Burma

– in the House of Commons at 1:30 am on 24th June 1991.

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

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe 2:39 am, 24th June 1991

This is the second time that I have sought to draw the Government's attention to the situation in Burma and to press for comprehensive action from the United Kingdom Government. The first time that I did so was on 1 November 1989. I seek to raise this issue again to deal with one of the most objectionable regimes in the world today and to express the sense of widely felt frustration about the fact that it seems impervious to outside influence. It is a coincidence that my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), is seeking an Adjournment debate on human rights under that regime. I have asked him if he will speak for five minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) has also expressed an interest and wants to speak for one minute. The fact that three hon. Members have shown an interest in raising this issue on the Adjournment at this time of night is of some significance.

I have sought this debate now because of two anniversaries. First, 28 May is the anniversary of the elections in Burma that overwhelmingly returned the National League for Democracy, which received 86 per cent. of the vote and 392 seats, as opposed to the National Unity party which received 3 per cent. of the vote and 10 seats. The latter was the close ally of the military junta, known as SLORC. By any standards, that was an overwhelming result—all the more so because of the incredible way in which SLORC attempted to stifle true expression before the election. It was so flagrant that I sought to ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to ignore the result, but the true expression of the people prevailed and the result was overwhelmingly in favour of the National League for Democracy.

However, a year later, not only has no transfer of power taken place, as was requested by all outside observers, but there has been a cold-blooded systematic offensive against the second and third levels of the leadership of the National League for Democracy, with the systematic arrest of elected representatives and savage sentences on trumped-up charges for various members of the party. Kyi Maung, the acting leader of the NLD, has recently had his sentence doubled from 10 to 20 years. Thirty-five Members of Parliament, including four women, have been given 25-year sentences for upholding the democractic will of the people who elected them. Over 80 have been arrested and about 1,000 of those who work for the NLD have been held in prison without trial.

I cannot remember or recollect any similar action by any country. Those in power must have sought to use the elections, presumably to reinforce the 40-year-old military regime's power, against all democratic and international legal precedent, defying the election results and the constitutional process over which no unelected military junta does or should have power. That has been confirmed by the legal director of the international committee on human rights.

The second anniversary was on 19 June, which is closer to the date of this Adjournment debate. It is the birthday of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the lady was the catalyst for democratic change—a role that she did not seek, and which has resulted in her being kept under lonely house arrest for over 21 months, without mail, telephone, calls or visits. Even the international civil servant who was appointed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights could not make contact with her. She has had no contact with her family in recent months. Everyone who knows about the lady's position realises that that is a wholly uncivilised way to treat anybody, let alone the leader of a party before an election.

To keep that lady in the same situation after the result that I have described and systematically to undermine her role as a party leader and a patriotic Burmese citizen is wholly unacceptable. Until recently, her role has been unsung, although earlier this year the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov prize. She has been nominated for the Nobel prize and has already won the Norwegian peace prize. In those ways, those of us who understand the position can try to change world opinion. That lonely lady, an indomitable flame, stands alone against a regime that has increased its forces by over 100,000 since 1988—it now has some 280,000 soldiers and is still recruiting—and is spending its slender national reserves on purchasing ever more arms from China.

I know that the Government share my concerns arid I know about the statements made by the European Community on 27 May. I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his interest at the meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers, when he spoke strongly of our desire to help to bring about a peaceful political change. What else can and should we do to bring about a change in that obnoxious regime? How can we stop arms sales, especially from China, which can be used only to subjugate the people within Burma? As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there are no external threats to Burma, so its massive army and those weapons can be used only to continue subjugation. Although my right hon. Friend has called on members of the Community, the permanent five and ASEAN to be careful not to supply arms, arms have been purchased from China.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that Burma's overall position is raised at the United Nations General Assembly this year? Active help should be sought from the United States, Australia and Canada, which all have larger Burmese communities living in exile than does this country. Will he consider the suggestion that we could move to a full United Nations aid and trade embargo on goods originating from Burma? I know that all the countries now provide no aid other than humanitarian aid. Could the credentials of the delegation to the United Nations, who have clearly resisted the democratic will of their people, be challenged?

Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider seeking to grant observer status to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, some of whose members I have met in the House and who have risked terrible consequences by leaving Burma and trying to set up a government in exile. Will he also look at the Swedish draft resolution, which in the United Nations last year was not regarded as sufficiently supportable? I suspect that, because of the continued attitude of SLORC, it might be rather more supportable this year. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the position that I have described in so few words is highlighted?

Will my hon. Friend the Minister follow up the report on human rights that Professor Ogata presented to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva? Those of us who followed her journey to Burma realise that only one person had a minimalist treatment within that country, not being allowed to meet any leaders of the Opposition; I have already referred to Aung Sun Suu Kyi. None the less, her report was critical and I hope that, instead of only one delegate going to Burma, we could support at least three, representing different sections of the world community. That would insist on carrying out a full inspection to determine the state of human rights in that country.

Furthermore, will my hon. Friend the Minister shake ASEAN's belief that the problem is an internal affair of Burma, which has already isolated itself from the world community for the past 40 years, and that, therefore, it is a continuation of the same policy? When I discussed the question with the Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York, he shared the view that this was the sort of internal affair that should be regarded very much as an external affair because it offends the world's sense of order, and of humane and decent government.

Can we not express grave concern over the treatment of Burmese students in Thailand? The Minister of State assured me in a letter on 20 March that we were monitoring the overall situation. Since then, 41 asylum seekers, all of whom were of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been arbitrarily deported to Burma, to heavens knows what. I gather that 21 of them have returned to Thailand as a result of what might have happened to them. They have now been arrested by the Thai authorities. We need to help to establish proper procedures and support for the students who are at risk and to ensure the implementation of United Nations rules.

The reason why I have raised the subject again is not only that many people in the House are concerned, but that there are even more outside who share the sense of frustration which I hope that I have injected into the debate. There are many people in exile in different parts of the world and there must be many more in Burma itself who reach out for those of us who can speak on their behalf and who have no opportunity, other than listening to the BBC world service, of finding out what is happening outside their closed world in which no press, no television and no radio are allowed to go.

The issue is important because of Britain's historical link with this beautiful country and the fact that the only period of genuine democracy that the Burmese people have had was the 14 years after the war of 1945 in which they established a democracy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he listens to the speeches of my colleagues, will recognise that we share the concern and that we seek to press my hon. Friend and the Government to act on the five issues that I have described so we can bring this dreadful period in Burmese history to an end.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell , Gedling 2:51 am, 24th June 1991

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), a near Nottinghamshire neighbour, for allowing me to participate in what he and everyone in the House would agree is a most important debate. Despite the lateness of the hour, I very much hope that the plea from all of us tonight will not fall on deaf ears. Burma may be a long way away, but it is certainly a country about which we know a great deal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has referred to the historic links with this country. Some 38,000 British and Commonwealth war dead are buried in Burma. There were 74,000 dead and wounded during the second world war. My hon. Friend has referred to the democratic regime which we left in that country when we departed as the colonial power. Yet for the past 30 years, Burma has been subjected to a brutal dictatorship.

Burma used to be the largest exporter of rice in the world. Today, it is the sixth poorest country in the world. As my hon. Friend has said, it is a country with no external enemies —yet 40 per cent. of its national spending is on arms, which are used against its own people. In short, it is a nasty, corrupt, brutal and repressive dictatorship. The recent letter in The Independent from the cultural attache at the Burmese embassy, explaining that one of the reasons for the delay in yielding democracy was the failure of candidates to file their election expenses, shows the level of argument to which we are subjected from the illegal regime in Burma.

In 1988, democracy nearly made a breakthrough. Under the eyes of the world, there was appalling repression. Some 10,000 people died, elections followed some time later and, as my hon. Friend said, 86 per cent. of the votes were won by the opposition. Since then, 25 Members of Parliament have been sentenced to long periods in prison, and in some cases sentences have been arbitrarily doubled. Opposition leaders are locked up without trial, between 3,000 and 10,000 people have had to flee the country, and the illegal regime has attacked the country's established religion—Buddhism. There may be some hope that the Buddhists in Burma can play a role similar to that played by the Catholic Church in Poland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said that Aung Sun Suu Kyi was a catalyst for change. That immensely brave lady is in an appalling plight in Burma and she remains under house arrest. I was delighted to see her nominated for the Nobel peace prize. She is still unable to see her two teenage sons, who have been stripped of their Burmese passports. She remains the legitimate and elected leader of Burma, and the way in which she has been treated and imprisoned is a disgrace.

