[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on
I warn Back Benchers that to give everybody a fair chance of being heard, there will be a four-minute limit on contributions after the opening speeches. Front Benchers winding up will have 10 minutes each. If we keep to that, we should be able to accommodate everybody.
I beg to move,
The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar have been the subject of decades of segregation and racial discrimination. Over the past few years, they have repeatedly been indiscriminately targeted by the Burmese military, and in the past month they have witnessed human rights violations on a scale extreme even by the standards of Myanmar’s history. Following the
There are now almost 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: the 582,000 joined the 400,000 who had already fled there following previous periods of targeted attacks, notably in 2012 and 2016. There is a further influx of refugees from Myanmar who are being driven out of Rakhine state because food markets in the west of the region have been shut down and crucial aid deliveries restricted. Today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that between 10,000 and 15,000 Rohingya people have been stranded since Sunday night at the Anjuman Para border crossing point between Bangladesh and Myanmar. These border pathways are particularly dangerous; Amnesty International accuses the Myanmar Government of having laid landmines in the path of fleeing women and children only a few weeks ago.
Last week, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published its rapid response mission report from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. A team of three were deployed to Bangladesh in September following the reports of deadly violence and grave human rights abuses committed by the military on
Following the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the military started what it calls a “clearance operation”. Unimaginable violations of human rights have taken place during this time. According to the UN team, several victims reported the killing of close family members by random gunfire or described how the Myanmar security forces surrounded villages at some distance and then shot indiscriminately at houses and individuals alike.
The report also details witness accounts that attest to Rohingya victims, including children and elderly people, being burned to death inside their houses. As the UN mission progressed and the team spoke to more women and girls, horrific accounts of sexual violence were shared. According to the report, girls aged as young as five or seven were raped, often in front of their relatives—sometimes by three to five men all dressed in army uniforms taking turns. The report goes on to detail accounts of summary executions, cases of torture and disappearances. Alongside those horrendous human rights violations are accounts of forced displacements and the destruction of religious and cultural buildings and other items.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, and I could not agree more. I hope that the Minister will take that as one of the action points of our Government, to build on the leadership that they are showing. We would like to see that item on the agenda.
The UN report backs up the comment made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in his opening statement at the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council that the situation in Myanmar is a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. That builds on the call, made by Yanghee Lee earlier this year, for a UN commission of inquiries, with which the Burmese Government refuse to co-operate.
During Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions earlier, I asked the Minister for Asia and the Pacific—a good Minister—to comment on the textbook definition of ethnic cleansing. I believe that he went further than the UK Government have gone before in saying that the situation was moving towards that. Does my hon. Friend agree that for the UK to have legitimacy on this topic, we should back up the UN’s assessment that the situation is a textbook case of ethnic cleansing?
I very much hope that our Government will back up that definition.
“a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
That is a textbook definition to which the motion refers and against which we must measure what is happening in Myanmar. The question is whether the events in Burma amount to “a purposeful policy”. Are violent and terror-inspiring means being used? Is a specific ethnic or religious group being removed from certain geographical areas? The answer is yes to all the above. We are witnessing a deliberate state-sponsored policy of terror, murder, arson, rape and torture designed to remove the Rohingya people from their homes. There is now such an overwhelming weight of evidence of ethnic cleansing that Members cannot fail to agree and nor can the Government. It is vital that Members of this Parliament, which is seen as a beacon of democracy in the world, send a powerful message today that we will stand with the people being persecuted, the Rohingya population and other minorities in Myanmar.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and her powerful contribution. Does she agree that although we welcome the Government’s action on stopping training support for military personnel, the Government should pause all other such programmes that they fund, through the Department for International Development and elsewhere, while we reflect on how best to respond to the ethnic cleansing that she has so powerfully described?
I believe that all humanitarian efforts and pressure on the Government for access should be retained but that other non-essential programmes should be reviewed so that we can consider what to do to bring an end to the violence and find a longer-term solution that brings peace to the region and protects the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar.
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Burma, I have been aware of the discrimination and mistreatment that the Rohingya have endured for decades. In 2013, following a series of violent clashes in 2012 that left more than 100,000 people internally displaced, I visited Myanmar with Refugees International and the Burma Campaign. I heard stories of how Rohingya communities had fled violent attacks to remote areas of the countryside. In Rakhine state, the camps where Rohingya had been forced to live were horrific, with little or no access to humanitarian aid or healthcare. Some of that pressure was relieved, but international agencies had limited access. I travelled by boat to a UNHCR-supported camp in Pauktaw and have vivid memories of the shores nearby being covered in faeces and of dead rats floating just metres away from children bathing to keep cool in the unbearable heat. I remember being told stories of loved ones being killed and of children dying from a lack of healthcare and women from a lack of support in childbirth.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech, with which everybody in the House will agree. I hope she will be encouraged by a statement put out at last week’s plenary session of the Council of Europe by the Political Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, condemning the action and calling on all 47 Council of Europe member states to help with the humanitarian relief effort and to support Burma and Bangladesh. It shows that concern goes much wider than this House and that there is a huge international effort going on.
I remind the House that we need short interventions if everyone is to have a fair chance to speak in this important debate.
I am grateful for that intervention and hope that other Governments will add their support to the humanitarian effort. The UN has stated that more than £440 million is required, but only a fraction has been raised. I hope that our Government will encourage other Governments, in the EU and the wider international community, to provide more assistance to the humanitarian effort in Rakhine, Bangladesh and other neighbouring states dealing with the more than 1 million refugees.
