Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the current treatment of the Rohingya in Burma.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a board member of the Burma Campaign UK and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Burma.
In November 2015, Burma had its first free and fair elections, after over two decades of remorselessly oppressive military rule. Supporters of liberty across the world, including many in this House, rejoiced. It seemed that the resilient bravery of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy had triumphed and another cruel dictatorship had been ended.
Thirteen months after that election result, the reality in Burma is, I am afraid, tragically different—so different that two weeks ago 14 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates and nine other distinguished internationalists issued an open letter to the UN Security Council, saying that,
“a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing … is unfolding in Myanmar”.
They went on to detail the well-documented reality, supported by satellite images, of multiple killings, huge mass displacements of people, destruction of villages, torture, arbitrary arrests and murder of children in the Rohingya communities of Rakhine state.
These atrocities were ostensibly an armed response to the killing of nine Burmese policemen in October. As the laureates have clearly said:
“The truth about who carried out the attack … is yet to be established, but the Myanmar military accuse”,
Rohingya groups. They continue:
“Even if that is true, the … response has been grossly disproportionate”.
The laureates say that it is,
“one thing to round up suspects, interrogate them and put them on trial. It is quite another to unleash helicopter gunships on thousands of ordinary civilians and to rape women and throw babies into a fire”.
Together with denial of access of humanitarian aid to areas that have been devastatingly poor for many years, these atrocities have created an appalling humanitarian tragedy. UNHCR estimates that more than 43,000 have fled to Bangladesh, only to be sent back. Some international experts are warning that there is a real potential for genocide. The Bangladesh head of UNHCR has accused Myanmar’s Government of ethnic cleansing, saying:
“It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies - Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo”.
In an unprecedented passage that conveyed their deep concern and sense of urgency, the laureates said:
“Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas”.
Daw Suu Kyi, they say, is surely the leader who has the,
“primary responsibility to lead … with courage, humanity and compassion”.
Instead of such leadership, the Myanmar Government’s response to the outrages taking place in Rakhine has been to establish a manifestly sham presidential commission of inquiry. It simply sustained the deceitful propaganda of “no human rights violations”, “no malnutrition” and “free access” for the media. All of it is, so far as we know, endorsed by Aung San Suu Kyi. Last week, Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK called the commission’s report a “farce” and said that,
“it is time for the UK to support the establishment of a genuinely independent UN Commission of Inquiry to look into the totality of the situation in Rakhine State”.
It is also essential that the UN Secretary-General leads in negotiating access for humanitarian aid.
Those demands echo the concluding paragraphs of the powerful letter of the Nobel laureates, who want the UN Secretary-General to visit Myanmar within weeks:
“It is time for the international community as a whole to speak out … more strongly. After Rwanda, world leaders said ‘never again’. If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets, and we may end up being the passive observers of crimes against humanity”,
wringing our hands “belatedly”,
“and say ‘never again’ all over again”.
In November, in an Answer following evidence of malnutrition among Rohingya children and reports that the Burmese forces were restricting humanitarian aid to Rakhine state, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, listed the detail of UK assistance to Burma and Rakhine and said:
“We will continue to monitor and support the delivery”,
of the Burmese Government’s commitment “to restoring humanitarian access”. I ask the Minister first for the results of the monitoring and any action taken, especially when the presidential commission makes the derisory claim that access to Rakhine for media has been unimpeded. Secondly, will the Government give urgent and insistent support to the calls for strong action by the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General made by the Nobel laureates?
When the UNHCR speaks of “ethnic cleansing”, and Prime Minister Razak of Malaysia, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dr Azeem Ibrahim of the US Center for Global Policy all speak in measured, well-informed terms of impending genocide of the Rohingya people, there is surely a grave reason for sounding the alarm. We act now to safeguard those whose ethnicity makes them victims of this most terrible persecution.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for securing this debate, which, due to the events she outlined from late last year in Rakhine state, is very timely. No one underestimates the progress that has been made in Myanmar and the challenges that lie ahead, especially as the military finds its proper constitutional place. Change will not come overnight for Myanmar, but there should be red lines for Her Majesty’s Government and the international community. Transition will not always suffice as a reason for Myanmar’s problems.
