which is deeply concerning and requires urgent attention by the UK Government and the wider international community.

This February marked the two-year anniversary of the coup in Myanmar and the start of the country’s military rule. This rule has been brutal and oppressive, with continued attacks on civilians and opposition forces and parties. According to the Burma Campaign UK briefing, since the attempted coup began, more than 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with the vast majority internally displaced within Burma. More than 21,000 people have been arrested, with around 17,000 still in detention. Under the previous military regime, there were usually just over 2,000 political prisoners. Thousands of civilians and members of resistance forces have been killed. Restrictions on freedom of speech, the media and the internet have increased significantly. The Burmese military effectively banned 40 political parties by deregistering them. Parties banned included the National League for Democracy, which won the last election, and significant ethnic political parties.

More than 60,00 civilian homes and properties have been destroyed. The Burmese military use airstrikes indiscriminately on almost a daily basis, with targets including medical centres, schools, religious buildings and camps for internally displaced people. Data from Amnesty International estimates that thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained, with more than 1,000 opposition politicians, political activists, human rights defenders and others convicted in unfair trials. There have been reports of widespread torture and abuse at the hands of military groups, and in the last year alone, at least 356 people have died in police custody. A report this week from BBC journalists—the first to report from the country since the coup—uncovered the oppressive nature of the country under military rule.

Myanmar is, at this moment, a nation torn of its freedoms. It is a nation run by military checkpoint, with corners occupied by sandbags, there to protect automatic weapon-wielding police from attacks by freedom fighters. Recently, there have been reports of the Burmese military Government launching airstrikes on their own citizens. Just over a week ago, the military launched a brutal attack on civilians taking part in a ceremony in the Sagaing region, with women and children present. It is estimated that around 100 people died in the attack, including 20 to 30 children—an example of innocent bystanders falling victim to this brutal regime.

The Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar have faced years of persecution at the hands of Government forces. In 1982, under the so-called Citizenship Act, they were effectively made stateless, and they now represent one of the largest populations of stateless people in the world.

Last week, the military authorities announced the arrest of 15 schoolteachers for participating in an online school organised by the National Unity Government, and last summer 30 more teachers were arrested for similar reasons. Does the hon. Member agree that the restriction of access to education and the intimidation of the country’s educators is a very concerning restriction of freedom?

I absolutely agree. Without education, we do not have a defence of the defenceless, and it is only through education that we will educate the nation and move it forward.

An estimated 600,000 Rohingya Muslims remain in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and this group are subject to persecution on a daily basis. The atrocities that the Rohingya Muslim population have been subjected to have been rightly condemned by the international community. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described it as

“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled the military’s crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, escaping to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. Even today, over 1 million Rohingya people live in makeshift settlements in squalid conditions in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. I thank Bangladesh, which is a country with a fast-growing economy, but it still has its own huge challenges and remains one of the poorest countries, and we must ensure that the international community keeps up its support.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government’s aid budget cuts mean that the camps have seen a dramatic fall in the humanitarian assistance that the UK provides—assistance that was very welcome when these problems began in 2017. The cuts are making it much more difficult for people to survive in the camps and leaving the Government of Bangladesh and other agencies in a difficult position. For five years, they have had to support and protect those who had to flee the military of Myanmar, having suffered ethnic cleansing and genocide according to the United Nations.

I thank my hon. Friend, whom I admire for all her work and tireless efforts in this area. She is a passionate campaigner for the Rohingya people of Myanmar, and I agree with her powerful words: the Government need to look at this matter. The Labour party has been calling for more aid, and this situation is not acceptable.

Six years on from fleeing genocide, the Rohingya people still face restrictions on their movements and freedoms. Let me tell the House the story of Naripokkho, which is an activist group leading the fight for women’s rights in Bangladesh. Naripokkho was instrumental in supporting Rohingya rape victims in 2017, when Bangladesh once again found itself on the frontline of a rape epidemic as more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed its borders to escape genocide in neighbouring Myanmar. Among them were thousands of women and children who had suffered horrifying sexual violence at the hands of Burmese soldiers. Harrowing details emerged of women being tied to trees and subjected to rape for days, tortured by bamboo sticks and set on fire. Once again, echoing past events, many of the women would find themselves battling the stigma of unwanted pregnancy.

There have been attempts to resettle Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, but that action has rightly been condemned by Human Rights Watch, which has stated:

“Voluntary, safe, and dignified returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar are not possible while the military junta is carrying out massacres around the country and apartheid in Rakhine State.”

The conditions must be created to allow the Rohingya community to return home in safety, dignity and security. The Labour party has continuously called for the UK Government to heighten their work with international partners and call out regimes such as Russia and China, which are both alleged actively to have supplied the regime with oil and arms that have been used by the military to launch brutal attacks on the civilian population.

Labour is deeply concerned about the ongoing and long-standing abuse of human rights in Myanmar. The treatment of the Rohingya minority has been, and continues to be, a stain on the world’s conscience. We have consistently called for the announced arms embargo against Myanmar to be applied in full, and have echoed calls from activists for a suspension of exports of aviation fuel to the authorities in Myanmar. We have also called for the Government to engage with British shipping companies and insurance companies covering shipping to urge them to stop any involvement in the trade, as well as the redoubling of efforts to engage with regional partners to shut off the supply of aviation fuel and military equipment to the regime.

Too many times, we have said never again, then stood back only to see something happen once more. How many times must we learn the same lesson? We have an obligation—a moral duty—to work with our international partners to put an end to the seemingly endless suffering faced by the people of Myanmar. We must speak up for them and raise their plight on the international stage. Unless there are robust and tangible international consequences for the military rulers of Myanmar, the problems of the genocidal attacks on the Rohingya people, the military rulers’ airstrikes against their own civilian population and the large-scale refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar will not be solved.

Our view of the world is under threat from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s aggression in the Taiwan strait, and tyrannical autocrats across the world growing in confidence and strength. They do not believe in international law, nor do they respect human rights.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is setting out the international backdrop to the issues in Myanmar. Does she agree that the sooner full democracy returns in Myanmar, the better? The junta’s decision to postpone elections further will only make the situation in the country deteriorate much further, so rapid steps towards democracy must be taken as quickly as possible.

I absolutely agree: democracy is the cornerstone of giving back to people the power they need.