Much of the forced segregation stems from the Citizenship Law of 1982, which sets out that full citizenship in Myanmar is based on membership of one of the national races, a category awarded only to those considered to have settled in Myanmar prior to 1824, the date of the first occupation by the British. In Myanmar’s national census of 2014, the Muslim minority group was initially allowed to self-identify as Rohingya, but the Government later reversed this freedom and deemed that they could be identified only as Bengali, which they do not accept because they are not Bengali.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and former Minister for that intervention, as it corrects the misconception that the Rohingya population have no right to be there and are somehow refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Eight months before polling day, the President of Myanmar revoked all temporary registration cards, leaving many Rohingya Muslims without any form of identity and hence unable to cast their votes during the transition to democracy. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory, her renowned endeavours as a human rights and pro-democracy campaigner and her own sacrifice and fight for democracy for her fellow countrymen and women, many have expressed grave disappointment at her failure to speak out and raise her voice on behalf of the persecuted minorities of her country, particularly the Rohingya. I share that sadness and disappointment, as someone who, like many in the House, grew up admiring her fight for democracy and courage, but alongside that disappointment we need to focus on the military Government, who hold the balance of power and control the military, defence, policing, local government, the civil service and many other aspects of power. While the media rightly focus attention on Aung San Suu Kyi, an important international figure, we should not let the military and the generals off the hook; let us both hold the civilian Government and particularly the military to account.
What safeguards should the British Government apply before resuming funding for military training in Myanmar?
I will come to that. I am grateful that the Government, in response to 170 parliamentarians urging greater humanitarian assistance, have stepped up and increased their assistance by £25 million and increased the level of match funding for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, to which we are all grateful. The parliamentarians asked, however, for a suspension of training, and they were right to do so, especially given, as I understand it, there is no reference in it to human rights training or awareness and no attempt to change the behaviour of the military. It would be wrong to reinstate the funding until progress is made.
The Annan commission reported on the need for reconciliation and action to deal with the issues affecting the Rohingya and the wider populations impoverished in Rakhine. Sadly, the report’s publication coincided with the so-called operation by the military that led to the latest crisis. That suggests that the military, far from wanting a constructive solution, reconciliation and progress, is doing quite the opposite. The commission, which was commissioned, supported and led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has been undermined by the actions of the military, which says a great deal about its underlying objective, which is to undermine her. She, of course, is not helping herself, as many would agree, but let us not forget that the military has been instrumental in directing the attacks.
The international community needs to apply pressure on the military. To do that, our Government need seriously to consider a global arms embargo of the Burmese military, building on what we have done domestically and with our European partners. It will not work simply to wring our hands and say, “There is ethnic cleansing”, if we do not follow up with the courage of our convictions, act and apply pressure to the Burmese military. It is no longer acceptable to say that the transition to democracy will stop the military acting this way. It has not. In fact, the military is undermining the transition to democracy and the civilian-led Government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is imperative that the international community do more to support the humanitarian effort and, in particular, humanitarian access within Rakhine state, which I visited in February once again. The lack of access to those desperately in need of food and healthcare in the internally displaced camps was shocking.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise these issues, and I very much hope that our Government will continue to build on our tradition as a country that speaks up for communities that have suffered. Particularly in this case, Britain has a unique responsibility because of our colonial legacy, and because of our interest in Myanmar. We all want that country to succeed and thrive, and we all hoped that the transition to democracy would be a new chapter. Sadly, this series of attacks, particularly after the elections, has left many of us with grave doubts about that transition. We must do everything we can to bring an end to the violence and to increase access, but, most important, to hold the Burmese military to account.
I call on the Government to seek that global embargo, and to apply pressure on our international partners to act. We cannot once again allow ethnic cleansing to happen. We must learn the lessons of what took place in Rwanda, in Bosnia and elsewhere. We cannot come back to the House and say “Never again” when we have watched ethnic cleansing happen, and regret not taking greater action and using all the powers and influences that we all have here in the House.
Four minutes is not long enough to illustrate the suffering that I saw in Bangladesh only three weeks ago, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).
I pledged to the people whom I met in the camps—mostly women and children—that if nothing else, we would come back and give them a voice that could be heard. We went with a delegation from the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, and we spent two days in Cox’s Bazar. We were not prevented from speaking to anyone. We went there with Bengali Sylheti speakers who could translate very well for us, and we asked questions of anyone we liked. Their stories were all the same. There were stick-thin children who looked as if they were literally within days of dying. There were women who were unaccompanied by their menfolk because they had been slaughtered, brutally attacked or separated from them, beaten up and taken away.
We visited both the Kutupalong camp and the Balukhali camp. In the Balukhali camp, we talked to workers in an aid hospital about the wounds that people showed as they came in. Many were gunshot wounds. While we were there, an elderly man was brought in, his face gashed and bleeding. He was distressed and had been beaten up. A few minutes later, his son was carried in, covered with a tarpaulin, within moments of losing his life.
Four minutes is certainly not enough. I congratulate my hon. Friend and her colleagues who went out to see the suffering for themselves. I received a delegation in my constituency from my local imam because so many of our Muslim populations in this country have been appalled by the reports that have been coming back. I thank my hon. Friend on their behalf for what she has done, and for acting as an advocate for them today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has said, but we cannot possibly say enough. Rushanara Ali is absolutely right: the time to stop doing nothing is now. We must start doing things and start speaking up. Let me put in a plea for contributions to the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee, whose headquarters I visited with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. We have some good stories to tell. The DEC is ensuring that the aid goes to the right places, and the British Government have a lot to be proud of.
Let me go back to what we saw. We saw the most brutal attacks. We were taken to the border, and could locate the points where landmines—we saw pictures of them—had been laid. We saw the body of a man being dragged out of the flooded camps. The Bangladesh Government cannot be congratulated enough for how much they are doing, but the tide of misery is overwhelming.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She has talked of a tide of misery. Alas, the tide of misery does not just flow across the Bay of Bengal from Rakhine to Cox’s Bazar; it also flows from Rakhine down to Malaysia and other countries, where we have seen horrific evidence of the trafficking of the Rohingya people. People come down from the Bay of Bengal and pick them up in Rakhine—
Order. I know that the former Minister has a lot to add to this, but I want to get everyone in. Interventions must be very short. Do not take advantage of other Members, please.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Time is very short, and I wish to keep within my limit so that others can make their points.