There are several ways in which we can intensify the pressure on the regime in Burma. We must make sure that the eyes of the world are focused on what is happening in that country. I hope that we can continue the excellent work that the Minister has been doing in ensuring that representations are made through the European Community and the United Nations. I hope that the Minister will heed the words of my hon. Friend the Minister for Broxtowe about the importance of an arms embargo, and I welcome the work carried out on that by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I hope that we can persuade America to put more pressure on China, which is the country with the most effective leverage on Burma. The BBC world service has many listeners in Burma, and I believe that the BBC receives more letters from Burma than from any other country. Perhaps the Minister will consider whether the BBC world service is broadcasting to Burma for a sufficient number of hours. I hope that he will find out whether more can be done to offer scholarships to Burmese students, especially those who have been forced to flee to Thailand, and that he will heed what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has said about human rights. The Government can help by collecting data on human rights atrocities, and by doing so more actively than they have done in the past. We must let the regime know not only that evidence of its misdeeds is being collected, but that it is a pariah in the international community.

I hope that the Government will do everything possible to secure the early release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi. As I have said, she is the rightful and legitimate leader of Burma and before long events will show that she is the right person to lead that country. I hope that the Government will do everything to ensure that that happy event occurs as quickly as possible.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham 2:57 am, 24th June 1991

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) has rendered the House and Burma a service by initiating this debate, and he has been ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell).

There are 40 million people in Burma—equivalent to the population of Spain or to the combined population of Canada and Australia. We are debating very many decent, cheerful people who for a long time have suffered under a regime that has made them poorer year by year. The glimpse of democracy has returned those people to conditions worse than those that prevailed four or five years ago when I was there.

I hope that the debate will lead to greater international co-operation and to a promise to the present rulers of Burma that their way is a cul-de-sac which brings no benefit to them and certainly leads to harm for their people. The sooner they realise the advantages of a flexible, democratic and economic system, the sooner Burma can return to the community of nations. I hope that Burma will put right the mistake of not joining the Commonwealth, which it made when it became independent.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 2:58 am, 24th June 1991

The House is grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) for drawing attention to what is undoubtedly one of the worst cases of human rights abuses in the contemporary world.

It is hard to overstate the sense of indignation and outrage which the situation in Burma evokes in Britain, in the European Community and, indeed, anywhere in the world where democracy and the rule of law are valued.

The facts can be simply stated. Three years ago, the Burmese people, in a series of demonstrations and popular protests, overwhelmingly showed their dissatisfaction with nearly three decades of misrule, entitled 'the Burmese way to socialism', under the dictator Ne Win. One point above all stood out from those turbulent events, which involved ordinary Burmese in all walks of life: the desire for change and for a new democratic start for their much abused country.

Alas, this was not to be. Employing brutal methods which were widely condemned outside the country, the Burmese army suppressed the demonstrations with military force and efficiency. As a result, we suspended all official bilateral European Community aid to Burma, a suspension which remains in force. The only glimmer of hope to come from the carnage was that the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, the military junta which assumed control, promised to guide Burma towards free and fair elections and thus to democratic rule. British policy was at that stage to press for those elections and to judge SLORC on the extent to which that promise was kept.

Although in the run-up to the elections the opposition were harassed and their charismatic leader, of whom we have heard mention tonight, was placed under house arrest, as we have also heard, the result was an overwhelming vote for the National League for Democracy—a truly massive demonstration of the popular yearning for a new democratic course. The poll in May 1990 was generally regarded as free and fair, and was welcomed as such worldwide.

