Aung San Suu Kyi

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:37 pm on 9th June 2009.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:37 pm, 9th June 2009

I congratulate Mr. Carmichael on securing this Adjournment debate on this incredibly important issue, and on the responsible yet passionate way in which he made his argument from a very informed perspective. I also thank him for his generous congratulations on my appointment to my new post; I regard it as a tremendous honour to be a Minister of State in the Foreign Office with responsibility for the middle east, Burma and other similar issues. I am in day two of the job, so I hope Members will be tolerant as I respond to the best of my ability. May I also assure the hon. Gentleman that I intend to work very closely with his all-party group, and indeed with all all-party groups who have an interest in my new portfolio of responsibilities?

A number of Members are present who have consistently raised issues in relation to Burma over a long period, and I believe that the cumulative pressure from Members in all parts of the House does in the end make a difference in international opinion. There are doubts about how much that impacts on the regime, but it is important that the House continues to offer oxygen in terms of the political situation and political realities in Burma. I therefore congratulate all Members who take an interest in these issues on continuing to bring them to the Floor of the House.

As Members are aware, in the early morning of 14 May Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested simply for not reporting an intruder. Her trial on these absurd charges began on 18 May. The hon. Gentleman gave a different analogy, but in effect a prisoner is being prosecuted apparently because the prison guards were asleep on the job. Our ambassador in Rangoon—I noted that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his leadership on these issues—has reported the following:

"It's difficult to see anything but a guilty verdict...these trials tend to be pre-scripted. All decisions of any significance in Burma are made by the ubiquitous 'higher authority'.

He continued:

"The generals will want to make sure Suu Kyi is unable to play a role in the elections next year."

That seems pre-scripted and pre-destined, and the point has been made by hon. Members. He continued:

"So the betting is on a sentence that extends her house arrest well into 2010 or beyond".

I have no information on the medical condition of Aung San Suu Kyi. I shall inquire into that and write to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall try to find a way of making other hon. Members aware of the current situation, particularly in relation to her mental and physical health.

I am proud that the UK has led, in many ways, the international response to this outrage. We have spoken to EU leaders and members of the UN Security Council. Burma's neighbours, including China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, are in no doubt that they have a critical role to play and need to use their influence—I reiterate that call in this debate. I wish to pay tribute to the tremendous work done by my predecessor, my hon. Friend Bill Rammell, when he held this portfolio. He spoke up at the meeting of 45 Asian and EU Ministers in Hanoi only last month and he did not pull any punches. He said that the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi were baseless, he called for her to be released, along with the other 2,100 political prisoners who are detained in Burma—those are the ones we know of—and he asserted that without her and other opposition leaders the 2010 elections would simply not have any credibility in international eyes.

In Hanoi and in Phnom Penh, my predecessor spoke directly to Burmese Ministers to urge them to take positive steps to restore democracy. As hon. Members will be aware, and as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned, the UK is taking action within the European Union. The Prime Minister intends to raise the issue of Burma at the June European Council. On 19 May, the Foreign Secretary discussed further steps that the EU should take in Brussels, and our officials continue to work with EU member states on tighter measures that target the regime. The Government believe that further measures, including financial sanctions, will increase pressure on the regime.

May I return to the comment that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about Aung San Suu Kyi's health? We believe that she is not in bad health, but she has severely limited access to medical staff and we do not have any further information. She is, as ever, a remarkable woman—we would all accept that—and we believe that she is well enough to defend herself appropriately during the course of these proceedings, however unfair and unjust we know them to be. That is the best information we can offer at the moment, but I am certainly willing to provide any further information that I can get to him.

May I return to the UK's contribution? We have ensured that Burma is discussed at the United Nations, including in the Security Council. The UK will be pushing for the firmest of responses, but it is only right on occasions such as this to be honest and frank about the boundaries of the effectiveness of our efforts. For example, hon. Members will be aware that our efforts to secure a Security Council resolution in 2007 following the saffron revolution were blocked, and the current composition of the Security Council means that any binding resolution against Burma is unlikely. Of course, the UK supports the imposition of a universal arms ban against Burma, but we know that an arms embargo requires a mandatory chapter 7 resolution.

I am also aware that there are calls for Burma to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Appalling and unforgivable crimes are undoubtedly being committed in Burma as we speak, but that country is not party to the Rome statute, and again a Security Council resolution would be required. We believe that it is incredibly important that we focus on practical measures that will convince the regime to choose the path of reform and national reconciliation.

What we have achieved so far is two unprecedented presidential statements, and we should regard that as positive. Two weeks ago, the Security Council expressed its concern about the arrest and called for political prisoners to be released and involved and engaged in the political process. As the hon. Gentleman said, we know that President Obama and the Secretary of State in the American Administration share our concern for Burma, and recently US sanctions against the regime were renewed.

Although it is right that there be a focus on Aung San Suu Kyi, the hon. Gentleman rightly made the point that she is one of more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma. People have been imprisoned for up to 65 years simply for asking for help for cyclone victims—an appalling state of affairs.

Another crucial requirement for national reconciliation has to be the involvement of all ethnic groups in Burma. The UK has condemned the continuing human rights abuses that ethnic groups in Burma have suffered. Recently, we received worrying reports about the situation in Karen state, which Bob Spink referred to. Thousands of people have been forced to flee to Thailand because of an offensive by the Burmese army, and tragically there have been a number of civilian casualties. Violence in Karen state can only prolong the suffering of the Karen people.

The Rohingya people are abused in Burma, and abused as refugees throughout the region. We have drawn the attention of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, to the plight of minorities. The conflicts with the Karen community and others are regrettable consequences of the regime's attitude to the people of Burma. The full and equitable participation of Burma's ethnic groups in the political process has to be the key to a durable, sustainable solution to its problems.

I refer to my previous responsibilities in saying that the way in which we respond to the humanitarian crisis is equally important. We are the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Burma. On top of our contribution to cyclone relief of £45 million, we intend to spend another £25 million on aid to the people of Burma this year.

There is a worldwide public campaign calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Prime Minister and global leaders have added their weight to that of millions who have spoken out about the plight of Burma.

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