I must emphasise that the stories we heard were consistent. Any claims in the newspapers that the Rohingya are doing this to themselves are lies, fabrications and absolute fantasy. That is not true. No woman wants to trek with eight small children after one of her sons has been stabbed through the chest, her breasts dried up because she cannot feed her child, and with only some semolina to keep her going for days. The Rohingya are not doing this to themselves. If the world sucks up that nonsense, that lie, that fabrication, we are complicit; and we cannot be complicit.
We saw where those people were stranded in no man’s land, within yards of the border. We heard too many stories that were consistent: people were being machine-gunned from behind to drive them across, and the landmines were to stop them going back. These people have been brutalised. There are thousands of unaccompanied children. It has been said that there are 80,000, although it is hard to give an accurate figure because the number increases every day. Apparently there were 11,000 last Monday.
When we were last told, there were 80,000 pregnant women and 13,000 unaccompanied children. There are real issues of safeguarding and trafficking, and of disease. We used the latrines on the site; believe me, it was a relief to go back and wash off the slop and stench we had experienced those days—only to go back and see the people the next day, sitting there with no more than a piece of plastic over their heads. Some of them did not even have that: some had an umbrella, some had nothing.
We cannot turn a blind eye. We cannot pretend it is not happening. It is so easy once we are back to forget the sheer horror of it, but for them this is not just about now; it has been happening for years. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who so eloquently opened the debate, said, this has a very long history. But for those babies and children we saw, who are at any moment liable to be taken away with typhoid or one of the other diseases just waiting to rampage through that camp, we have got to say the world must join with Bangladesh on this.
I cannot say any more than that: the Bangladeshis have done their utmost, with a third of their own country underwater, and with rice harvests being lost. One should go there and look at the poor quality of the site; when we were there, an elephant trampled down the camp and there were landslides. This site is so fragile, yet Bangladesh has extended its arms to be as welcoming as it possibly can be. So I will not hear a word said against what they have been doing, but the rest of the world could do so much more. As the hon. Lady said, we must encourage our neighbours who feel this is someone else’s problem, because it very much is our problem.
I did not hear any anger from these people; they want to go back, but they do not want to go back to be driven across the border again and again and again. They want some degree of resolution to their plight, and I hope by talking about it on the Floor of this House today we can ensure their voice is heard by the world, because that is what I pledge. That is all I could say to the people I met: “We will make sure your stories get back.” And today I know the two colleagues who joined me are making sure their stories have got back, and the hon. Lady who opened the debate has spoken eloquently, and I know she is summing up—and I am sure that across the House today we will show that we will not accept this any longer.
As we have heard today, the evidence about what has been happening in Myanmar is clear: there is a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. The military have used every kind of evil to create fear and trauma—men, women, and children tortured and killed; their families and neighbours forced to watch; children and elderly people burnt alive in their homes; gang rapes by soldiers, including of girls as young as five. All of these horrors are used as weapons to threaten and intimidate more than half a million innocent people into fleeing their homes, far too terrified to return. And who can blame them?
Hasina Begum lived in the Rakhine province, where the violence has been most intense, and her testimony is harrowing. She described how, first, the soldiers killed the men they found, cutting their bodies into four parts to make future identification difficult. Then they rounded up women and girls of the village, and forced them to watch as two teenage girls were raped by 14 of the soldiers. Hasina was forced to watch; she relives this horror in her nightmares.
These obscenities have clearly impacted on my community in West Ham. Last week I was given a petition signed by more than 750 constituents, and I have had many emails about this debate. They want the Government to get to the root of this crisis, not just condemn the most obvious abuses. I was deeply moved by their compassion, and I share their anger. Enough has not been done.
Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to live up to her responsibility as the head of Myanmar’s Government. I thought she was a great woman, but great women do not allow ethnic cleansing to take place in a country in which they have power, great women do not seek to deny facts when innocents are being slaughtered, and great women do not remain silent. The actions of the military, and her own inactions, have trampled the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi. The generals must be loving it.
But let us be clear: the greatest responsibility for what has happened belongs to the military, and especially the head of the army, Min Aung Hlaing. I want every one of those responsible for these crimes against humanity to face justice, and I want to see Min Aung Hlaing and the other senior commanders on trial for their crimes. The only way for this to happen is if our Government are resolute in calling out these crimes, supporting strong and co-ordinated sanctions. I want to see a visa ban on military figures, a complete ban on all equipment sales to the military and a ban on investment in and business with military-controlled companies. These actions need to be taken at the widest possible level across the EU and across the wider world through diplomacy at the UN.
The immediate humanitarian crisis remains appalling, and I am not convinced that the funding that the Department for International Development has committed is adequate, given the enormous scale of the crisis. We are currently providing emergency funding for shelter for approximately 26,000 people, but that covers less than 5% of the refugees who have fled since August. I understand that we have been the largest single donor in this crisis, and I certainly welcome that, but given the enormity of the circumstances it is simply unacceptable that many people are still not secure and that their basic needs are not being met. There can be little doubt that more can be done, and I want the Government to commit to doing it today.