Autocrats do not believe in international law or respect human rights. If we are to stand up to them and defend our rules-based order, we must show that our values are not just for show, and that they have consequence. We must show that we will stand up for human rights and for the oppressed and downtrodden, wherever they are, whatever they need. Like all people, the Rohingya people have a right to return home, but that will be possible only when there is lasting peace in the region. We have an opportunity and an obligation to act now to ensure that.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) made a powerful speech, and I commend her for securing this debate.

It will probably come as no surprise to colleagues that the issue I want to speak about is the fundamental right of freedom of religion or belief, which is being stamped on in Myanmar, with targeted repression of religious actors. I will highlight one individual, but sadly he is one of many.

I ask colleagues to join me in condemning the recent sentencing on 7 April by a court in Myanmar of Rev. Dr Hkalam Samson to six years in prison on manufactured charges of terrorism, unlawful association, defaming the state and inciting opposition to the regime. I ask them to join the international calls for his immediate, unconditional release, and the release of others similarly arbitrarily detained. Yesterday, I tweeted to that effect in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I urge colleagues concerned about freedom of religion or belief in Myanmar, and indeed other rights and freedoms, to join that call.

The Foreign Secretary said just a short time ago in the House of Commons that freedom of religion or belief is a “canary in the mine” for human rights. Where persecution and discrimination occur on account of people’s beliefs, the loss of other human rights follows, as we have seen in the case of Dr Samson.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated that more than 3,000 people have been killed in the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, including activists and other civilians, such as those the hon. Lady has mentioned. I know she condemns the murder of innocent civilians, but will she join me in hoping that that will not deter the brave, peaceful activists advocating for democracy?

I certainly will. I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has given me the opportunity to put on the record my profound respect for the people in Myanmar speaking out against the regime at great personal risk, many of whom are religious leaders.

Dr Samson is a former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, and is the chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly. He is an internationally respected religious leader and advocate for freedom of religion or belief and human rights in Myanmar. He has dedicated his pastoral career to promoting peace efforts, to justice and equality for Kachin Christian, to reconciliation and forgiveness, and to drug eradication. He has helped to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of more than 100,000 displaced Kachin to their homes. In essence, he has been accused of crimes simply because he has spoken out and criticised the military regime’s brutal repression, because he has met people and groups the military do not like, and because he has called for prayers for freedom for the people of Myanmar.

Dr Samson’s international advocacy is well renowned. In 2018, he came to the UK Parliament to meet Members. In 2019, he travelled to Washington DC to participate in the international ministerial conference to advance religious freedom, which was a forerunner of the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief that we held here last July, at which once again concerns about freedoms in Myanmar were expressed.

I will close by quoting Benedict Rogers, who is an experienced analyst on east Asia, the author of three books on Myanmar, a friend of Rev. Hkalam Samson and, indeed, a friend to many of us here in this place, because those of us who have been concerned about freedoms in Myanmar have for many years benefited from Ben’s wise counsel and his experience of travelling to east Asia many times over many years. This week, Ben Rogers said:

“This sentence is an outrageous travesty of justice. Reverend Dr Samson is a completely non-violent Christian pastor and a brave and tireless advocate of justice, human rights and peace. He has been jailed simply for courageously speaking out against the Myanmar military’s barbaric atrocities perpetrated against the people of Myanmar. The international community must speak out strongly to demand his immediate release from prison and intensify efforts to apply targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s illegal military regime until all political prisoners are freed, the military ceases all attacks in the ethnic states and Myanmar is placed on a path of genuine federal democracy.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, in this important debate on human rights in Myanmar. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for bringing this important debate before the House.

Tragically, as we look around the world today, despite what we are told and led to believe, we see that human rights are not the universal, inalienable and inherent rights of all humanity that they are supposed to be. The fact is that so many across the globe continue to face persecution, abuse and injustice. Rights are nothing more than a myth—afforded to some but not others, unless of course it suits the needs of richer, more powerful nations.

In Myanmar, the Government and authorities are guilty of persecuting and oppressing countless different minorities. I echo the serious and important points made already, in particular by my hon. Friend, but I will keep my remarks in particular to the Rohingya, whose human rights and protections from abuses have been—I think we can all agree—non-existent. For decades now, the Rohingya have faced systemic discrimination at the hands of Myanmar’s Government. So despicable is their treatment, they are regarded as even less than second-class citizens in their own country, denied the right to citizenship, driven from public places and segregated from society.

For those with even a passing interest in the region, those human rights abuses faced by the Rohingya are not unknown—they are no secret. The Rohingya have been one of the most persecuted peoples for decades. The abuses are well documented, not just by numerous human rights organisations and the United Nations, but by the Rohingya who fled Burma for safer countries and even by the Rohingya diaspora living in the UK, including in my constituency, which I am proud to say is home to one of the largest Rohingya communities in the UK, if not the whole of Europe.

On that point, Bradford is a city of sanctuary from anywhere. We are a proud city of sanctuary, which welcomes people from across the world. Make no mistake: those fleeing persecution, oppression and injustice, wherever that may be in the world, will always be welcome in my city of Bradford. The Rohingya community has made a fabulous and fantastic difference to the diversity, culture and richness of our great city, and they will always be welcome there.

It is utterly inexcusable that the international community continues to stand by and do nothing, knowing full well that the Rohingya face such horrific human rights abuses in Myanmar. What is most unforgiveable is that the world did nothing when the Rohingya faced some of the gravest human rights abuses and worst crimes against humanity imaginable in 2017, when the Burmese military, joined and emboldened by armed thugs and militia groups, who had longed for the opportunity to wipe the Rohingya from the country, marched through countless Rohingya villages, razing them to the ground and savagely slaughtering innocent, defenceless men, women and children.

To be clear, I know full well that, as that grave act of ethnic cleansing was taking place, the UK Government did absolutely nothing. I remember all too clearly standing up in the Chamber of the House of Commons in autumn 2017—as well as speaking privately to Ministers—to implore the Foreign Office to act, only to be told time and again that it was not the UK’s place to get involved, and that they did not want to upset the fragile democracy in Myanmar.

After so many years of military dictatorship, of course we all wanted to see Myanmar become a full, vibrant democracy but, as I told the House, the road to democracy can never be built on persecution, paved with ethnic cleansing and genocide, or stained with the blood of innocent men, women and children. That is a price we should never be prepared to pay. Yet I was ignored by our Government, who continued with their refusal to act, fearful of undermining democracy in Myanmar.