At the time of the elections, the Foreign Office drew up a four-stage plan for improving our relations with Burma, in the expectation that SLORC would fulfil its promise to return Burma to democracy, and that that would lead to a full normalisation of relations, including the restoration of aid. The first stage was to start when SLORC initiated a dialogue with the NLD, the minimum step that we expected it to take. Whatever our expectations, the reality turned out to be very different. Far from starting a dialogue with the winning party, in the year following the elections SLORC systematically set about destroying the opposition and cowing all other elements in Burmese society which represented any perceived threat to its continuation in office. This was done in the face of repeated calls by the international community for the outcome of the election to be honoured and respected.

For example, two months after the elections, the Foreign Secretary wrote personally to the chairman of SLORC, in friendly terms, regretting that relations between our two countries should be at such a low level and expressing the hope that the process of transferring power to those who had been democratically elected would begin soon. Those and other such appeals have been flatly and cynically ignored, with SLORC strengthening its grip on state power and showing not the slightest desire to stand by the election outcome. Recently, the Burmese embassy circulated a 65-page press release on the position in Burma which contrived to avoid any mention of the election result.

We believe that the completely unambiguous way in which the Burmese people opted for democratic change must be acknowledged and acted upon. After holding a free and fair poll and then ignoring the outcome, SLORC has cocked a snook at the democratic principle in the most direct possible way. That cannot and must not pass unchallenged. It is incumbent on all countries who value democracy to make it clear that such behaviour is not acceptable and that democracy is not to be trifled with in that cynical fashion.

As I have said, deep concern about the present situation in Burma is widespread. We and the European Community have repeatedly called for the restoration of democracy and human rights. We were closely associated with a demarche to SLORC by no fewer than 18 like-minded nations in September 1990. At the recent meeting of the European Community—ASEAN nations in Luxembourg, we called on Burma's regional neighbours to use their influence with SLORC to persuade it that its policies were leading in the wrong direction. We understood the delicacy of that request for the ASEAN countries, especially as they had never before in their official pronouncements referred to Burma in any way, and it might have seemed strange for them to do so for the first time in Europe. Nevertheless, they agreed to such a reference in their joint statement. The EC and ASEAN Ministers expressed the hope that the situation in Burma would evolve in such a way as to enable the country to take its place among the dynamic Asian economies.

That may sound a less than revolutionary aspiration. In the Burmese context, however, it effectively calls for the reversal of a policy of self-imposed isolation which Burma has pursued for the past 40 years and is clearly a major change. We hope that the ASEAN countries will now make this new position known to SLORC and that there will be an appropriate response.

Other sentiments in the EC-ASEAN joint statement are also relevant to Burma. For example, Ministers referred with approval to the growth of democratic practice, respect for human rights and increased political and economic participation for all people. These are the policies that Burma needs, and we hope that SLORC will heed the advice.

What else can we do? My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe posed several questions and I shall comment on some of them. Clearly we must continue our efforts to bring home to SLORC that its policies are leading Burma up a blind and dreadful alley. We support all diplomatic action that helps to bring home that message. For example, we would like to see action in the United Nations. The United Nations General Assembly's third committee resolution on Burma, which was put forward in 1990, will be discussed at this year's Assembly. We shall again support it, and hope that it attracts the widest possible international support, including, this year, from ASEAN. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is also considering Burma for the second year running in its confidential 1503 procedure. We welcome this continuing action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned arms. We are particularly concerned that SLORC should devote such a large proportion of Burma's meagre resources to the purchase of arms, despite the fact that Burma faces no external threat. We have taken the lead in seeking an EC embargo on all such sales, and we hope that it will be formalised shortly. As my hon. Friend said, the signs are that China is an arms supplier in Burma. We have publicly urged all countries to show restraint, and that was a major theme of the address to the EC and ASEAN ministerial meeting on 13 May by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

My hon. Friends have mentioned their great concern, which is shared by us all, for Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who has been held without charge under house arrest since July 1989. The award of the European Parliament's Sakharov prize and her nomination for a Nobel peace prize reflect the international esteem in which she is held. Here is someone whose only crime was to seek democracy by peaceful means for the country which her father did so much to create after the second world war.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Three o'clock.