Burma and Cambodia

– in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 1st November 1989.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe 11:52 pm, 1st November 1989

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Minister in the task that he has to perform because not only has he flown overnight from Washington, but the matters that I shall raise do not fall within his area of responsibility. However, I have great faith in his ability and his intelligence, and I am sure that the debate will be both constructive and helpful.

I realise the difficulties of dealing with two critical subjects in an Adjournment debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me and others in pressing for time for a major debate at the earliest opportunity. It is because there is a sense of urgency that I bring these matters before the House tonight. Both countries under discussion—one with a recognised Government of questionable standards and the other the only country in the world where Britain does not recognise any Government, whether internal or external—are engaged in a civil war that is increasing the wholly unacceptable risk of a return to power of the Khmer Rouge by military force. It is the result of the ambivalent policy of the Western powers and their inability to adjust quickly enough to the changing situation.

First, I shall deal with Burma. It appears that it has less impact in this country than in America and Australia, yet we have very much more reason to be concerned about events in that country. Anyone who, like me, has visited the war cemetery in Rangoon and seen the 33,000 graves there will recognise how many lives have been laid down in the interests of a free Burma.

Now, however, there is not a single foreign journalist in Burma: the stringers who write for our newspapers are circumscribed by the present Burmese Government. I can only say thank God for the BBC, which is listened to everywhere in Burma. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that the BBC has received 80,000 letters from Burma in the past six months—a third of the number that it receives from all over the world. That is an indication of the way in which those people reach out for our help, and it is a matter of concern that, apart from speaking in Adjournment debates, we can do so little to muster that help.

I especially want to raise the position of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League of Democracy, who has been under house arrest—as have those of her fellows who are not in prison—since July. According to figures that I have obtained from various sources, thousands have been arrested since then. SLORC itself says that it has over 1,200 political detainees, and other reports suggest that the figure is nearer 3,000.

Evidence given to the sub-committees on human rights and Asian and Pacific affairs of the House of Representatives provides overwhelming corroboration of what has been said. I shall read out only brief extracts, but I can give my hon. Friend all the evidence. It raises serious doubt over how free and fair elections can be held in May 1990, as has been promised, if the effective opposition—which commands the majority of support—is either in prison or under house arrest.

According to one of the statements to the House of Representatives committee by the Under-Secretary responsible for this part of the world—the deputy assistant Secretary of State, Mr. David LambertsonThe government denies that it is making political arrests or is mistreating detainees. It likewise denies credible reports we have of instances of torture. Instead, it claims that those detained are criminal offenders who will be tried as such. In our view, given numerous credible, firsthand reports of the regime targeting opposition political activists, in the absence of verifiable charges, the Burmese government's version of events simply does not square with the facts. Indeed, there seems to be a pattern of attacks against the larger opposition political parties. Further evidence given to the committee by Ambassador Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary for human rights, states: In July, the regime granted to local military commanders summary powers of trial and execution. Under present martial law, there are effectively no legal means for accused persons to defend themselves. Military tribunals, completely lacking legal training, have the final say on all cases, political or criminal. Defence lawyers are severely limited in what they are allowed to say and reportedly under warning that too vigorous a defence can result in negative consequences for the client and the lawyer. I also wish to raise with my hon. Friend the position of the students who fled from the Rangoon riots and civil disturbance to the Thai border. I met many this summer at a conference in Caux. One of the saddest aspects is the fact that those young people have been torn from their education and living in atrocious conditions, hunted down by the army. In September, one of them wrote to me: The current situation inside Burma is in adversity. The … military regime has again suppressed brutally … the opposition force in the country-wide mass arrest. Because of this … repression there is a sudden influx of more students from inside Burma to many of our camps … The military regime is also reorganising its troops to make an all out offensive to wipe out all our student camps along the border in the coming dry season. All these efforts come from within their despair towards the situation. I would say that they are in despair because the foreign currency reserves are virtually reaching to the bottom … and the general public feelings towards the army is in the form of hatred. How do the Government and the European Community stand in terms of ensuring that foreign observers are able to oversee the treatment of opposition parties during elections? Unlike Cambodia, where there are many foreign observers, they are unable to report what goes on. Under what conditions would the Government consider resuming aid? In the meantime, do we have any plans to follow the example of the United States which has granted $250,000 in aid to students in the camps, both on humanitarian grounds and also to help some of them to complete their education?