Where did that approach end up? Barely more than three years after the Rohingya genocide, encouraged by the world’s reluctance to act and its willingness to turn a blind eye to war crimes, the Burmese military overthrew the Government anyway, just as we all expected. The inaction of the international community and its unwillingness to stand up for the Rohingya, who were chased out of their homes, tortured, raped, murdered in the street and driven from their country at the barrel of a gun, is clearly evident in the fact that, even now, nearly six years later, the Rohingya still do not have justice for what they faced.

The generals and commanders who ordered that brutal wave of violence against an unarmed, defenceless civilian population, and the soldiers and thugs who carried it out, have yet to face any accountability for their actions, besides a few limited and toothless sanctions for those who participated in the military coup. As each year passes, justice gets further and further away and out of reach for the Rohingya. Because the international community failed to act with sufficient speed or force when the Burmese military and its thugs were burning down homes and spilling Rohingya blood, those responsible will likely now never face the consequences of their actions. They will never be forced to answer before a court for grave and contemptible crimes against humanity.

I come here today, not just with a condemnation of the Burmese military and Government for their record on human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities, and their deliberate, planned genocide, but with a condemnation of our own Government, whose callousness towards the human rights of the Rohingya meant that they were found wanting when the Rohingya needed them the most. Our Government’s ineffectiveness, indecision and inaction, even as the number and speed of Rohingya refugees fleeing eclipsed the horrific genocide in Darfur in the 1990s, cost the lives of thousands of Rohingya. Because neither the UK Government nor the international community stopped the genocide of the Rohingya even as it was taking place, more than 1 million Rohingya refugees now face a bleak and uncertain future in one of the largest refugee camps in the world—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West—located inside one of the most dangerous and natural disaster-prone regions on the planet.

In the squalid conditions of the camp in Cox’s Bazar, where refugees face disease, dirty water, fires, monsoons and floods, the first generation of Rohingya children born outside Myanmar to parents who fled the genocide are now reaching school age. However, the chances of their getting a good education to succeed beyond the camp are slim, and the chances of ever seeing the country where their parents were born are even worse, with no real prospect of the Rohingya ever being safe if they return to Myanmar.

The international community does not care. Funding for refugees is drying up, with barely 50% of the funding target for 2022 set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees met. It is clear that those children, their siblings and their parents have been forgotten and abandoned by much of the world, who have simply moved on to the next crisis.

The UK Government are not excluded from this charge of abandoning Rohingya refugees. Time and again I have told them about my constituents who have close relatives living in the refugee camps in Bangladesh who fled the genocide—close relatives who are eligible even under normal visas to come to the UK, but who are unable to do so because when they are confined to the camps they are unable to cut through the mountains of red tape that the Home Office puts in their way. Despite knowing those problems and the challenges they face, the Government refuse to make it any easier and deliberately prevent vulnerable Rohingya who should be able to come to the UK from doing so.

The Government tell us that they will stand up for human rights across the world, as of course they rightly should. But what they seem to forget is that they cannot pick and choose which human rights abuses they can act on, and which they can turn a blind eye to. Human rights are universal and the abuse of human lives must be acted upon, regardless of any other thing. They cannot single out some of the abuses that are taking place around the world and treat them with greater importance than others—not if human rights truly are universal, unalienable and inherent to all of humanity, as they rightly should be.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing this important debate.

We are debating the human rights crisis in Burma, where ordinary citizens are being denied the most basic freedoms and rights, and the international community is not doing anywhere near enough to change the situation. It has been two years since the Burmese military launched its coup and seized control of the country from a democratically elected Government. Despite heroic resistance and international condemnation, the miliary has instituted a regime of repression and violence on a massive scale.

I want to extend my solidarity to the international non-governmental organisations that have done a great deal to protect people inside Myanmar and support internally displaced people, particularly in Rakhine state, but also in other states across the country, and in Bangladesh where there are now 1 million Rohingya refugees who have had to seek refuge over the years, particularly after the attacks in 2017.

Burma Campaign UK, which I thank for its tireless work, estimates that more than 2 million people have fled their homes and become internally displaced in Myanmar. I want to declare an interest: Burma Campaign UK provides secretariat support to the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, which I chair.

There are 40 political parties that have been banned, including the National League for Democracy, which was declared the winner in the last democratic elections. More than 21,000 people have been arrested and 17,000 remain in detention. More than 60,000 civilian homes and properties have been destroyed. The Burmese military have used almost daily airstrikes to target medical centres, schools, religious buildings and camps for people displaced from their homes. As has been mentioned, as recently as 12 April the world’s media reported helicopter attacks on a village ceremony including women and children in the Sagaing region. The death toll is likely to have reached 100, including many children—one of the worst atrocities since the military coup. Thousands of resistance fighters and civilians have lost their lives.

Despite the unprecedented level of repression and danger, the people of Burma have resisted their oppressors. The people have boycotted military-owned companies and risked their lives to protest peacefully, and young people have taken up arms to form the People’s Defence Force to fight the military. In the months since the military coup on 1 February, the military has stepped up attacks in ethnic areas, including Chin, Karenni and Karen state, that have involved torching villages, murdering children and burning people alive.

Of course, we must never forget the plight of the Rohingya people. In August 2022, we marked the fifth anniversary of the Burmese military’s genocide against the Rohingya people. For the Rohingya, it has been more than five years of pain, trauma, grief and displacement—five years in camps far from home, robbed of their livelihood, their education, their peace of mind and their future. For the perpetrators, the Myanmar military—the soldiers, auxiliaries and men who issued the orders—it has been five years of evading justice for their crimes, which the UN fact-finding mission described as genocide.

I saw the suffering at first hand during my two visits to Rakhine state, before the military coup, in the camps for internally displaced Rohingya people, and during multiple visits to the camps in Cox’s Bazar, which is now home to 1 million refugees—the largest such camp in the world. The pandemic ravaged the camps and put ever more strain on stretched resources. As has been said, the military coup has made it even more unlikely that the Rohingya will return to their rightful homes in Myanmar. Half of the people in the camps are children—denied a normal childhood and a normal education.

There have been some advances in holding the Burmese military to account, but not enough. The Burmese military has lost control internally in large areas of the country, and we are told that morale among the armed forces is low. As well as the documented restrictions that people face, the people are facing a huge economic crisis and need international support. Many international investors have pulled out, understandably and correctly, but that has a knock-on effect on people’s lives and leads to further poverty. The answer has to be action to remove the military dictatorship and ensure that the democratic Government are restored.