It is a pleasure to follow three very passionate speeches. People feel very strongly about this, and there are statistics that we can all quote, but the human tragedy is the most important thing. We can talk about how much money we have spent, how much other countries have spent and how many people have been displaced, but we understand more when we watch the television news. Unlike my hon. Friend Mrs Main and others, I have not been to Bangladesh, but on last night’s television news I saw a mother who had seen her two children drown. She saw one of the bodies floating past her. There was also a son whose mother and brother had drowned, and there had been nothing he could do about it. Those are stateless people who are trying to escape persecution.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be stateless—none of us in this Chamber is stateless and none of us is likely to be—but let us try to imagine generations of people who have had no home and no country to stand up for them. That is what we are talking about. This is about hundreds of thousands of families who are stateless, and nobody cares about them. However, Bangladesh has opened its doors, taken them in and looked after them. We need to support that initiative. Bangladesh has its own problems—it has floods, as it has done before—but it has welcomed those people. It has not passed by on the other side. It is looking after them, and it is incredibly important that we should step up to the plate to support it.
We must also say that there must never again be a genocide, because that is what this is. We have said it before, about Bosnia and about Rwanda—which I have had quite a lot to do with—but we must say it again now. We must step up to the plate and actually do something to stop this crisis continuing. A lot has happened and many thousands of people have lost their lives. Many more have lost everything they have, and they have little dignity left. This Government must please continue to work with every other country that can help to stop this happening, and they must do it now.
Let us be absolutely clear: the Rohingya have been persecuted and mistreated in that region for hundreds of years, and the United Nations has labelled them the most persecuted people in the world. However, their past persecution pales into insignificance compared with what they have recently faced. They have been subjected to some of the deadliest violence over the past several months. Rohingya men, women and children are being murdered. Children are being beheaded and their bodies mutilated. Others are being burned alive, and there is rape and pillage on a scale fit for a medieval war. All of this amounts to some of the gravest crimes against humanity. The burning of Rohingya villages is not just an act of pure violence; it is also a calculated move by the Burmese Government to ensure that the Rohingya can never return to their homes, even if the violence subsides. Such a move—and the intent behind it—is a textbook definition of ethnic cleansing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must not shy away from calling the situation what it is, particularly when it is followed by deadly violence. It is ethnic cleansing.
When this issue was last before the House as the subject of an urgent question, I asked the Minister to condemn the Burmese Government for their crimes. Regrettably, the Minister’s answer fell far short of that, and the situation continues to worsen. I accept that the Government have taken action by suspending military programmes and by ensuring that the crisis has been debated at the UN Security Council, but that should just be the starting point, not the full extent of the Government’s action, because it does not go far enough.
Those who have managed to flee the violence and persecution fare little better, and the refugee crisis is only getting worse. Some 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh, but that figure is most likely to be even higher and will grow further still. So great is the number of refugees fleeing Burma and so fast have they fled that the UN recently documented it as one of the worst emergencies by weekly outflow since the Rwandan genocide. The refugees face dire situations and squalid conditions not only in the overcrowded camps that await them, but during their journeys to them. The violence and the desperate situations represent only a snapshot of the emergency facing the Rohingya, and the situation will only get worse. Despite the action that has been taken, the Burmese Government remain undeterred in their campaign of violence. We have to take stronger action, and we have to show leadership.
Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I clearly want a transition to democracy in the region. We want the road to lead to democracy, but that road cannot be surfaced with injustice and hypocrisy. It cannot be paved with ethnic cleansing and genocide. It cannot be built on persecution. It cannot be stained with the blood of innocent men, women and children. That road does not lead to democracy; that road leads to The Hague. I implore the Minister to use this opportunity to condemn the Burmese Government, which he is yet to do, for the violence and the flagrant human rights violations. What is he doing to ensure that those who have committed these grave crimes against humanity are brought to justice at The Hague?
It is hard to put 600,000 people fleeing persecution into context until one has been to the camps and can visualise the thousands of desperate people. To try to put it into some context, however, the situation is roughly the same as if the population of Glasgow or Sheffield were all fleeing the most horrific persecution and violence. On arriving at the camps with my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and for St Albans (Mrs Main), we saw thousands of people—mainly women and children—thick mud, makeshift tents and shacks as far as the eye could see, terrible sanitary conditions, awful latrines, and makeshift schools. The scenes were horrific.
The Bangladesh Government are absolutely trying their best and, to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, I do not think that they could be doing any more. Bangladesh is a relatively poor country with a population of 160 million people. A third of the country is underwater, yet they say, “If we can feed 160 million, we can feed another half a million.”
As Bangladesh is a fellow Commonwealth country, does my hon. Friend agree that we should have some kind of Commonwealth response in the light of Bangladesh’s appalling amounts of additional work to feed and provide hospitality to these fleeing people?
My right hon. Friend makes a good suggestion that I hope the Minister takes on.
Bangladesh is doing a great job, but it is under considerable pressure. The movement of people, particularly within the past few months, is on an unimaginable scale—the figure was some 10,000 to 15,000 people just over the past weekend. What camp could cope with such numbers of people desperate for help?
We saw many people and discussed many different stories, most of them absolutely tragic. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans said, we picked the people to whom we spoke; we were not directed. Either this is the biggest conspiracy theory in history, or they are telling the truth, and I choose to believe they are telling the truth.
I want to tell the story of a lady whose house was burned, with her husband killed and son murdered before her eyes. She picked up her remaining children and what possessions she could carry, and walked for five days in the hope that things might be better somewhere else. She got to the camps. As I spoke to her, she held her eight-month-old baby, who looked around four months old because they were so malnourished. She was desperately trying to feed her baby as we spoke, but her malnourished body could not produce the milk to do so. As a father myself, it broke my heart. That story is not a one-off; it was the same with every person to whom we spoke, mostly women who had gone through such a horrific ordeal, and in some cases worse.
We visited a makeshift school in the camps and heard 30 or so children singing “We Will Overcome” in English, because hope is all they have left. I am incredibly proud, as we should all be, of the role that the Department for International Development and the United Kingdom are playing through UK aid. It fills me with pride to see UK aid from the British people used all over the camps. Can we do more? Of course we can.