What is being done by the international agencies? We were ready to use them in Cambodia. Are we prepared to involve them in what is happening in Burma? We seek fairness of approach because Cambodia and Burma have various things in common. They are beautiful countries, rich in natural resources. Both have been devastated—Burma by years of Socialism and both of them by having been involved in a geopolitical war.

One has a great sense of urgency about Cambodia. There is to be a debate in the United Nations on 15 and 16 November. I have the draft resolution here. I notice that the new words, in italics, are a change from the previous debate. They must sound very strange to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), who went with me to Cambodia. The words sound very strange to me, too. They read: Noting the continued and effective struggle of the Kampuchean forces under the leadership of Samdech Norodom Sihanouk to achieve the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutral and non-aligned status of Kampuchea". That is an example of the fact that we are supporting only one side in what, in effect, is a civil war.

We seem to be unable to change our attitude quickly enough because we continue to support only the coalition, which I have described as a coalition of convenience. It is not a united coalition. They have separate camps. There are even separate camps for Aung San and Sihanouk. They have separate armies and different political philosophies. Nevertheless, we support a resolution that welcomes the continued and effective struggle of the Kampuchean forces under this leadership to achieve independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutral and non-aligned status for Kampuchea.

The only common theme in the coalition is its opposition to Vietnam, a theme that is shared by other Governments, even though Vietnam has withdrawn the majority of its forces from Kampuchea. That common theme makes it impossible to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the problem.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley and I have been twice to Cambodia—in 1987 and again very recently. We realise that we need a better balance between the Hun Sen internal regime, which is running the country with increasing success, despite immense difficulties, and the external Khmers. They have held together in coalition, but during the last 10 years they have done nothing towards assisting the country's development. Without question, the Khmer Rouge is most secretive. It will not reveal its military strength. It will not allow other people to enter its camps. Its military strength is the most powerful in the region. It is the only faction that stands to gain from the attitude that we adopt. I think that I am the only hon. Member who has visited not only the Association of South East Asian Nations countries and Thailand but Cambodia twice.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the UNDP report entitled "Kampuchea Needs Assessment Study". The United Nations commissioned the report to investigate the state of Cambodia and to see what it needs, but it was prevented, by prejudice, from visiting Phnom Penh and was ordered to remain in Bangkok. To its credit, whether it worked from Bangkok or Saigon, it produced this report, which will shortly be published. It covers Kampuchea to an extent that one cannot do in this debate. The preface says: Where discussion of prospects requires policy assumptions, the Mission has generally assumed continuation of the recent progress. It has become clear in our numerous discussions with all concerned, that there is an aspiration to return the country to the social and economic status that it enjoyed in the late 1960s, when the outlook was so promising, and to achieve this with less emphasis on state ownership and control of commercial activities. The Mission therefore makes reference to conditions … so as to provide a datum against which to measure the current situation. The report analyses every aspect of life in Kampuchea, including social services, industry and the state of the roads.

That document should be considered in the debate on the draft resolution, because it is nonsense that we are taking sides against a regime that has built up the country in the past 10 years and recently granted freedom of religion. Furthermore, it has a market economy and has declared itself to be neutral. To that extent, it has abrogated its treaty with Vietnam. I object most strongly to the fact that we constantly seem to be taking sides against the Cambodian Government on behalf of people who have never been anywhere near it throughout the difficult times.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that, unless we are able to stop the current hostilities, there is a risk of the worst scenario happening—that the Khmer Rouge could succeed militarily? That is too high a price to pay for our present policy. I do not know where we would hide our faces, given the statement of Western leaders, the Prime Minister and the American President, if Pol Pot and his regime were allowed to return./

I press my hon. Friend to state our support for the Prime Minister of Thailand, Chatichai Choonhavan, and for what he is doing to bring together the two sides. It is essential that we try to get hostilities and arms supplies from the Americans, Russians and Chinese suspended. If we are to make progress, it is essential that we accept the invitation of the Hun Sen regime for a mission to visit Kampuchea as a creature of the Paris conference.

