Burma

Part of Opposition Day — [12th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 2:18 pm on 14th May 2008.

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Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 2:18 pm, 14th May 2008

It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. Like him, I join the shadow Secretary of State, Mr. Mitchell, and others across the Chamber in expressing sympathy for the people who have lost family members and friends and who even at this moment have no idea what their future will be after this unimaginable disaster of the past 10 days.

I welcome the statement that was part of the Secretary of State's speech today, and acknowledge his intention to come back to the House and make a statement in his own time at some point this week. The official Opposition have however provided us with a good opportunity to air all the different issues and to examine thoroughly what has been going on and what can still go on. I welcome the shadow Secretary of State's decision to move this motion.

On the vexed issue of the motion, I have listened carefully to the contributions from both Front Benches and I wish to make it clear that we will support the motion. It is a shame that the Secretary of State cannot bring himself and his colleagues to support it. I recognise that they have some concerns about the language, but surely what matters is the message that this House sends to the outside world, rather than a dispute about who said what and when, and what represents a particular point of view. In the past few minutes, the Secretary of State has said that we rule nothing out, so I do not understand why the Government cannot accept a motion containing the words

"should consider all options for getting help to those who need it, including using direct aid drops."

The Secretary of State has helpfully updated us, although starkly so, about the situation on the ground—it is under water, tragically—in Burma. Some 200,000 people may have lost their lives, and that is a staggering figure—it represents nearly every person who lives in my part of the south of Scotland—and 1.5 million people are homeless or in need of emergency assistance, 300,000 or 400,000 desperately so.

As the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State said, there are some urgent priorities: clean water, food, shelter and medical assistance. The World Food Programme estimated the other day that it was able to deliver only about one fifth of the 375 tonnes of food required each day and that instead of two to three aircraft landing each day, one needed to land every 45 minutes or so.

We should be encouraged, to a certain degree, by what the Secretary of State just told us. He said that about 25 to 30 aircraft are landing today. We must hope that that level will be maintained and that the aid can be used immediately and responsibly. It should not, as others have highlighted, be hijacked by the generals and their acolytes, and then be rebadged or simply not distributed.

Food prices in the region were already climbing astronomically—they have increased by 30 per cent. this year alone—and this situation can only worsen that trend. Let us not forget Burma's tragic recent history. The Saffron revolution of only a few months ago started on the back of fuel price increases and other problems in the country, as well as the fundamental flaws in the regime. The country was desperate before these past few days.

Dr. Gareth Price and Tamara Lynch of Chatham House—I declare an interest as, like Tony Baldry, I am a member of its council—have stated:

"It is pretty clear that the government in Burma focuses more on remaining in power (and self-aggrandisement) than on responsiveness to people's needs."

Those two people do not have an axe to grind; they are not party politicians or non-governmental organisations, but individual experts making a damning indictment. Their assessment highlights the fact that despite the arrangements made by neighbouring countries in the region facing the same risk of cyclones, Burma has had no cyclone warning system. It also has no system of building cyclone-safe houses. Although such houses have not protected Bangladesh in every last respect, they have brought about a major improvement there in recent years. Even the Burmese military—the much-vaunted 500,000 people who are the regime's elite—has been forced to feed off the land; vegetables are being grown beside airstrips and there are chicken coops behind the barracks.

Burma is a country with a twisted set of priorities that has never got things right, and in this moment of crisis, we have not seen a proper response. Indeed, we have seen the absolute obscenity of proceeding with a referendum on a constitution to which nobody can give any credence—it is simply designed to entrench the power of the military. Above all, we have seen the disgraceful and unbelievable response to the cyclone: the refusal of all outside assistance. That assistance ought to be making the difference in saving lives that are at risk.

At this time, we learn that the generals' preoccupation is that somehow outside assistance would strike at the heart of the regime's legitimacy and the country's national sovereignty. For that reason, the generals feel that they must reject the assistance, but I suggest that the regime has no legitimacy to lose. The very nature of the military dictatorship goes against every standard and norm that we would support. The reaction to the democracy protests both a few months ago and over many years, the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime's complete failure to prepare for events such as these are sadly predictable. It is not outsiders who are undermining the regime's legitimacy; the regime itself is doing so.