This is my message to all those who sent me emails and Twitter messages after Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday to say that we should not be sending UK aid: “You are wrong. This is exactly where we should be sending UK aid.” I am incredibly proud of what we are doing, as everyone in this country should be. Yes, we have to do more through diplomacy and work within the United Nations. I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s response, and I know the Minister has visited the region and is as passionate as me about addressing this issue.
My hon. Friend’s personal visit cannot be repeated by all of us who have read about the situation. Is there anything we can do to get aid more quickly to where it is needed? The speed of response seems to be one of the big problems in helping people on the ground.
There are many ways in which we can help, and I look to the Minister, and to DFID Ministers, to answer that question. The scale of the challenge is the issue. The Bangladeshi Government have recently set aside another 2,000 acres of land for the camps to expand, but they need money. That is why I encourage Members and people across the country to support the DEC appeal, which DFID is supporting with match funding.
Imran Hussain referred to landmines and helicopter attacks in his extremely passionate speech. We went to the border and saw that for ourselves. Yes, Bangladeshi military officials told us about it, but so did individuals. We saw videos on people’s phones of landmines, landmines being laid and people who have had their limbs blown off by landmines. There is no excuse anywhere in the world for landmines. We have to condemn the Myanmar Government in the strongest terms possible if they are using landmines, as I believe they are, and helicopter attacks to drive people towards the border. Whether the Myanmar Government are planting those landmines to prevent people from crossing the border or to prevent them from heading back into Rakhine state, it does not matter. This is wrong and we should absolutely condemn it.
I know the Minister is as passionate as I am about this issue, and I am proud of what we are doing. The Rohingya people are desperate to go home, but I just ask him to redouble our efforts to make sure that the UN, the humanitarian agencies and the NGOs can work in Myanmar not only to keep people safe, but to protect that all-important humanitarian aid.
I am pleased to follow Will Quince and to concur with everything he said in his excellent speech. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and Mrs Main, both of whom spoke incredibly powerfully, as has everyone else in this debate.
I am pleased to say that this morning the International Development Committee agreed to carry out an immediate inquiry on Burma and Bangladesh, and to start that inquiry by looking at the current Rohingya crisis. As of this month, more than half a million refugees have fled across the border between the two countries, increasing the number of displaced persons in Bangladesh to about 800,000. To put that number in perspective, UNHCR estimates that the total number of refugees who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe last year was 362,000, so we are talking about more than double that number in the single country of Bangladesh. That is why today’s debate is so important.
As we have heard, while these people—most of them women and children—have been making this perilous journey, they have been traumatised by landmines, gunshots, shrapnel and fires. Those who arrive safely in Bangladesh talk of the appalling violations of human rights that are being carried out in Burma. Let us have no doubt that, as the motion says, we are witnessing ethnic cleansing, and this House needs to say that loud and clear. As my hon. Friend Imran Hussain rightly said, this is not something new. The Rohingya people have faced centuries of persecution and have so often been forgotten.
The need in Bangladesh is severe. According to the International Rescue Committee, which has carried out needs assessments in the region, more than three quarters of the refugees surveyed lacked the most basic food to live; about a third are being forced to defecate in the open; more than 95% are drinking untreated water; a staggering 87% of the displaced families have at least one member with an identified vulnerability—they may be elderly, pregnant, disabled or wounded—and nearly half of the pregnant women have not received medical care for their pregnancies.
I join in paying tribute to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their remarkable response to this crisis. Humanitarian organisations such as UNHCR have struggled to register new arrivals as they cross the border. The camps that have been set up for the fleeing Rohingya in Bangladesh are often located in low-lying areas that are either flooded or severely prone to flooding during the monsoon season. Although the Bangladesh army is planning to construct new camps for the ever-increasing number of arrivals, that will take time. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Bangladesh is not a party to the UN convention on refugees, which sometimes means that UN agencies and others have struggled to gain access to Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh. Given such a massive humanitarian need, the Government of Bangladesh can show further strong leadership by expediting the registration process of refugees to those NGOs that are ready and willing to help. The IRC is a good example, as it is ready to scale up in a massive way and has just submitted its registration request. May I urge the Minister to indicate in his response today that the Government will use their good offices to seek to persuade the Government of Bangladesh to move on this very important point, as it will enable key NGOs to register refugees so that they get the support that they so desperately need?
It is important to note the history behind this issue. As we heard earlier from Rushanara Ali, the Rohingya Muslims have been in that part of Myanmar for many hundreds of years. When the British were controlling Burma, they used people from what is now Bangladesh, moving across what was then a very permeable border, for employment and labour. That started to muddy the waters, because we did not register those people or acknowledge them as Bangladeshi. That has given the Myanmar Government the excuse to set a new year zero and to deny these people, who have been there and had roots there for so many years, the right to citizenship.
When I was in Burma in February 2016, at the time of the transition Government, I was really hopeful. Everyone was incredibly optimistic that, as the country came into the light, we would start to see the desperately needed end to the ethnic conflict throughout the country. I ask all Members present, including the Minister, to acknowledge when they condemn what is going on in Rakhine state that the Burmese people are largely behind it, as shocking as that may sound. There are demonstrations in Yangon at which people say, “We stand with the lady, we stand with the army and we stand with the Burmese people.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the same time as we were at Cox’s Bazar airport. We have all said that she needs to be far more forthright in condemning the actions in Rakhine state, but we must concentrate on the man who could stop this tomorrow: Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief. If we whip this up into “the west against a nationalist uprising in Myanmar”, we run a risk, because this is a man who might fancy his chances of presidency in 2020. We might end up with the military getting back into control via the ballot box rather than the gun.
