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Volume 773: debated on Monday 6 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the current situation in Burma, in particular with regard to the reported continuing military offensives and violations of human rights of the Shan, Kachin and Rohingya people by the Burmese army.

My Lords, we are concerned about the Tatmadaw’s recent use of force in Kachin and Shan, which has displaced hundreds of civilians. We continue to provide support to the peace process, contributing £6.7 million in 2016-17. Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that she will hold a peace conference, which we support. We call on the Tatmadaw to work constructively with the civilian Government to achieve peace and address the desperate situation of the Rohingya people.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her sympathetic reply. I have recently returned from visiting partners in and from the Shan and Kachin states, where despite the existing ceasefire agreement the Burmese army continues to attack civilians with ground offensives and helicopter gunships, and to perpetrate extrajudicial killings, the torture of civilians, the use of civilians as human shields and forced porters, and the destruction of homes and food stores, making a mockery of the peace process. What pressures are Her Majesty’s Government applying to bring an end to the impunity which the Burmese army is being allowed by the Burmese Government to continue these atrocities against the Shan and Kachin people, as well as the well-documented persecution of the Rohingya people?

My Lords, I pay tribute again to the courage of the noble Baroness for working in such difficult areas over the decades. I agree with her that these recent offensives are inconsistent with the spirit of last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement and that they risk undermining the national conciliation process that the new Government want to take forward. Aung San Suu Kyi has announced a Panglong 2 conference to reinvigorate the process and we have made it clear to the Burmese military that it should participate constructively in this initiative by the civilian Government. We have done that by making representations to the Tatmadaw at a senior level last week, and I welcome government efforts in the past week to reach out to those ethnic groups that have not yet signed up to the peace process.

My Lords, I understand that recent changes have enabled people to apply in-country for visas to come to the United Kingdom. One of the problems for certain ethnic groups in Myanmar, particularly Rohingya Muslims, is their lack of identity documentation, which could inhibit their applying for such visas. Can my noble friend the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that whether someone is Buddhist, Muslim or Christian in Myanmar, they can apply for a UK visa on objective criteria?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the UK Government apply objective criteria that do not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their religion or of no belief. My noble friend has put her finger right on the problem, which is that, as we have discussed previously in this House, the Rohingya people do not have valid travel documents. To apply for a visa, a valid travel document must be presented. I have already referred to the fact that the Government are reaching out to areas where there are difficulties. They have been in power only since April, but in the past week the new NLD-led Government have announced that they will start a fresh citizenship verification process in Rakhine state. However, I appreciate that the details of the process are not yet clear.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the recent evidence showing that the Burmese army, which has been given free training by the United Kingdom, continues to violate international law? Ethnic women have been raped, civilians shot and villages bombed. How much more suffering must be endured in Burma before the United Kingdom refuses to train an army that commits such atrocities?

My Lords, we are training the army so that its members know that they should not carry out atrocities. I feel as strongly as the noble Baroness that when members of armed forces carry out atrocities against civilians, not only are they in breach of humanitarian and international law, they are acting in an inhumane way. We are training the Tatmadaw to adhere to human rights norms. I appreciate that in certain circumstances those norms are breached, but its members are taking part and they are listening. We have the patience to carry on with that process.

My Lords, can the Government tell us how much co-operation we are getting from Myanmar’s neighbours in our efforts to encourage this rather weak new Government, faced with a surge of right-wing Buddhist nationalism against them within Myanmar, to provide negotiations on these long-standing problems? I refer to Malaysia, for example, and China is a major actor. How far are they willing to co-operate with us on this?

My Lords, clearly it is important that there are discussions across the region, not only on this but on other aspects of confidence-building and stability-building across the area. Those discussions are going ahead. The ones of which I am aware take place in both the United Nations and the Human Rights Council. I hope they are always considered valuable, even if we do not get quick or easy results.

My Lords, what assessment has the Minister been able to make of the remarks of the young Kachin girl who spoke here just two weeks ago? She described systematic ethnic cleansing, the expropriation of land, particularly for mining purposes, and the massive opium trade being carried out in Kachin state, which has implications for western countries such as our own.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point to there being those in Burma for whom continuing the conflict is of personal financial interest. Some of those, it is alleged, are within the military and have allegedly been part of government in the past. It is clear that the new civilian-led Government are doing what they can to address those problems. In Burma, as in other countries in the region, it seems that there are those for whom the profits from trading in other people’s misery are too great for them to do what is right.

My Lords, is it true that DfID has decided prematurely to end funding for civil rights groups and civil society organisations that are working cross-border? Given the delicacy of the situation and the efforts to turn it around that have been referred to, should that decision, if it has been made, be reviewed so that we can play our part in helping those civil society organisations to make a full contribution?

My Lords, DfID has given £106 million towards aid generally in Burma this last year. Announcements for the forthcoming year have not yet been made but when they are, I will look into that matter.