The UK taxpayer is funding development and democracy-building work. DfID’s budget is nearly £100 million this year alone. Will Her Majesty’s Government provide details on how much of the £19.2 million allocated for humanitarian assistance to Rakhine has been delivered? Relief NGOs have to deliver aid regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religion and so do Her Majesty’s Government, so I look forward to the update on whether the aid blockade has been lifted so we can comply with these international standards.
Also, will my noble friend the Minister say why Her Majesty’s Government were not alongside 14 countries, including Canada, the USA and Turkey, that released a joint statement on 9 December demanding humanitarian access to north Rakhine state? I have raised before in the House the need to ensure that UK visas to Myanmar citizens should also be issued on a non-discriminatory basis, so will she please contact the Home Office to investigate the numbers and types of visas issued and whether any have been issued to the Rohingya Muslim community?
DfID’s programme for democratic change in Myanmar has a fund of £25 million, so I wonder how we can evaluate this project when the Rohingya are disenfranchised and the situation has gone backwards. A Rohingya Muslim, Shwe Maung, was elected as an MP in 2010, but then the Government removed temporary identification cards so the community—his voters—were disfranchised. He is seeking asylum in the United States. In addition to DfID, there is FCO funding for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s work. In fact, Parliament’s Library and research facility services are being offered to support the new parliament. Will my noble friend outline how, without an independent inquiry into the allegations of potential crimes against humanity being conducted, we can possibly assess the situation, which should help us inquire as to whether we should give the further support to Myanmar that I have outlined?
The UK has a role in many multilateral institutions. On 29 December the Nobel laureates that the noble Baroness mentioned, including Malala, asked the UN to put the issue on the Security Council agenda. Have Her Majesty’s Government put this on the agenda, and is it on the agenda for the Human Rights Council meeting next month at the UN? A week today, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, under the auspices of the OIC, will hold a meeting relating to the situation of the Rohingya Muslims. Will Her Majesty’s Government send a representative to observe that meeting in the light of the forthcoming Human Rights Council meeting? The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by the Kofi Annan Foundation, will report in the second half of this year. Will my noble friend please extend an invitation to him to come to the United Kingdom Parliament so we can ask questions of him once the report is published?
Finally, as our noble friend Lady Anelay is Minister for the Commonwealth, and as Bangladesh as well as Malaysia is being significantly affected by the displacement of the Rohingya Muslim community in the region, will she speak to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth? Perhaps her engagement might assist. Should DfID money for Rohingya, rather than being given for humanitarian assistance in Rakhine state, be redirected to Bangladesh, so that it might be able to accommodate some of the 43,000 people who have fled over the border?
In four minutes it is not possible to ask all the questions that, in light of recent developments, noble Lords need to ask, so will my noble friend Lady Goldie arrange a meeting with our noble friends Lady Anelay and Lord Bates so that interested Peers can get a full briefing on all aspects of this issue and where and when red lines will be drawn? A democracy that is religiously, ethnically and racially discriminatory will at some point become something that the UK taxpayer can no longer support.
My Lords, I, too, commend the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, on securing this important debate. I first visited Myanmar nearly 30 years ago, in 1988, shortly after the putsch that brought the military to power. At the time I was a correspondent for BBC World Service, which to this day has a reach in Burma unequalled by any in the contemporary world. In the past few years there have been many changes in the country, especially after the 2015 elections, the first democratic elections in decades, which brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power as Prime Minister. There is a freedom of the press now which would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
In September 2015 I chaired a conference for Chatham House in Rangoon, the first held by any international think tank there. But substantial and wide ranging though the reform programme has been, there is still much to be done, nowhere more so than in the treatment of minorities, especially the Rohingya. Historically, minorities have always found difficulties in south-east Asia, as states too often have been defined by majority faiths, whether Buddhist, Islamic or Christian. An exception in that regard is Indonesia, whose 1945 constitution guarantees all faiths. It is fair to say that none of these minorities in recent years have faced problems as great as the Rohingya of Rakhine state have faced.
The present Government have taken some steps, notably the commission headed by my former boss, Kofi Annan. The suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, of inviting Mr Annan here when his report is concluded is helpful. The establishment of that commission was a step forward, but I remind the House that it is an advisory commission and is not scheduled to report for six months. I am not sure we have that much time and the danger of a new exodus of boat people from Rakhine state is all too real.