My hon. Friend is making an extraordinarily powerful point. We should all be familiar with the point that during the transition, the military retained 25% of control in the Myanmar Parliament. The commander-in-chief is no fan of Aung San Suu Kyi, so she is in an extraordinarily difficult position. Yes, we would like her to speak out more, but we must also recognise that in the longer term the progress we have seen in Burma could easily go backwards, and that would endanger peace throughout the country, not only in Rakhine.
Members in the Chamber and people throughout the country are rightly passionate about the atrocities that are taking place and that were witnessed by a number of us who went over to Cox’s Bazar, but we must realise that the situation in the country is complex. Our response must absolutely reflect that so that we do not make the country close in on itself. If we do, the conflicts in Rakhine state will start to reignite in Kachin state, Shan state and all the other areas in which the peace process, under Kofi Annan’s commission, has started to have some sort of traction—albeit that it is taking some time.
The military claims that what is going on in Rakhine state is a response to the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army, and that ARSA is a terrorist group. Let us assume that there are some terrorists there, although if there are, they number a couple of hundred at most—nothing like the 500,000 people who have crossed the border. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for St Albans (Mrs Main), I met a 60-year-old lady. She came over with her surviving grandchildren—and I mean surviving grandchildren. Her son-in-law had been stabbed in front of her and dragged away, and was assumed dead, and her 12-year-old grandchild was beheaded in front of her.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we were given her words absolutely verbatim? They were translated by people in our party who understood, so we were not being duped in any way.
Absolutely. We picked all of the dozen or so people to whom we spoke over two days and we had our own translators there, so it was absolutely verbatim. Another one of her grandchildren had their genitals mutilated and chopped off. As Members will understand, this woman was dead behind the eyes. There is no way that that woman was a terrorist. The response by the military is clearly disproportionate and needs to be called out. We must absolutely ensure that every time we have dealings with the Burmese Government and the military we call them out for what they do.
We need to plan things regionally, work with our Commonwealth friends, and try to encourage the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to have a regional response. At the moment, there is little movement from Thailand and the Indian Government are rejecting the Rohingya Muslims who have settled in their country, so, as we have heard, this is not just a Burmese-Bangladesh situation.
The Bangladeshi Government are doing a fantastic job under difficult circumstances. The fact that the situation is not new is clear when I reveal that the Kutupalong camp is 30 years old. This is not a new camp that has just been set up; it is 30 years old. There are two treaties outstanding with Bangladesh and Burma dating back to 1978 for the safe return of Rohingya Muslims to Burma. They have been ignored by the Burmese Government, so we must ensure that a treaty, which is backed up by international support, is put in place to allow the safe return of the Rohingya.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and Mrs Main for securing this necessary debate. I also thank my hon. Friend for the vital work that she has done in raising awareness of the persecution of the Rohingya. Sadly this abuse is not new. In 1992, a cross-party early-day motion criticised the “systematic extermination” of the Rohingya in Burma. Some 25 years later, the extermination continues.
The most recent UN report contains witness statements detailing shocking acts of violence and humiliation: children and elderly people burned in their homes; mass use of gang-rape, including soldiers gang-raping girls as young as five; victims, including children, forced to watch relatives and loved ones tortured and killed; and a pregnant woman raped, her stomach cut open, her unborn baby killed, and her nipples cut off.
Since August, more than 540,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, taking the total now in Bangladesh to more than 800,000. Sickeningly, Amnesty International and some of our colleagues have said that there are clear indications that the Burmese authorities have been deliberately targeting the Rohingya as they flee, placing landmines at border crossings.
Does the hon. Lady agree that landmines are terrible not just for those in the present, but in 10 or 20 years’ time when, hopefully, this has been solved and children are out playing?
That is the perversity of the situation, and we have our eyes wide open.
“reports of girls in Rohingya camps being raped or abused when going to the toilet or collecting firewood.”
There are those who suggest that there are two sides to this story, and that paramilitary attacks mean that the Rohingya are to blame for the violence. Nothing can ever justify the horrors that innocent Rohingya are suffering. The UN report contains a witness statement of a 12-year-old Rohingya girl. She told the UN team:
“They surrounded our house and started to shoot. It was a situation of panic—they shot my sister in front of me, she was only seven years old. She cried and told me to run. I tried to protect her and care for her, but we had no medical assistance on the hillside and she was bleeding so much that after one day she died. I buried her myself.”
That was a 12-year-old girl. If a proportional response existed, that could never be it. The UN also said that
“security forces targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership, and other people of influence of the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.”
This is planned and co-ordinated ethnic cleansing. I am pleased and relieved that the Secretary of State has echoed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in describing it in that way, but we need not only strong language, but strong action. The director of International State Crime Initiative has called ethnic cleansing a “euphemism for genocide”. She adds that genocide is a process that takes place over many years. In 2015, the organisation described the violence towards the Rohingya as
“highly organised and genocidal in intent.”
The Bangladeshi Government have already called this genocide so I ask the Minister, if the UN finds that genocide or other violations of international law have been committed, will the British Government support a referral to the International Criminal Court?
I am hugely grateful for that intervention.
Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary had the opportunity to lead on this in a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. Sadly, the Foreign Secretary’s eagerness to lead at home is not matched by an eagerness to lead abroad. The only action from that meeting was the suspension of invitations to senior Burmese military officials to visit the EU. I agree with Burma Campaign UK that this is absolutely pathetic.
We must do everything in our power to protect the Rohingya and pressure the Burmese Government to immediately cease military operations. We must ensure the implementation of the recommendations in the Annan commission, particularly on the matter of citizenship rights. We must listen to aid agencies and ensure that resources are available to distribute food, reduce the threat of disease and help establish protection services for women and children. We have to remove the red tape so that that can happen. We must pressure the Burmese authorities to allow immediate unimpeded humanitarian access to Rakhine state. Fundamentally, we must no longer turn a blind eye. I urge this House to act now, before it is too late.