I welcome the UK Government’s support for the International Court of Justice case, and I am grateful to the Minister for the support that he extended in that campaign when he was on the Back Benches. I hope that, now he is back in power, he will do everything that he can to secure justice for those who face genocide at the hands of the Myanmar military. As well as supporting the International Court of Justice case against Myanmar led by The Gambia, the Government have committed in principle to supporting a case at the International Criminal Court. I welcome that, but a former Foreign Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), stated in response to my written parliamentary question that

“there is insufficient support amongst Security Council members”.

We recognise the challenge, which has been mentioned, of certain countries, such as China and Russia, vetoing action to seek justice in the International Criminal Court against the Myanmar military for committing genocide, but our Government, as the penholder in the UN Security Council, have a unique responsibility to ensure that the military is held to account and to show leadership. Otherwise, we will never see justice served for the Rohingya people, who have faced genocide. 

As I have said, it is deeply distressing that the British Government have drastically reduced our aid to the Rohingya refugees over the past few years. For the 2021-22 financial year, British aid to the camps was reduced to 45% of the level of the previous financial year—a reduction of 67% compared with the financial year before that. The need in the camps has not reduced; it has grown.

After years of campaigning with parliamentarians, I welcome some of the steps that our Government have taken, but the fact remains that sanctions against the Burmese military’s sources of incomes are too slow to be implemented. Even after two years, there are organisations and individuals who remain untouched by sanctions, including those working in major revenue generators such as gas, banking and mining. The military finds its way round sanctions, and continues to buy arms and equipment to oppress people. I ask the Minister to address the slow implementation of sanctions and whether he thinks that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has an adequate number of officials working to deliver the policy.

I believe that the UK Government should be doing far more to co-ordinate international efforts to speed things up, and they must go further with sanctions. They should sanction the military cash cow, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise; ban UK companies from engagement with Burma’s gas industry, which earns $2 billion a year; sanction the mining companies and the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank; speed up the implementation of sanctions; and close the loopholes until sanctions bite hard. We have seen what Governments’ co-ordinated action on sanctions can do in relation to the Ukraine crisis, so where there is political will, we see action in the face of resistance from some players in the international community. I want to see that kind of leadership by our Government, and I am hopeful that the Minister, who was a great advocate of this agenda and worked with Back-Bench parliamentarians when he was a Back Bencher, is best placed to take this issue forward. I hope he will not disappoint me and other colleagues. More than 100 parliamentarians, over many years, have campaigned on this issue with him.

As I have said, there is more action that our Government need to take, including banning British firms from supplying aviation fuel to Burma, sanctioning the Russian, Chinese, Pakistani and Indian companies supplying Burma with arms, and encouraging other countries to uphold the ban on supplying arms. I want to point out that there are three particular UK companies that have insured vessels delivering aviation fuel: NorthStandard, formerly known as North P&I; UK P&I Club; and Britannia P&I. I hope the Minister will look at how the insurance regulators and others in our country can take steps to ensure that our insurance system is not inadvertently, or even consciously, providing fuel for air strikes and supporting a genocidal dictatorship. Can the Minister outline what conversations he has had with his counterparts in other Governments to encourage a ban on arms sales?

The sanctions must hit the supply of aviation fuel to the military. To save lives, we need to ground the jets and helicopters by cutting their fuel lines. British companies supplying fuel, or providing insurance or other logistics, must be dissuaded by the threat of sanctions. The diplomatic pressure must be stepped up, as well as the economic pressure. Why is the Burmese military attaché still free to wander the streets of Wimbledon and live in a mansion? It is an absolute disgrace, and I know the Minister will agree that it needs to stop. The military attaché should be expelled immediately. Can the Minister tell us why that has not happened?

In conclusion, what we have seen is years of persecution. What we have seen is one of the most ruthless military dictatorships in the world, which has jailed the former democratically elected leader. What we have seen is a military who have committed genocide and continue to act with impunity, and what we have seen is a lack of co-ordinated action and limited leadership by our Government. Given the relatively new Minister’s track record, I very much hope that he will do what is needed to hold the Burmese military to account for the atrocities that they have committed in the past and continue to commit today.

Thank you, Sir Edward, for giving me the chance to make a contribution. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for leading the debate and all hon. Members for their passionate, detailed and significant speeches. It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), who knows more than most about the subject. I thank her for sharing her knowledge with everyone in the Chamber, and those outside who are watching.

As everyone probably knows, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I will take a specific point of view that is similar to that taken by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), but I will speak generally about the issue. It is a pleasure to see the shadow Ministers in their place, and especially to see the Minister, who grasps what we are saying very well. He knows what we are after. He knows the answers that we seek, and I am hopeful that he will give us the encouragement that we need, which, more importantly, will be encouragement for the people who are suffering in Myanmar. I will illustrate that suffering, which others have illustrated exceptionally well, in my short contribution.

When I think of this subject, the thing that always comes to mind first is the astounding atrocities. Everyone has outlined them, especially the hon. Member for Bradford West. Such atrocities are taking place not only in Myanmar; we had a debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on those occurring in Nigeria. In Afghanistan, too, women and young girls are denied the basic rights that we have as a norm across the world. That was illustrated in the main news on BBC 1 this morning. Today’s debate is an opportunity to shed some more light and make people aware of such human rights abuses, and to support the hon. Member for Bradford West and others in their requests.

I always think that freedom of religious belief and human rights march together. They are not separate; they are one and the same. Religious minorities often find that human rights abuses fall significantly more upon them than upon others, because they seem to be the target. Whenever we speak out for those without freedom of religious belief we speak out for those facing human rights abuses as well. Myanmar ranks at No. 14 in the Open Doors world watch list. Although last year it ranked at No. 12, the fact that it has dropped two places does not for a second reflect an improvement in the rights of Christians in Myanmar. Regrettably, the change in Myanmar’s ranking is a result of persecution in other countries worsening at a faster rate. It is not that Myanmar is improving; others have just got worse and overtaken it.

The press regularly marks the persecution that takes place. There are so many examples across all of south-east Asia, but today’s debate is about Myanmar. Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Myanmar has worsened in the past year, having deteriorated ever since the military took control in February 2021. This is not the first debate we have had in Westminster Hall on these issues, nor is it the first debate in which everyone present has tried to highlight them. As we know, violence and fighting are increasing across Myanmar, but Christians are suffering disproportionately. Churches are targeted, converts are beaten, and community resources including such basics as clean water are all too often denied to Christians.