With the appointment of António Guterres as UN Secretary-General on 1 January I believe we have a new opportunity. No one has come to the post of Secretary-General of the UN as well qualified as he, not least because he is a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He has visited Burma/Myanmar several times. In his address to the Security Council on 10 January he asked the Council to make greater use of chapter 6 of the charter, which allows the body to investigate and recommend procedures to resolve disputes that could endanger international peace and security. I urge the Minister to look at those possibilities. As a permanent member of the Security Council and as the former colonial Government in Burma, we have a particular duty and responsibility on our shoulders. Rakhine state is an issue that threatens not only regional peace but potentially international peace. It is a threat to peace that could all too easily feed into the mythology and ideology of global jihad. That is the last thing we need to see.
Finally, we are a substantial aid donor to Burma. Can the Minister clarify how much aid is actually going to Rakhine state—if she cannot say now, perhaps she will write to me—and whether some of our aid is specifically earmarked to bolster the fragile peace process there? An escalation of present tensions, which is all too possible, could pose very substantial dangers to the wider achievements that have taken place in Burma in recent years.
My Lords, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims is indeed desperate and the emergence in 2016 of an organised militant insurgency has only deepened the severity of that crisis. But such an escalation is hardly surprising. As the excellent report into the situation in Rakhine state by Crisis Group puts it:
“People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive”.
The systematic persecution of the Rohingya people by the Burmese Government, most obviously manifested in the denial of citizenship to Rohingya Muslims, has created a fertile recruiting ground for militants. It is a simple human truth that people who have no say in their future and no means to participate in the democratic life of their country are liable to resort to extremism in order to achieve those means. The violence of the recent Government crackdown, with reports of mass killings, rape and the destruction of villages by the Burmese military, will only further stoke anger in the Muslim community at both a domestic and an international level and increase the threat of a spiralling cycle of radicalisation.
Yet the Rohingya community is not, for the most part, a radicalised community. According to Crisis Group, community elders and religious leaders have repeatedly eschewed violence as harmful to their ultimate goal of democratic participation in the life of their country. While that remains the case, there is still hope that progress can be made towards reconciliation, but the longer progress remains stalled, the greater the danger that Rakhine will plunge into ethnic cleansing and civil war. The situation is delicate. The fledgling civilian government of Burma still sits in a perilous position. The path to community reconciliation and full citizenship for the Rohingya people will inevitably be tempered by the very real threat that Burma could slide back into military rule.
However, progress towards those goals remains a real possibility. There are parliamentarians in Burma who are committed to defending religious freedom, and every effort should be made to equip and support them. The Rakhine commission, set up in August at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi and chaired by Kofi Annan, is also a positive development and it is vital that the international community support its work. Of course, little can be achieved if the violence in Rakhine escalates further. If reconciliation is to remain a real possibility, the military must cease its heavy-handed response to recent violence. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government are making that message clear to the Burmese authorities.
It would be helpful to know what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to push for independent monitors to be granted access to northern Rakhine and what can be done to encourage the Burmese Government to move towards full citizenship and rights for the Rohingya community in the medium term. Without cause for hope that the situation can and will improve through peaceful, democratic means, more angry young people will turn to extremism and militancy and the cycle of violence will only deepen.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Kinnock for initiating this debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Burma Campaign UK. The Amnesty International report on the situation in Rakhine quotes a Rohingya farmer, whose home was burned down by the military. He said:
“There is no one in Wa Peik now. All the houses are destroyed. We are in very difficult times, no food, no clothes, we are just sleeping in the fields ... we are at breaking point”.
The Rohingya have been described as the world’s most persecuted people. They are not welcome in Burma or in neighbouring countries. As we have heard, this most recent attack on the Rohingya started with the October killing of police officers—an act that cannot be condoned. However, the security forces have retaliated with such violence that many innocent Rohingya have suffered. According to Human Rights Watch, credible reports of killings, rapes, burning of villages and forced relocations have occurred. Humanitarian access has been denied by the Burmese Government to the thousands of Rohingya who are reliant on that aid and healthcare.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, in early December, the diplomatic missions of 14 countries—allies from Europe, Scandinavia, the US and Canada, but not the UK—joined to issue a statement as friends of Myanmar. It said that they were “concerned by delays” and urged,
“all Myanmar authorities to overcome the obstacles that have so far prevented a full resumption … tens of thousands of people who need humanitarian aid, including children with acute malnutrition, have been without it now for nearly two months”.