“A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent. In recent weeks, hundreds of Muslim Rohingya people have been killed, and more than 30,000 displaced. Houses have been burned, hundreds of women raped and many others arbitrarily arrested. Access for humanitarian-aid organizations has been almost completely denied. Thousands have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, only to be sent back. Witness all the hallmarks of past tragedies: Bosnia, Darfur, Kosovo, Rwanda… It’s also time for the international community to speak out. If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first…Let us act now before it’s too late.”
How right he was. That was almost a year ago. For many, such as the seven-year-old girl we just heard about, buried by her 12-year-old sister, it is already too late.
In a further article in February this year, Ben Rogers and the EU special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Ján Figel’, highlighted the question of impunity, writing:
“Under the constitution, the military remains in control of the Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defense ministries, meaning Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership is tenuous. While she could have done more to speak out, she does not control the troops. Only Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, has the power to stop the killing and rapes.”
I take my hon. Friend’s point about Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is not simply that Aung San Suu Kyi has not condemned the activities of the military; it is that she has actively apologised for them over and over again in interviews. Having gone from being one of the most celebrated people in the world for her courage in taking on the brutal authorities, she has become that brutal authority.
It should be remembered that, yes, she could have done more to prevent this tragedy and to speak out when it began, but she does not control the army.
The article continued:
“The international community must now act to hold the Burmese military to account for its crimes.”
Those warnings were also made many months ago. Now a tragedy is unfolding on a far bigger scale and action is long overdue.
I welcome the action taken by the Government so far: initiating discussions at the UN Security Council, suspending training programmes with the Burmese army, providing £30 million in aid and pledging to match £5 million in donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while it is absolutely right that we should suspend our military programme with the Burmese military, it is a matter of regret that the people left training the Burmese military at the moment are the Russians?
I will come in a moment to the further action I want to challenge the Minister to take with regard to the military.
More surely can and should be done. When the United Nations Secretary-General describes the crisis as “catastrophic” and “a devastating humanitarian situation" and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that it is
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, there is surely a need for a much more robust response.
So what other measures will the UK take to put pressure on the army and the Government of Burma to stop this appalling ethnic cleansing? What steps are the Government taking to demand that the military in Burma immediately cease operations in Rakhine state and that the Government of Burma allow unhindered access to all affected areas for international humanitarian aid organisations, human rights monitors and the media? What pressure will the Government put on the Government of Burma to ensure that Rohingyas can safely return to their home villages and that homes are rebuilt, livelihoods are secured, security is guaranteed, the recommendations of the Rakhine advisory commission, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are implemented, a reconciliation process begins, and the military are held to account for their crimes?
Will the Government work at the UN Security Council to secure a global arms embargo on Burma and targeted sanctions to prohibit investment in Burmese military-owned enterprises? Will the UK urge the EU to extend its arms embargo to ban the sale of non-military equipment that could be used for military purposes and to impose a visa ban on senior members of the military? Will the UK work to reintroduce a UN General Assembly resolution on Burma, imposing specific measures to put pressure on the Government and the military in Burma to address this crisis?
I urge the Minister to consider introducing regular meetings at this critical time, either with himself or his officials, so that non-governmental organisations based in London that have much expertise in Burma can discuss the current crisis. I have referred to the expertise of Ben Rogers, but I also have in mind the Burma Campaign UK, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and, in particular, representatives of the exiled Rohingya community.
This tragedy requires our urgent attention and action now. It is time to act to prevent another ethnic cleansing from becoming another genocide.
I returned from Bangladesh just last week, and I felt moved to speak today. The Rohingya have been forced to choose between the perilous uncertainty of fleeing to another country and the certainty of the violent oppression in their own. The stories of suffering are simply too much to bear. Prior to being in this place, I had a career in the field of humanitarian emergencies, and I have rarely seen anything like this: entire communities fleeing with anything they could grab, only to see all their homes razed to the ground; children burying their younger siblings; multiple accounts of rape and torture; the woman who found her husband dead in her village yet still managed to find the strength over five days to take her three children to Bangladesh; the husband and father who saw his wife and some of his children murdered in front of him but still found the strength to take his remaining children to safety; the two little boys who made it into Bangladesh, despite having had their legs broken; the bravery that is second to none; and, as almost always in conflict, the hundreds—the thousands—of women who have been raped.
Is this ethnic cleansing? Without a doubt. It is a campaign of the most extreme violence, with physical and psychological trauma that will last for generations to come. While it is deeply shocking, it is, sadly, not surprising. We were warned. Three years ago, the group United to End Genocide said:
“Nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today.”
Yet, these things have been allowed to happen. It follows decades of state-supported violent discrimination, social exclusion, and the relentless stoking of racial hatred. The desire to expel the Rohingya from Myanmar has been repeatedly laid bare, as even in the years when the world praised Aung San Suu Kyi’s path to democracy, they were demonised and massacred as “the other”.
I say this to Aung San Suu Kyi: “What we are seeing is not fake news. With its acts of barbaric, unimaginable horror, the campaign of ethnic cleansing taking place in Rakhine province shows the eternal truth that if you cannot see the essential humanity of people because you declare them to be “the other”, you will lose your own humanity.” It is a lesson that this country should learn well. It challenges us to ask, “What does our humanity spur us to do now?” Does it spur us to be brave and to challenge what is happening? Will we act? Will we call this what it is—ethnic cleansing?