That whole debate has enlivened the broader one that we are having internationally—we have also heard it here this afternoon—about the responsibility to protect. We are arguing over how formal that responsibility is and what it has meant in the past few years, but surely that fancy new phrase simply formalises the basic humanitarian instincts that we all have and to which we respond on occasions such as this, when we expect Governments, as a basic part of their duty, to protect the people who live in their countries. The responsibility to protect, as formalised and debated in recent years, has been clearly based around the ideas of the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react and the responsibility to rebuild. On all those grounds, the Burmese regime has failed, not just in the past 10 days, but over many years.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, of which Gareth Evans was a member, published a report in December 2001 and kick-started this debate more broadly at the United Nations. It stated:

"Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of...state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect."

So, we cannot pretend that this is not a legitimate area for debate, and we must be clear that in our deliberations we are examining where we can go using that new authority. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Prime Minister and others have recognised that it is a legitimate part of the process. I equally acknowledge that it is not straightforward, to put it mildly, to move the debate through our partners in the United Nations Security Council, and I hope briefly to discuss that in a little while.

We must not assume in this debate that that responsibility means an automatic rush to have military action, or military or another assertive form of intervention. Military action is an option, but it must only be a last resort and it is not what is contemplated in this situation. As the shadow Secretary of State made clear, and as the motion sets out, our instincts and objectives are humanitarian. Inevitably, military assets and military assistance will be necessary and useful in making the humanitarian intervention more effective, so we must be prepared to argue the case in not only this Chamber but the broader international community.

The international response has been patchy. We can be encouraged by the fact that in this country and many others there has been a good response from the public to the appeals made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and others. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House would encourage everybody who can to contribute to that assistance. We know that major NGOs, such as Save the Children and Merlin, which are mentioned in the motion, and others, are making strenuous efforts as we speak to minimise the cost to lives and the quality of lives in Burma.

Thailand, as a neighbouring state, has been as supportive as it can be and is hosting much of the international support network. China, we have seen in recent months, is more willing to play a quietly assertive role with the Burmese. We must hope that China will not stand in the way of the international community's making it plain to the Burmese that their attitude is not acceptable or sustainable.

As we sympathise with the Chinese about their terrible loss over the past couple of days following the earthquake, we must also congratulate them on the speedy way in which the Chinese Prime Minister and others have been at the scene of the disaster and on how they have encouraged others to contribute to what they are seeking to do. That lesson might have been very painful for them to learn, but I hope that they will see the logic of extending that lesson to their neighbour. India, too, surely has an important role to play, and has been sadly too quiet in its comments thus far.

On such occasions, we are used to turning to regional bodies and wondering what they are doing. I do not think that I am alone in being frustrated at the slowness of the response from the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, of which Burma is one. It is deeply alarming that it has taken them so long to gather. It was good to hear that they will have a mercy mission and that they will hopefully ratify that on the 19th, but surely this disaster needs not bureaucratic responses but political pressure, applied quickly and now, to make the Burmese change their minds.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State talked about bringing our European partners together and the fact that the commissioner is to visit the region. Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate might also brief the House on the extent to which European funds and other forms of support have been offered by our partners. It is important to demonstrate that Europe can come together on these issues and be more effective than we are bilaterally. In particular, the UN reckoned a few days ago that $187 million of support might be needed—although the figure might have changed—but we have not heard thus far how much of that has been delivered. It would be helpful to know what will happen.

Ministers, officials and others are to be congratulated on the efforts that they have made so far and on their steadfastness. We know that they were working over the weekend to brief colleagues in the House as well as attending to the details of what was going on. We cannot criticise them on that level. We want to know if they believe that as a result of their actions, in Europe and elsewhere, the funding and logistical support will be in place for that moment when, we must hope, the Burmese change their attitude and allow things to move on.

In particular, may we have an assurance that the money that has been pledged is additional to that that was already in the budget for the region or for Burma—that it is not replacement or accelerated funding, which would otherwise have been given later in the year? It is important that we have that assurance, and a statement this afternoon would be helpful.

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