That has not happened.
The Foreign Office Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made a visit to Burma in November while the violence was taking place. According to the press release before her visit, she was going to discuss civil and political rights as well as the situation in Rakhine and have discussions on sexual violence. I hope the Minister today will give a report of that visit including whether the violence—including sexual violence—against the Rohingya that was taking place during that visit was raised and whether she called for humanitarian access to be reinstated. Can she also explain why the UK did not sign up to the joint statement? Surely only concerted international action and pressure has any hope of achieving a change of approach by the Burmese army.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been rightly criticised for her approach to the current crisis but we must be clear that the Burmese army is committing these human rights violations. The army still has a block on constitutional change and retains control of the key ministries that command the police and security forces. The military is operating with impunity at home while being welcomed with open arms abroad. As far as the army is concerned, it has no need to go further down the road to more democracy. That is why I think the British Government must reconsider their programme of free training of the Burmese army. The atrocities against the ethnic groups, most especially the Rohingya, that were happening before the elections are continuing even after the election of the NLD Government. We have no idea if the soldiers we have trained have gone on to commit sexual violence and human rights violations in Rakhine or elsewhere in Burma. How long are we prepared to let this situation continue? That is why the international community and the British Government’s attitude to Burma should be reappraised.
In September, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office wrote a blog celebrating success with Aung San Suu Kyi. He said:
“A big focus for us will be the UK’s ongoing commitment to supporting the peace process and promoting inter-communal harmony”.
I commend that commitment but we need to change our approach. We should provide assistance and support in the areas where progress is being made but maintain or even increase pressure in other areas mainly where the army is involved. That is why I hope the Government will support the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into the situation in Rakhine state.
I believe that we best support Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD Government by putting pressure on her to speak out over human rights violations She has the ability to mobilise international opinion which is the only hope of getting the army and the country to change. As friends of Burma, being critical may be the best way forward.
My Lords, the election of the NLD Government was an event from which the whole world took hope. The election of “the Lady”, who is a remarkable person, not least because she is probably the world’s most famous supporter of Cowdenbeath football club, was something from which the world took hope.
That hope was perhaps overestimated because she was taking over some powers in a country which is largely Buddhist. We have a perception of Buddhism as a religion which is peaceful, and for the most part it is. However, as people who work around the world in countries such as Sri Lanka will tell you, there are some quite fanatical people within the Buddhist religion. I have friends who work in an LGBT organisation in Sri Lanka, Equal Ground. They face appalling intimidation and threats of violence from Buddhists. The situation into which the NLD Government came was more complex than we recognise.
We have perhaps also underestimated the extent to which the Burmese army remains a powerful force within that country. Whichever Government had been elected democratically was always going to have to calibrate and judge which battles they would pick with the Burmese army. None of that defends what is happening in Rakhine. It is unfair that those people who have the worst public provision, the worst poverty, are not being supported by their Government.
Given that we are a former colonial power and we have connections with Burma in ways that other countries do not, are the British Government going to use their unique power and influence with the Government in Burma? For example, there is a document in our briefing pack which others may have passed by. It is a document from UKTI about the opportunities for British companies to sell health services to Burma. I agree that that is right. The health services in Burma are some of the worst in the world. The Burmese economy is growing and the NLD has come to power on a promise of developing a universal health network throughout Burma. I hope that some of the best of the NHS and the private health companies in this country would be there helping Burma to develop those health services. However, will they do so on the basis of the values to which we subscribe in our NHS: universal access to healthcare according to need and not according to ethnicity or ability to pay?
It is only by the UK as an international player with a unique relationship in Burma being able to bring influence which the NLD Government cannot that we are going to hasten the access to universal justice in Burma.
My noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie is unable to speak today because he had to get a plane. He has visited Burma on a number of occasions with the Speaker of the House of Commons. It has been clear for many years that the relationships between the rest of Burma and the Muslim community in Rakhine are not good. It is for us as outsiders to try to ensure that this situation does not escalate to the point at which the military can seize another opportunity to intervene. It is also for us to hold the NLD Government to universal standards which we believe to be necessary for them to be considered an acceptable Government.
My Lords, even as we meet today for this important debate, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, is there. When the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, comes to reply, I would be grateful for her assessment of that visit and the contribution the UK Government are able to make to it. What is her response to the well-documented reports which detail the plight of the Rohingyas and, as we have heard in the debate, point to mass rape, mass displacement and the murder of men, women and children; the burning of houses; and crucially, the denial of access to the affected areas for humanitarian aid.
In a letter to the Guardian on 28 November a number of us, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Kinnock and Lady Nye, and my noble friend Lady Cox, called for the international inquiry which has been referred to during the debate. We said:
“The international community cannot stand idly by while peaceful civilians are mown down by helicopter guns, women are raped and tens of thousands left without homes”.
When I raised these atrocities in a Parliamentary Question, the Minister referred me to the Rakhine Investigation Commission. That commission’s interim report said that there were,
“no cases of malnutrition, due to the area’s favourable fishing and farming conditions … and … no cases of religious persecution”.
That is palpably risible. Human Rights Watch has described the investigation as little more than a “Myanmar government whitewash mechanism”. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will support the calls that she has heard throughout this debate for the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry so that the truth may come out? Let us recall what the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, said to us about 23 of the world’s most prominent human rights voices, including a dozen Nobel Laureates, calling on the Security Council to end,
“ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”,
in the Rakhine state.
Just as the emergency in Rakhine requires an urgent response, so does the conflict in Kachin state and the northern Shan states. Kachin camps for initially displaced people have been bombed. On Christmas Eve, following the bombing of a church at Mongkoe, two Kachin Christians, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, simply disappeared, believed to have been abducted as a reprisal for taking journalists to see the bombed church. Have Her Majesty’s Government raised this case and taken action to secure their safe return to their families? How does the Minister respond to Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s campaign to end restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rakhine, Kachin and the northern Shan states, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, referred earlier?
Burma’s courageous cardinal, Charles Bo, whom I had the privilege of hosting in this place last year, said in his Christmas message:
“Just sixty years of history—more than 22 to wars and now three wars going on. In the last sixty years, we have buried thousands in these wars of mutual hatred, displaced millions … Wars have exported our girls to modern forms of slavery … At this very moment, thousands are refugees—they have no home”.
We all have a responsibility to ensure that Burma’s history and present are not its future, and that the hopes of a democratic, federal and peaceful Burma, in which people of all ethnicities and religions have an equal stake, are realised and not dashed. Along with others, I pay tribute to the extraordinary and phenomenal work that the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, does with the Burma campaign and with the all-party group here in the House, and thank her for giving us the opportunity to raise these important questions on the Floor of your Lordships’ House today.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Kinnock for raising this vital issue today. Since 2012, following communal violence, tens of thousands of Rohingya remain in camps. Hundreds of thousands had already left for Bangladesh, and since the October crackdown, an estimated further 43,000 have fled across the border. But even fleeing across the border is not the end of the story. Amnesty International says hundreds been detained and forcibly returned, with an uncertain fate. The UN refugee agency says Myanmar’s neighbours should keep their borders open if we are to avoid the desperate scenes we saw in 2015 of thousands dying at sea. What representations have the Government made to the Bangladeshi authorities on the status of fleeing Rohingya people?
In the historic election campaign that has already been referred to in this debate, Daw Suu Kyi said she wanted to improve relations between the two communities. But as we have also heard, the question is whether she has much leverage over the military, which still wields great power and controls the most powerful ministries. At the end of December last year, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said in Written Answer HL4205 that when she visited Burma from 9 to 12 November, she,
“urged Burmese Government Ministers to set up a full and independent investigation into all reports of human rights violations”.
As we have heard, the presidential commission, which is headed by a general and includes the head of police, has presented an interim report saying that there have been no human rights abuses. Does the Minister believe that the commission’s membership meets the criteria set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay? What is the Government’s response to the interim report published on 4 January?