One mission of the Paris conference has already paid a visit, but I should not have thought that it was too much to ask for a second mission to verify that the Vietnamese have withdrawn and that the 1 million Vietnamese settlers, who are constantly thrown into the argument by China and the coalition do not exist. The mission could take with it external Khmers, who could tell the difference between Vietnamese and Khmers and talk to the locals. That would be one way of dealing with the myths and arguments that so dominated Paris. As my hon. Friend may know, the arguments in the ad hoc committee were on the basis of genocide on one side and Vietnamese settlers on the other. The reality is that the genocide happened—we can all verify that—but the Vietnamese settlers can be found whether they are there or not.

If we want a comprehensive settlement, an interim government must be formed based on the Jakarta proposals for two sides—the internal Khmers and the external Khmers. There should be no special place for the Khmer Rouge. While it is agreed that it can be part of Prince Sihanouk's team, it is totally unacceptable politically to him and, I believe, to the people of Cambodia that it should be in a quadrapartite interim Government in its own right with its army intact. We could have what we all want—free and fair elections supervised by the international community that allow the people to decide —if we pursue that course. What we cannot do, and what we seem to be seeking to do, is to impose a regime from outside with too high a risk and, in my view, leading to the worst possible solution—the success of the Khmer Rouge currently fighting in Cambodia.

During discussions on my travels through this part of the world, people cry out for Britain to play a greater role. In Burma, the people look to us as a country steeped in diplomacy and fairness. Cambodians look to us as the only member of the Security Council which has not had a direct involvement in the geopolitical situation there. I only hope that I can put over the yearning of these people for Britain's greater involvement because of our history and our tradition and because we have something real to offer.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. The hon. Lady must have the consent of the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister. Does she have that consent? I see that she has.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I join the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) in appealing to the Government to rethink their policy on Cambodia.

With the hon. Gentleman, I recently visited Cambodia for the second time in two years, and I totally agree with what he has said. I would like to ask the Government—this may be the one point on which the hon. Gentleman and I disagree—to challenge the seating at the United Nations when Cambodia is debated on 15 November. That may seem relatively unimportant to us, but it is of great importance to the people of Cambodia because they regard the seat as an important symbol of the world's attitude towards them. It is invidious to have in that seat, as the dominant partner in the coalition, people who represent the Khmer Rouge and who were closely associated with its regime.

Everyone who knows the Khmer Rouge and how it currently thinks, knows that its attitudes have not changed. The people of Cambodia fear that, in some guise, the Khmer Rouge may return. They have great doubts about involving it in any political solution. They believe that they can contain the threat of the Khmer Rouge on the border, but are deeply fearful about the effect of its being allowed back into the country as part of a political settlement.

We know of the desperate need of the country and the fact that it is still isolated by the West. The Leader of the House told me during questions last week that he had no doubt that the Vietnamese have withdrawn from Cambodia. There can be no doubt about the fact that the Vietnamese have not remained as settlers.

We know, too, of Cambodia's desperate need for proper development aid so that the people can improve their infrastructure and their health services and rebuild their country. I cannot stress too strongly their wish to be non-aligned. They do not want to be part of the Eastern bloc. They want to be non-aligned. That is why they do not understand the continuing attitude of the West towards them.

