Burma

Part of Opposition Day — [12th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 2:34 pm on 14th May 2008.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West 2:34 pm, 14th May 2008

I am grateful for that. On the DEC and the NGOs that gather around it, from my personal experience over the years I can say that I have absolute confidence that all our NGOs ensure that what the British people give them reaches the people. That is why the real issue is to encourage, exhort and convince the Burmese authorities to allow in world-class independent expertise, and the well-respected independent organisations that can help to manage and monitor the impact of humanitarian aid in Burma. I am not asking for us to go there; I do not ask our Prime Minister, or even the Secretary of State to go there. I am asking for independent people with experience of managing such situations to be allowed to do that work on the ground. I do not ask them to negotiate the politics or the future of Burma; I want them to get resources to the people.

May I make two further points? We need to address the immediate needs of the people. People are surviving by putting little plastic cups out to catch rainwater, because they have no water. Fifteen days post-disaster, the mortality rate for the under-fives goes up massively, and 30 days later there is crisis on an unimaginable scale, because the mortality rate rises then apply to the whole population. Disease spreads exponentially 30 days in. We are now at a crucial time.

However, even though this is an important moment, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think ahead to the medium and longer term. There are 2 million homeless people in Burma, and 3,000 schools have been destroyed. As was the case with the tsunami, the big money is not needed at the front end. In the case of the tsunami, the money came in well, through generous donations from people and Governments, but money was needed for the medium and longer term, when the media went away. We now need to get a focus on the reconstruction. I want to flag that up, even at this early stage.

Finally, I should like to follow up a remark—it was almost an aside, although an important one—made by Mr. Moore, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, concerning rice. Rice prices have risen by 30 per cent. in the past two months. As everybody knows, rice is the staple of the people of Burma, particularly poor people. Tragically, the flooding and the cyclone have hit the Irrawaddy delta, which is the rice bowl of the whole of Burma. The World Food Programme estimates that Burma has less than half the rice that it needs to feed all its people, so there is a desperate need for food, both now and in the long term. That is because it is harvest time, but the harvest has been washed away, as have the stored grains.

Worse still, we are right in the middle of planting for the next harvest. How can people plant in fields of salt water? That is the problem. The tide has come in, and rice cannot be grown in salt water. There will be a food crisis in Burma for months to come. There is already a problem, but we need to address the issue of the failure of the next crop, otherwise within months we will be back discussing the issue in the House. In the best sense, I hope that we do debate the issue again in the House, but tragically we could be discussing mass hunger in Burma, and not just how to tackle the present humanitarian crisis.

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