The hon. Member is, as ever, making a compassionate speech. He referred to churches being targeted. Does he agree that the Myanmar regime’s deliberate targeting of places of worship for attacks, burning and, in some cases, wholesale destruction should be particularly condemned, not only because international instruments such as The Hague convention call for the protection of places of worship, but critically because, so often and particularly in times of conflict, places of worship are focal points where communities gather to support one another and to seek to promote forgiveness, reconciliation and peace?

The hon. Lady is so right. For many across Myanmar and the world, churches are the focal point for the local community. That is where people gather to worship, socialise and interact with one another. Although the church is just a building, it is a focal point where people can reassure, comfort and help each other. Whether that is physically, prayerfully or emotionally, it is really important.

Of course, we are not just talking about the members of that particular faith group; we are talking about support for the wider community, which is so often offered in such cases.

The hon. Lady is right to clarify that. It is absolutely right that whenever someone is being persecuted, whenever someone is under pressure, whenever someone’s human rights are being abused, they do not have to be a Christian to go to the church. Muslims and people from other religious groups can go. It is the social interaction, the encouragement, the brotherhood and the sisterhood that brings it all together. The hon. Lady is right to clarify that.

One thing that really bothers me—I know that it bothers others as well; the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), who will speak shortly, will probably mention it too—is the terrible, criminal, wicked, vindictive abuse of women and girls. The hon. Member for Bradford West set the scene in referring to those who fled across the border, especially women and children. They have experienced some of the most terrible, mind-boggling and sickening abuse.

Others have asked the Minister this, but I am going to ask him as well. Those who have carried out abuse know that they may get away with it today. They certainly will not get away with it in the next world, because there will be a day of justice for them, but I want to see that day of justice happen a wee bit earlier for them, in this world. Will the Minister give us an indication that those who have carried out some of these despicable, awful crimes will be held accountable? There are some that are yet to be held accountable. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred to some people being able to walk the streets of London, even though their countries are guilty of some of these crimes. That must be addressed.

Furthermore, as is often the case, women from religious minorities face double persecution. Christian women are forced to adopt disguises in public and are prevented from taking the sacrament of holy communion, which is a basic part of our right to worship and to religious belief. Christians in Myanmar cannot even do that.

The impact of the fighting in Myanmar on Christian displacement is particularly worrying. According to Open Doors research, record numbers of Christians in Myanmar have become internally displaced people or refugees and are living in camps or churches without adequate food or healthcare.

Extreme Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar poses another serious threat to Myanmar’s Christian population. For example, Na Ta La schools aim to convert Christian children to Buddhism, even though their parents do not want that. Buddhist nationalists seem to be pushing that with some severity, effectively stopping Christianity spreading to the next generation. Freedom of religious belief means having the freedom to worship your God as you wish and to have the education that your parents wish. Such Buddhist nationalist tendencies are not prevented by the Government, with actors getting away with impunity. Until legal protections are extended to Christians and other minorities alike, there will always be disproportionate targeting of religious minorities and impunity for the actors.

Is the Minister able to give some encouragement that aid is being provided to the minority Christian populations in Myanmar and the surrounding countries? I underline again the need to ensure that those who carry out terrible crimes are held accountable.

The hon. Gentleman is making a particular plea to the Minister, who has vast experience of development work—indeed, we spent many recesses with others on the Umubano project, working on aid internationally. What often seems not to be recognised, although I am confident that the Minister will do so, is that the specific targeting of people because of their beliefs, and the specific targeting of women and girls, is often a driver of poverty. It is often a root cause of people living in dire need of aid and development support. That is exactly what we see in Myanmar today.

The hon. Lady clearly underlines my—and indeed her—request to the Minister to ensure that some aid and assistance can be given directly to those groups. They are under terrible pressure. This morning, we probably all had a fairly good breakfast. We were lucky. Some of the Christians in those countries today will not have breakfast, a bed to sleep on or a roof over their head. It is about how we can help those people.

Those are all issues to be concerned with to help us all in realising our goal of an environment in which we can live, preach and worship freely. We are here in this House to represent those who do not have a voice to speak with; we are often the voice for the voiceless. My constituents feel the same. The hon. Lady and I get vast amounts of correspondence on these matters—I suspect that we all do. I frequently receive correspondence from Open Doors sent directly to Westminster by my constituents. The debate gives us a chance to make requests to the Minister and his Department directly and encourage them to ensure that aid and support get to the people who need it. We are pushing at an open door, as I know he wants to respond in a positive fashion; we will get that shortly. We must look for improvements and not a deterioration in the rights of people to worship their God as they wish and not to have their human rights suppressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for securing this important debate. She has been a continuous champion for Myanmar, and I know that she is incredibly passionate and vocal about the issue.

I have listened carefully to hon. Members from across the House and would like to reiterate and stress the need for urgent action to help end the ongoing human rights abuses in Myanmar. Since the military coup in 2021, the country has descended into violence. The Government have unleashed untold abuse on their own people, committing widespread and violent human rights abuses that have resulted in unimaginable suffering and devastation. That, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, disproportionately affects women and girls.

As we debate, hundreds more civilians endure the horrors of the conflict. Just last week, an airstrike claimed the lives of more than 100 people, making it one of the deadliest incidents of the civil war, as reported by the BBC. The conflict’s impact goes beyond the immediate threat to human life: more than 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving everything behind. They now face dire circumstances, with limited access to food, water, medical assistance and other basic necessities. The devastation caused by the conflict knows no bounds.

Amnesty International has reported that deliveries from aid organisations have been blocked by the military, depriving people of life-saving aid and support, further exacerbating the already dire situation. The crisis also disproportionately affects female-headed households, who, according to the World Food Programme, are becoming more reliant on negative coping mechanisms such as borrowing food, limiting portion sizes and relying on savings to meet food needs.

The erosion of political freedom in Myanmar amid the state-sponsored conflict is deeply troubling. The military has dissolved 40 political parties this year, leaving little to no room for exercising political beliefs. This attack on democracy is a grave injustice that further exacerbates the already harrowing situation faced by civilians in Myanmar. They are at the mercy of the Tatmadaw and are facing atrocities; there is complete disregard for their basic rights and freedoms. The severity of the conflict cannot be overstated. Urgent action is needed to restore democracy and to protect the political rights of the people of Myanmar.

As we heard from the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Strangford and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), the scale of human rights abuses in Myanmar is staggering. Forces linked to the junta have carried out mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence and various other acts of abuse that amount to nothing less than crimes against humanity. Given their gravity, these abuses demand immediate attention and action to hold those responsible accountable.