As we have heard, separately, Kofi Annan is heading another advisory commission, looking into the general situation in Rakhine state, after being asked to in August by Daw Suu Kyi. A problem with Kofi Annan’s commission is that its mandate focuses on broader development issues and building the relationships between the two communities. That is an important job, but it is not investigating the human rights violations which we have heard so much evidence about. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, indicated in the same Written Answer:
“Any judgment on whether crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have been committed is a matter for competent national or international courts”.
That is of course the case, as we have heard in other debates. Nobody challenges that, but the key concern that we have heard from Members of this House is to ensure that evidence is gathered and that any investigation is independent and effective.
I conclude by asking the noble Baroness whether she will respond to the call from my noble friend and other noble Lords and at least acknowledge that it is now time for the UN to step in.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, for initiating this timely debate. As the debate has indicated beyond doubt, we are very fortunate to have in the House a wealth of expertise on Burma, and I am indebted to colleagues for their valuable contributions.
Indeed, there are Members of this Chamber who have done much over many years to encourage the political transition to democracy in Burma. We welcomed the election last year of a Government who are more accountable and democratic and have less military influence than has been the case in many years. However, we should be under no illusions. Members have consistently referred to the anxiety about this, and political transition in Burma still has a long way to go before it can be regarded as being completed.
Let me make it clear to Members who expressed justifiable concerns about events in Rakhine state that this Government share the deep concerns that have been articulated about the situation in that area. It is a region with a long history of intercommunal violence. Both the Rakhine and Rohingya communities have been marginalised, but the Rohingya have suffered particularly bad discrimination and periodic waves of violence. British Ministers have raised this issue many times, both in this House and in direct discussions with the Government of Burma. We fully support the Burmese/international Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which aims to provide independent advice on resolving intercommunal tensions.
I turn to the recent escalation, which has naturally featured prominently this afternoon. We condemned the attacks on police posts in October that triggered the latest wave of violence, and we also have grave concerns about the security response to them. The media blackout means that it has been hard to ascertain exactly what has been happening. Nevertheless, a substantial body of reporting from credible sources, including human rights organisations, witness testimonies and satellite images, suggests the military is carrying out serious human rights violations, including arson, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrest. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, quite rightly and very eloquently referred to these concerns.
The latest assessment from our embassy in Rangoon is that some areas outside the main area of security operations have received limited and partial humanitarian assistance, with improvements in December. Within the area of operations in Maungdaw township, some localised humanitarian access has been resumed since December, but this remains patchy and changeable, and the majority continues to be denied.
We are deeply concerned about the lack of humanitarian access to the 160,000 Rohingya who remain dependent on food aid. We are especially concerned for the 5,000 children and the pregnant women who were being treated for severe and acute malnutrition before the latest wave of violence. Organisations working on the ground estimate that more than 27,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since October. We are grateful to the Government of Bangladesh for giving them sanctuary. The UK is also the largest provider of food aid to the 34,000 Rohingya refugees already living in official camps in Bangladesh. Since 2014 we have provided nearly £8 million to address the humanitarian suffering of Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable Bangladeshi communities that host them. UK-funded humanitarian programmes have benefited 82,000 people in the south-east of Bangladesh.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of United Kingdom Government action and our particular response to Rakhine state. I reassure the noble Lord that the UK has long been one of the biggest bilateral humanitarian donors to Burma and to Rakhine state. Since 2012, we have provided over £23 million in humanitarian assistance, including food and sanitation for over 126,000 people.
Over the last three months, this Government have intensified work behind the scenes to respond to the escalating crisis. I understand and sympathise with the sentiment almost universally expressed across the Chamber about who is doing what, who is saying what and what is happening. I reassure noble Lords that the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my noble friend, Lady Anelay of St Johns, visited Burma in November and raised our concerns directly with the Minister of Defence and the military-appointed Minister of Home Affairs. She met Rohingya leaders and called explicitly on the Government of Burma to allow full and immediate humanitarian access to the affected areas in northern Rakhine. She also pressed for a thorough and independent investigation into all reports of human rights violations. I emphasise that these messages have been reiterated by our ambassador in Burma to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and five different Cabinet-level Ministers. The messages were repeated by our Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to the Burmese Minister of Commerce when he visited London in November. We also expressed our concerns in the UN Security Council. I noted the call by my noble friend Baroness Berridge for a meeting between my noble friends Baroness Anelay and Lord Bates, and her view that an invitation might be extended to Mr Kofi Annan. I am sure that these interesting suggestions will be reflected upon. I reassure noble Lords that there is already a liaison between my noble friends Baroness Anelay and Lord Bates—a “liaison” in the most respectable sense, I hasten to add.