Last week, I put to the Leader of the House, who was answering on the Prime Minister's behalf, a question about an allegation made in Jane's Defence Weekly that the United Kingdom had been training guerrillas over the past four years on the Thailand side of the border in several secret camps. That point was repeated in a film by John Pilger, which was shown last night and in a headline in today's Daily Mirror,Thatcher orders the SAS into Cambodia's killing fields". The Leader of the House said that the Minister would deal with that question in summing up this debate. I hope that he will, because it would be the greatest duplicity for the United Kingdom to be involved in training guerrillas to fight the Government in Phnom Penh having signed a communiqué in Kuala Lumpur on south-east Asia stating clearly that Cambodia must be allowed to decide its destiny free from foreign interference. I should like to have the Minister's assurance on that point.

I thank the hon. Member for Broxtowe for giving me some of his valuable time. The eyes of the world are again on Cambodia and the civil war which persists there. The people are looking to the world, especially Britain because of its past role, to play a constructive part in getting a political settlement and ceasefire. We know the desperate need in that country. Unless we play an active role in trying to bring about a settlement, we too shall be guilty of causing bloodshed in that country.

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West 12:16 am, 1st November 1989

I have three minutes per country and therefore cannot do justice to the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) or of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). I say with no false modesty that my hon. Friend knows much more about these subjects than I do. They are not within my remit in the Foreign Office. I have returned today from America to find myself answering this debate.

I know Burma a little. I suppose that one begins to feel old when one can say that 20 years ago one was doing something in a grown-up way. Twenty years ago, to this very month, I was in Burma, which is a beautiful, inherently rich country with a fascinating and ancient culture. It has been ruined by a system of government which made one weep then and makes one weep now. In the past, the wasted opportunities made one weep; now it is worse.

For the historical reasons which my hon. Friend mentioned, the many friends of Burma in the House and in this country, including my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Mr. Waller) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), share the British Government's horror at the violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement and the reversal of the initial steps forward which the State Law and Order Restoration Council appeared to take when political parties were first legalised.

For a few months, opposition leaders were allowed to make speeches. If anything, this respite from the authoritarian rule of the previous 26 years has made the crackdown even more depressing. Hundreds of political organisers and activists have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest, perhaps the most important among them being Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. It is clear from the evidence released by the United States Government and others that some of those arrested have been tortured. The SLORC has now announced that politicians under detention will not be permitted to take part in the elections. Also, visas have been denied to foreign journalists. All the developments this summer cast grave doubt on the sincerity of the regime's commitment to the democratic elections that have now been postponed until 1990.

Our clear opposition to the regime's disregard for human and political rights has been made clear and unequivocal, When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was the Minister for Overseas Development he announced in November 1988 our decision to freeze all but emergency relief aid to Burma. Similar action has been taken by our partners in the Twelve and by the United States, Japan and Australia. In every way, with our partners in the European Community, we have been trying to bring home to the Burmese authorities the concern that we feel.

I am summarising briefly the positions we have taken but they are unequivocal and clear. The most recent and perhaps the most powerful reference was in my right hon. Friend the present Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech to the United Nations General assembly on 27 September. He referred to the urgent need for the restoration of human rights and democracy through free elections". I have only two minutes to devote to Cambodia. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley on her election today. However, I must tell her and my hon. Friend that I have nothing new to offer the House tonight. The arguments put by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cynon Valley and the changing situation in the period following the failure of the Paris conference must make us consider the future carefully.

I will not waste time by repeating the arguments for the policy we have adopted. There are arguments for it, such as that absorption of some part of the Khmer Rouge movement might diminish the power of the rest of the movement and prevent it from overturning a Government who excluded it totally. Something like that has been the structure of the argument followed by countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations and others, and justifies the attempt to include some part of the Khmer Rouge movement—but not the Pol Pot supporters—in a future Government.

I understand the argument put by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cynon Valley that we must be extremely cautious even about that, since the basis for power that that might offer might be just the standing ground needed. As a result of the debate and world events, we will be analysing policy closely and I have no doubt, as my hon. Friend said——

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes past Twelve o'clock.