The military in Myanmar has been systematic in brutally punishing its opponents and their perceived supporters, resulting in unspeakable atrocities. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, an estimated 32,000 political violence-related deaths have occurred since the start of the coup. Mass arbitrary arrests and detentions of supporters of the anti-coup movement have been rampant. Those detained face inhumane conditions, with widespread reports of torture occurring in interrogation centres and prisons. Amnesty International reports that 356 people have died in custody due to torture this year alone.

Based on an assessment of civil rights and political liberties, the Freedom House index ranks Myanmar as one of the least free countries in the world; it scores lower than places such as Iran, Russia and the Gaza strip. As arbitrary arrests and detentions and unfair trials continue, and as the curtailment of freedom of expression, assembly and association enforced by the military persists, the people in Myanmar are experiencing some of the poorest human rights conditions.

A central theme of the conflict has been tensions between ethnic communities. The north-west of Myanmar, which is home to many ethnic minority populations, has accounted for 60% of recorded post-coup deaths. That is compounded by the decades of military operations and aggression by the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s border states, where the majority of minority ethnic populations reside. The situation is dire, with minority communities disproportionately affected by the ongoing conflict.

Among the minority groups facing persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims have been labelled by the UN Human Rights Council as the most persecuted minority in the world. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) said, the Rohingya Muslims have borne the brunt of the military’s inhumane operations, and nearly 900,000 have fled to Bangladesh in search of safety. They have faced horrific atrocities, including extrajudicial execution, arson and sexual assault.

We must acknowledge that ethnic conflict in Myanmar may have been influenced by the legacy of British colonialism and the arbitrary creation of ethnic groups. The construction of umbrella groupings along ethnic lines during the colonial era may have contributed to the current atmosphere of ethnic violence in Myanmar. Alongside condemning the Tatmadaw’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, I call on the Minister to retrospectively acknowledge the historic responsibility of British colonialism in the creation of arbitrary ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The SNP is of the firm belief that for the UK Government’s strategy of tilting to the Indo-Pacific region to be successful, it must not prioritise trade and defence policy at the expense of safeguarding and promoting human rights in the region. We call on the UK Government to increase pressure on the regime. First, using its position as a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the UK must encourage neighbouring states to increase pressure on Myanmar. Although ASEAN has taken steps to promote negotiations and de-escalate the situation, those steps have ultimately failed.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, the UK Government must match the sanctions implemented by Canada on the sale of aviation fuel and military equipment. While I welcome the recent moves by the UK Government to implement such sanctions, there must be a co-ordinated effort, like in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Thirdly, the UK Government must conduct high-level diplomatic discussions with the Bangladeshi Government to reverse their decision to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state. There is little doubt that any Rohingya returning would face the same genocidal persecution that they escaped. In order to support Bangladesh, the FCDO should release additional official development assistance funding to improve conditions in refugee camps and look to create a stand-alone visa scheme for Rohingya to settle in the UK.

Lastly, the UK Government must reverse their cuts to conflict prevention funding. Aid to Myanmar to support refugees has been cut by 46%, causing innocent civilians to suffer. Now that the FCDO has merged the conflict, stability and security fund into the new UK integrated security fund, we must receive detail on how much money is earmarked for conflict prevention and accountability projects.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, to hear so many excellent speeches from across the House and so much consensus on the dreadful situation in Myanmar, and to debate what the UK can do to highlight and combat the terrible injustices and violence there. The last few years have seen no end of horrific human rights abuses in many parts of the globe, from Putin’s brutal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine to the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Thus, Myanmar has somewhat faded from the headlines since the height of the Rohingya crisis of 2015, but the brutal oppression and systemic human rights abuses continue apace.

The Government should be acting with much greater energy on this crisis in Asia. As the Government move toward the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership in the region, so must they act in keeping with the values of the British people. It is best practice in trade negotiations to include an element of dialogue on human rights. My first question to the Minister is: what dialogue on human rights has there been from the Department for International Trade as it has gone about inserting the UK into the Pacific region?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) said, in the last two weeks we have seen even more airstrikes against civilians. The military junta is currently cracking down on an uprising where civilians are protesting against the Tatmadaw seizure of power two years ago and the ongoing loss of freedoms and violent repression. In her opening statement, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) commented that since the coup against the Government two years ago, the level of human rights abuses and human suffering is staggering.

We heard from the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), who has been a steady champion for the Rohingya people. They are already an expelled minority, based in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. My hon. Friend has stood up year after year in the House of Commons to speak on behalf of that particularly marginalised ethnic group. She has visited Cox’s Bazar, where up to a million refugees live in poverty, creating another generation of marginalised young refugees.

I speak for the whole House when I put on record our thanks to my hon. Friend for championing this issue. She has challenged the Minister today on being more proactive on the International Criminal Court case to bring the Tatmadaw to book. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s defence of that action and what diplomatic efforts are ongoing in international fora to see justice served. What assessment has the Minister made, in his relatively short period in post, of the 82% cut to development aid for the Rohingya who languish in refugee camps, despite the excellent work done by other Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, in highlighting their plight?

Returning to the desperate situation in Myanmar itself, Burma Campaign UK, which has a strong track record in advocating for the people of Myanmar, has chronicled a deeply concerning level of chaos and destruction. The people of Myanmar have had their democratic dream snatched away. More than 2 million people have fled their homes, with the vast majority of them being internally displaced within Burma. More than 21,000 people have been arrested, with around 17,000 of them still in detention. Thousands of civilians and members of resistance forces have been killed. Here in the House of Commons, I have heard through the all-party parliamentary human rights group about doctors who have performed surgery in trenches in parts of Myanmar. That is how desperate the situation is for civilians in the region.

Forty political parties have effectively been banned by deregistering them, including the National League for Democracy, which won the last election, and significant ethnic political parties have also been discriminated against and experienced violence and repression. We have seen the destruction of 60,000 civilian homes and properties, and the ongoing use of airstrikes to target medical centres, schools, religious buildings and camps for internally displaced people.

As the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have mentioned in today’s debate, freedom of religion or belief is severely curtailed in Myanmar. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned the important work of Ben Rogers and his book, which was very important for MPs in the 2015 Parliament; it was called “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”.

I am so pleased that the hon. Lady has mentioned Ben Rogers, because when I spoke about him earlier I did not know that he was here in the Chamber today. I would like to express my appreciation to him for that, and for his continued support of those who express such deep concerns about the people of Myanmar and their situation.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and it is wonderful to have allies and champions. In the end, it is the voices of Burmese people that Ben Rogers echoes in his work, and it is very important that we put on the record the work that Burmese people are doing, day in and day out, in order to survive.