The Government of Burma have responded by committing to resume humanitarian access and to conduct an investigation into allegations of human rights violations. Some aid has begun to return. As of 27 December, the United Nations World Food Programme reported that it was able to reach 28,000 beneficiaries in 169 villages in northern Rakhine state. However, much of the aid is still being blocked by local authorities reporting to the military, especially in the area where security operations continue.
As noble Lords have indicated, the Burmese Government have established a Rakhine Investigation Commission headed by the military-appointed Vice-President Myint Swe to investigate both the October police post attacks and the subsequent security response. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred specifically to this. However, the commission’s interim report largely denies the accusations of human rights violations. We do not find this assessment credible. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, articulated such concerns in a very cogent manner. We urge the commission, when it issues its final report at the end of January, to abide by its stated mandate to conduct an independent investigation. That is the key: it should be independent.
I will try to cover some of the issues raised by noble Lords in the course of the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, raised the role of the United Nations and to some extent I have covered what has been happening there. The new United Nations Secretary-General has been in office for only a few days, but as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, rightly pointed out, this is a person with impressive experience and he will have a definite desire to use his office to good effect. The United Nations is already actively engaged on Burma.
My noble friend Lady Berridge raised the matter of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. This is a multilateral negotiation with concerned international partners and Ministers are currently considering our position and how we should engage with that. She also brought up the issue of support to the nascent Parliament in Burma. We are proud to be supporting that Parliament in putting through the secondment of two members of staff of the House of Commons. Making this support dependent on the actions of the military could perhaps impede Burma’s legitimate democratic development. This is a very delicate situation, to which some noble Lords alluded, and I will deal with that in further detail in a moment.
An issue that particularly exercised my noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, was the ambassador’s statement on 9 December. I would not want any confusion or misunderstanding to arise about that. Well before that statement was issued, the British Government, through the diplomatic reach of our Ministers and our ambassadorial presence in Rangoon, had been engaging with all levels of the Government of Burma to urge an immediate resumption of humanitarian aid and access. We have also discussed the issue in the United Nations Security Council. On 12 October our embassy made a very clear statement about its views on what had been happening. We have not only expressed our views on the record, but have been trying to engage with diplomatic initiatives and endeavours that will produce a tangible consequence. That is why we have proceeded as we have.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reflected with great sensitivity and wisdom on the delicate political balance in Burma. That is at the heart of how the international community responds. This is a nascent democracy, and though others may have their individual views on how that democracy is functioning, in my opinion it is immeasurably better than the regime that has ruled Burma for decades. We have to be very careful and recognise that under international law Burma is an independent state. The international community wants to support, provide help where it can or, indeed, challenge when events seem to be taking place that raise huge concerns, but at the same time we must be respectful of the status of that embryonic and very young democracy. Nevertheless, Her Majesty’s Government are pressing for openness and respect for human rights.
A number of other matters were raised, but I am running out of time to deal with them. There were some specific questions: the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the case of a journalist, but I will have to write to him because I do not have the information that he requires. My noble friend Lord Collins raised a number of issues, but I hope that I have been able to deal with those in my general remarks.
In conclusion, it is clear that a solution must be found to the enduring problem of intercommunal tension in Rakhine. In order to reach that solution, all parties must work constructively with the democratically elected Government to de-escalate tensions and identify ways to build intercommunal harmony. More immediately, this Government are deeply concerned about the current situation in Rakhine. We continue to express our concern to the Government of Burma at every possible opportunity. We continue to impress upon them the urgent need to facilitate humanitarian access and to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. We will continue to do all we can, working with our key international partners, to encourage progress and to alleviate humanitarian suffering.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, for bringing this very important debate to the Chamber.