Burma

Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 11th June 2008.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury 11:30 am, 11th June 2008

What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Burma; and if he will make a statement.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

Although access has improved, the situation remains extremely grave. The United Nations estimates that relief has reached 1.3 million of the 2.4 million people affected. Although there has been progress in access, more than 1 million people remain in need. Our priority therefore remains to get assistance to those who need it. We will continue to work with the UN to maintain pressure on the Burmese regime to meet its commitments.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

If a Government, by wilful neglect, caused the loss of thousands of lives of a single ethnic group, that would be genocide. The loss of tens of thousands of lives caused by the Burmese Government hindering the international cyclone relief effort is seen by various members of the Security Council as simply an expression of Burma's national sovereignty. Does the Secretary of State agree that if Russia and China persist with that view of humanitarian relief, we will have an increasingly dysfunctional and fractured world?

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

Of course, we want to see all Governments meet their obligations towards their people, not least in circumstances of a humanitarian crisis on that scale. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom Government have been at the forefront of efforts to raise the issue within the United Nations. I welcome the fact that the UN Secretary-General will be briefing the Security Council in the days ahead, following his visit to Burma. I can further confirm that we strongly urged the Secretary-General to take a personal interest in Burma and to visit Burma, not least given our concerns as to the importance of the crisis and on dealing with the crisis for the UN system more generally. Only yesterday, I spoke with the UN emergency co-ordinator, John Holmes. I also spoke to Dr. Surin, the secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, and urged both of them to continue their efforts through the UN-ASEAN bridge to ensure that, limited though it has been, we see significant uplifts in the level of access in the days ahead.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

Will my right hon. Friend tell me what agencies our Government are working with?

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

We are working with long-established partners such as the Red Cross, Save the Children and Merlin, a range of organisations that have access to Burma. I assure my hon. Friend that we have worked hard to ensure that the aid that we are providing to those aid agencies is received by those aid agencies.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Given that anyone seeking to channel aid privately to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta region is certain to face arrest, intimidation or at the very least obstruction, and that the Government of Burma preposterously are now claiming that they are ready to move from the relief phase to the reconstruction phase, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that British funds provided for the relief of suffering are not siphoned off by one of the most sadistic military dictatorships in the world in order to enrich itself rather than to help the people?

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I hope he seeks; we are mindful of exactly that challenge. We have systems in place and are working continuously to ensure that the natural generosity of the British people is matched by the effectiveness of the aid that they are contributing through a range of organisations. As to whether we are now in the reconstruction rather than the relief phase, I have been categoric that, given the present level of unmet need, there is still an urgent requirement for international humanitarian agencies to provide emergency relief.

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Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Secretary of State said that the UK is at the forefront of endeavours regarding Burma. Can he give us tangible expressions of the improvement in the situation since we came to the forefront between four weeks ago and today in terms of the level of humanitarian aid to the people of Burma?

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

Let me give a couple of examples to the hon. Gentleman. We are the largest donor with contributions of £27.5 million, which manifests itself in 22 relief flights that have now landed in Burma thanks to the efforts that have been made. In terms of improvements, 10 World Food Programme helicopters are now operating within Burma, which we have been urging on and demanding of the Burmese Government for many days now. I hope that the fact that we now have airlift capability within the country will lead to a significant improvement in the effectiveness of the delivery of aid within the country.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the aid reaches those who need it within Burma, but that the aid workers are protected? At the same time, the big challenge is how we get a regime change by working with the likes of India and China. That is what we really need in Burma.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

When I met the UN Secretary-General when I attended the international conference at his request, I strongly urged him to visit Burma again this year, and I anticipate that he will return to Burma and maintain a close interest in this issue. If he does so, I hope that the focus of his visit will not be exclusively on humanitarian issues, but more broadly on the continuing political crisis afflicting the country.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Despite the junta's promise to the Secretary-General to grant full access to aid workers, it is clear that insufficient aid is getting through. Indeed, victims are being forced out of the makeshift camps. The Department's own website makes it clear that only 15 travel requests for internationals were accepted in the time between the Rangoon conference and 4 June. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the international community has not merely had the wool pulled over its eyes by the Burmese generals?

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development

I assure the House that we continue to focus on this issue. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern in terms of the level of access that the international community wants, but, as I say, I have held further discussions within the past 24 hours with the emergency co-ordinator of the UN, John Holmes, and I have also spoken directly to Dr. Surin, the secretary-general of ASEAN. We will continue to focus on this issue to get the relief aid to those who so desperately need it.

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