Underpinning all aspects of how the UK should approach this brutal regime is the need to tackle its use of violence, and particularly to use all tools available to stop the arming of the Tatmadaw. Without the ability to bomb the civilian population into submission, the military will be severely weakened, and the chances for dialogue and a return to inclusive civilian-led rule will improve. The single best way in which the international community can bring that about is by a ban on the export of aviation fuel to the authorities in Myanmar, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. Could the Minister provide an update today on the progress the UK Government are making on this important ban? I welcomed the Government’s previously announced sanctions in this area back in January and February, and I fully accept that he appreciates and understands the seriousness of this issue, but there is significant ground still to cover.

The Minister will know that I have repeatedly raised the issue of British insurance companies and shipping companies who may be either directly or indirectly supporting the export of aviation fuel to Myanmar, and I am afraid that the FCDO responses to my repeated questioning on this issue have been very poor. London is at the centre of the global insurance and shipping industry, and we should use its unique position to show leadership on this and make it clear that continued trade in fuel with the regime is not acceptable. I therefore urge the Minister to clarify what discussions, if any, have been had with the industry in London on this specific issue.

I also want to press the Minister on the status of the defence attaché at the Myanmar embassy here in London. I refer the House to the written question that I tabled on this very topic just before the Easter recess, to which I received a response this week. I am afraid that, once again, the question has been ducked. Can the Minister be clear today? Have there been any discussions about the expulsion of the defence attaché from the embassy, to remove any sign of support for or acceptance of the legitimacy of this vile regime?

Finally, we all know that both regional and international action will be critical to success in holding the regime to account. I once again urge the Minister to outline what specific discussions are being had with partners in the region to cut off the supply of weapons to the regime, boost the effectiveness of arms embargoes, and condemn the suppliers in Moscow and Beijing who are playing a key role in legitimising the regime and facilitating the ongoing chaos.

I conclude with these four questions to make it easier for the Minister, because I have asked rather a lot. The UK is the penholder for Burma/Myanmar in the United Nations, with particular reference to the welfare of children. First, what progress has been made on banning aviation fuel, which a number of hon. Members mentioned? Secondly, what progress has been made on banning insurance companies and other financial industries? The City of London has a particular role to play there. Thirdly, will the Minister undertake to raise with the Foreign Secretary the concern that a representative of the Myanmar Government, whose actions have been described, is enjoying a diplomatic lifestyle, which is completely inappropriate given what is going on in that country? Finally, will the Minister review the 82% cut to aid to the Rohingya and work with Bangladesh to provide safe conditions in the immediate short term for the refugees? Will he work with other countries in the region for a decent future for the next generation?

The crisis in Myanmar may not be in the headlines as much as it ought to be, but the suffering of the people there remains in our hearts. The onus is on us to match our actions to our feelings and show the global leadership that the British people want us to display.

It is a rare but enormous pleasure to appear before you in this debate, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing this excellent debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made extremely important, helpful, interesting and well-informed contributions, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to respond. It is a great pleasure to hear from everyone who has spoken—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who makes such good contributions on these important matters. I will directly address several of the points she raised.

It is also a pleasure to debate this issue with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). As she pointed out, when I was on the Back Benches, she and I worked together constructively and with great enthusiasm. Indeed, we did so when she shadowed me as Secretary of State for International Development.

The contributions of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) always enliven our debates and ensure we focus on the critical issue of religious freedom. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) spoke with authority and conviction about the appalling treatment of the Rohingya community. I will address that point directly. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) spoke eloquently about these issues. I will address the shadow Minister’s points towards the end of my remarks.

I thank all Members for their efforts to maintain a spotlight on the appalling human rights situation in Myanmar. I have been there on several occasions, in opposition and in government. I spent a day campaigning with Aung San Suu Kyi in her constituency, and I had the great honour of introducing her to the largest crowd I have ever addressed in my political career.

More than two years since the coup, when the armed forces seized power, the people of Myanmar continue to suffer terribly at their hands. The regime’s atrocities are increasingly brutal. Indiscriminate airstrikes are more frequent, as are reports of mass burnings of homes and villages. Conflict-related deaths in Myanmar last year were second only to Ukraine, and gender and sexual-based violence is rife.

Only last week, the military carried out the deadliest airstrike against civilians since the coup, killing more than 160 people in Sagaing. That followed a devastating airstrike on 10 April in Chin state, which killed at least 11 citizens. The targeting of civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and places of worship, is absolutely grotesque and appalling, and must cease immediately. Civilians must be protected, and human rights must be respected.

Basic human rights have come under attack in many ways across Myanmar. More than 17,000 people are detained arbitrarily, including politicians such as Aung San Suu Kyi, journalists, students, lawyers, medics and protesters. Last July, death sentences were carried out for the first time in 30 years. Civic space is all but closed and further threatened by a new, highly restrictive organisation registration law. Only recently, the military regime dissolved 40 political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. That further underscores the regime’s assault on the rights of the people of Myanmar.

This brutal campaign of atrocities is plunging the country ever deeper into political, economic and humanitarian crises. More than 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 1.8 million have had to flee their homes. The consequences for regional stability and security are clear. The countries around Myanmar house a third of the world’s population. Through our partners, we are assisting those in need on the borders with Bangladesh, Thailand, China and India. The Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are some of the most vulnerable, and their plight was eloquently described by the hon. Member for Bradford East.

We are nearly six years on from the horrific violence that the Rohingya communities suffered in 2017, and more than 10 years on from the violence of 2012. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is the Minister of State with responsibility for the Indo-Pacific region, visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and witnessed the difficult living conditions at first hand. Her observations and learning from the visit inform the policy of the Foreign Office.

Rohingya communities continue to face systemic discrimination. Access to services is often blocked by the military regime. Rohingya are denied citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to education and healthcare, which leaves them vulnerable to human trafficking. We have seen a tragic increase in Rohingya people attempting risky journeys to third countries, with too many lives lost at sea. More than 3,500 desperate Rohingya attempted deadly sea crossings in the Andaman sea in the Bay of Bengal last year—a 360% increase on the year before.

Sadly, there is no sign of a solution. The worsening situation in Myanmar means that conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of the Rohingya are not in place.

Let me turn directly to the UK’s action, and indeed the international response. The UK is committed to ending the human rights crisis in Myanmar. Since the coup, we have been at the forefront of a strong, co-ordinated international response to the military regime’s brutal oppression of its own people. In December, we led efforts to secure and pass the first UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Myanmar. It urges all parties to respect human rights, demands an end to violence, and urges the military regime to release all those arbitrarily detained.

Our targeted sanctions restrict the regime in accessing the money, arms and equipment it needs to carry out those atrocities, and we have already sanctioned 20 individuals and 29 entities, most recently including companies and individuals supplying fuel to the Myanmar air force and thus enabling its barbaric air campaign. We are also targeting the military junta, including the Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs, through those sanctions.

Since the coup, we have provided more than £100 million in humanitarian assistance. That includes ensuring that the most vulnerable still have access to health and education, and supporting human rights defenders. I will say more about the funding in a moment. Delivering through local organisations, we are able directly to reach communities that are often hard to reach, and we remain committed to supporting the Rohingya. Since 2017, the UK has provided more than £25 million for the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine state, and we thank the Government of Bangladesh for their continued effort to support the Rohingya community.

Humanitarian assistance alone cannot solve the crisis. We continue to engage with partners to encourage dialogue, find a peaceful resolution and support a return to democracy. We will use all available opportunities, including the G7 and our ASEAN partners, to push for that. We will also use our role as penholder at the UN Security Council to keep the situation in Myanmar high on the agenda. Through accountability, we have the possibility of ending the military’s culture of impunity and preventing future atrocities. Justice must be delivered for victims.

Last year, the UK Government announced our intention to intervene in the International Court of Justice case brought by The Gambia regarding Myanmar’s obligations under the genocide convention. We have also established the Myanmar witness programme, which reports on some of the most egregious human rights violations. We have provided £500,000 to the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar to preserve evidence of atrocities for future prosecution.

I want to say a word or two specifically on spending. Although we are enormously constrained, particularly during this financial year, I am pleased to be able to reassure hon. Members that the position is not as bad as suggested. We have increased spending since the coup and spent £100 million. That was £45.8 million inside Myanmar in 2021-22, and £57.3 million last year. As I explained, since 2017 we are spending more than £25 million in Rakhine state in Myanmar. We are the second largest funder since 2017, and have spent £350 million bilaterally supporting the Rohingya in Bangladesh. That is more than a third of a billion pounds in Bangladesh, and takes no account of the multilateral funding we provide through the World Food Programme, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I hope hon. Members across the House will accept that the position is immensely constrained, but that we are spending an enormous amount of British taxpayers’ money on this very important and needy issue.

The Minister has not really answered the question. When will he be able to restore funding to its former level? There is a real-terms cut. I recognise the aggregate he mentioned, which is very much appreciated, but he needs to do more to restore the funds. This is a major humanitarian crisis, and Bangladesh, INGOs and international agencies should not be left to their own devices to deal with these cuts.

I very much appreciate what the hon. Lady said. When we come to make decisions on funding, we do not look at the issue of restoring the money, we look at the issue of need. I can tell her that we will always take account of the need. That is why we have spent more than £350 million—a third of a billion pounds—inside Bangladesh, supporting the Rohingya, precisely for the reasons she eloquently put to us. I would also say that, although this year’s budget is very stretched, we will try, and expect to be able, to maintain the same coverage in the water, sanitation and hygiene programme for the Rohingya in the camps that we have done in the past. I am sure she will welcome that.

I turn to what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said. I pay tribute to her as the PM’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief. She occupies the office next to mine in King Charles Street, and so is sure to keep Foreign Office Ministers up to the mark. What she said about the treatment of Reverend Samson is absolutely right; it is disgraceful. His Majesty’s Government call for the release of Reverend Samson, and all those who are arbitrarily detained. She also spoke about our friend Ben Rogers, with whom I visited Myanmar when we were in opposition. I pay tribute to Ben Rogers’s wise and expert testimony and the extraordinary way in which he has dedicated so much of his life to helping those who live in an environment without religious freedom, and where so many are arbitrarily detained.

Finally, I return to the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who raised a number of matters. There is no support from the embassy in Yangon for this illegal and pariah regime—let us be in doubt about that. In respect of the individual in the United Kingdom to whom she and others referred, their rights are obviously governed by the conventions that apply, particularly the diplomatic conventions. As she would expect, we abide by those rules. In view of the concern that she and others expressed on the subject of aviation fuel and insurance, I will have a look again to check that we are doing everything we are able to on those matters, and I will write to her if I have anything to add to what I have said in the debate.

I thank the Minister for his excellent response to all the matters raised, particularly freedom of religion or belief and the million people in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) will raise with him later. May I press him on the important symbolism of stripping away the diplomatic role of the military attaché based in Wimbledon? He enjoys freedoms that so many people in Myanmar do not because of his Government. Will the Minister review what more can be done to strip away the legitimacy we are affording that individual?

I will indeed, Sir Edward, and I will bring my remarks to a close.

On the hon. Lady’s latter point, we will have a careful look to see if anything further can be done. I will write to her anyway on the answer to that question.

The people of Myanmar have shown great determination and resilience in the face of unspeakable atrocities. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we continue to stand with them. We will do all we can to ensure that in the future they can live safely and in peace—something that is comprehensively denied to them today.

I thank all Members for their contributions, and I welcome the Minister’s response. One thing I would mention is that he appeared to use only humanitarian figures and not the figures for overall aid to Burma. Before the coup, aid to Burma was roughly around £100 million a year.

I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the continued passion with which she speaks up for freedom of religion. I also thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who has the largest Rohingya community in the UK, and who passionately advocates for them and for our city of Bradford as a city of sanctuary.

The continued efforts of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to highlight this issue are noted and very welcome. I also admire the passion with which my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), who chairs the APPG on democracy in Burma, continues to advocate for the Rohingya people and others in Myanmar who are fleeing persecution.

I thank everyone. We are unanimous across the House in this debate, and it is not often that that happens in this place. It heartens me that the Minister will maintain the funding for sanitation and water in Burma, but there is more work to be done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) said, we have not done enough. I urge the Minister to relook at some of the figures for aid that is going to the Rohingya people.

Many of my constituents come to me on the issue of the Rohingya, and I also have members of the Rohingya community in my constituency. I hope that today’s debate and the unanimous feeling in this Chamber will give them some reassurance that the world has not forgotten and that we will continue to advocate their plight.

I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate. Many years ago, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on the plight of the Karen people. I think that we have had a very good debate. These debates do make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered human rights in Myanmar.