The Rohingya desperately need us to step up. They may have escaped the Myanmar army, but they are not yet safe. They are malnourished. They are desperate. Pregnant women are in need of care; children are alone, subject to sexual exploitation. I have worked with, and spoken to on the ground, fantastic organisations such as Christian Aid and Action Aid. They need our help. Bangladesh, which has so bravely and kindly opened its borders, needs our help. We cannot allow the Burmese campaign of ethnic cleansing to succeed by giving up on the future of the people, and of so many children who have been through hell for a chance of survival. I call on the Government to accelerate and increase their support of those organisations and others working to support the Rohingya refugees. At Britain’s best, our humanity does not have borders; it is big enough to stretch overseas. Let it stretch and let us support the Rohingya Muslims who so desperately need our help.
I thank Rushanara Ali for securing this important debate. I hope that as well as getting a further commitment from the Minister to do all that he can to support the Rohingya people, we can get some of the western media to cover their plight, which has been ignored for so long. With more than 1 million minority Rohingya having fled Burma after witnessing murder, rape and pillaging of villages, we should not be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they are—a deliberate, brutal, sustained and targeted campaign to cleanse the country of Rohingya and Muslim minority groups. It is a genocide.
The horror and the lack of an international response to the persecution of the Rohingya led the Foreign Affairs Committee to hold its first ever session on this issue last week. Tun Khin of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK came and gave evidence. He confirmed that more than 10,000 homes have been burned or destroyed. The military are systematically going from village to village, looting and destroying everything. They leave nothing behind: there is nothing for the Rohingya to return to. The United Nations described what took place as crimes against humanity. The UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to investigate, yet the Government of Burma are refusing to allow it into the country.
The Burmese are applying North Korean public relations strategies and declaring that the reporting of rape, plunder and mass murder is some sort of media hysteria. I have here a letter that the Foreign Affairs Committee received from the embassy, which says:
“Accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ are totally false…Assertions in the media that horrifying crimes have been committed against innocent people have only served to intensify the anxiety of the international community. While such claims might appear realistic at initial glance to an ordinary viewer, skilled observers” would see otherwise. This letter is diabolical. By having this debate in this Chamber today, we can make it clear to the Burmese authorities that we will call out what we see.
One slightly positive point was the establishment of the commission chaired by the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. However, while Aung San Suu Kyi was talking about implementing its recommendations, her social media, Facebook page and website were carrying flashing “fake rape” signs. At the same time, the UN was confirming the most horrific details of mass rape against Rohingya women.
Many other valid points have been raised today. I want to read out the testimony of one young woman, who writes to Aung San Suu Kyi:
“After suffering years of abuse at the hands of the military junta, your peace prize inspired us, a people who have suffered decades of oppression. We were proud to call ourselves Myanmarese.”
Forgive me if I have pronounced that incorrectly. She continues:
“Growing up, my grandfather always spoke highly of you. He would choose the biggest goats and cows to slaughter when members of your party, the National League for Democracy, would visit. He would graciously welcome them…In 2010, when you were finally released by the military from house arrest, we rejoiced. But seven years on, we, the Rohingya, remain victims of a brutal and genocidal state. This time, at your hands. Since your general election victory in 2015, you pushed out Muslim representatives from your party. It was the first sign of your political cowardice. A few months later, your administration launched ‘clearance operations’ in northern Rakhine State. During those months, countless civilians were killed and women were gang-raped. Despite widespread international condemnation, you denied the crimes.”
Some Members may know that people of Rohingya heritage cannot go to university. This young girl goes on to say:
“I just received information that my home was burned to the ground. While many will say it was the army or vigilantes that burned it down, I feel as if it is you—Aung San Suu Kyi—that is to blame. Not only did you burn down my home, you also burned my books. I had always dreamed of becoming an author, studying English at Sittwe University, but as you know, the Rohingya are banned from enrolling or studying there, so I sought inspiration from books and articles. You burned Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom…You burned Leymah Gbowee’s Mighty Be Our Power. And you burned your own book, Freedom from Fear. You are the one who is responsible for setting my hopes and dreams on fire.”
I agree with this young girl that the Nobel peace prize should be removed from Aung San Suu Kyi, because it has been tainted with the blood of the Rohingya.
I applaud what the Minister is doing. I know that he was the first western visitor to the region, and I know that he is trying to build a consensus on the five priorities, to tackle poverty and injustice in the area. I urge him to move forward with that.
The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world, and their persecution is not a recent phenomenon; it is of long standing. People are being rendered stateless in their own land. If they are not being beaten, murdered or raped, they are being starved, literally, because of the closure of food markets in Rakhine state.
The scale of what the Rohingya face is unimaginable, and we have heard many moving examples from Members from across the Chamber. This is a textbook example of ethnic cleansing—let there be no doubt about that—with all the horror that that entails. We have heard about the more than 500,000 refugees who have fled in recent months to Bangladesh, and about the more than 200,000 who were already there, having fled violence previously.
I have been reflecting on the fact that we have had so many debates in this House about whether we should take a few thousand unaccompanied child refugees into our nation—one of the most prosperous on earth—from the ravaged land that is Syria, while Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations on earth, is housing 800,000 refugees. I do not know that we would be so generous if we faced the situation that the Bangladeshis face. As other Members have said, not only must we offer every assistance to the Bangladeshi Government—I welcome the efforts that have been made already—but we must strain every sinew to provide humanitarian assistance and use our particular expertise to support the Bangladeshi Government as fully as we possibly can, and we must implore the rest of the world to do the same.
I will not, because of the shortness of time; I apologise.
I agree that we should keep a laser-like focus on the military, and I support Members’ calls for arms bans and visa bans for military personnel and their families in Myanmar. I hear the argument about Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader; as others have said, he could stop this overnight. However, I do not want us to get away from the moral responsibility on Aung San Suu Kyi. I take on board the points about the military leadership—I hear the argument saying that she does not have power, that this country is transitioning to democracy, that she has to tread a fine line and that there is a fear of overthrow by the military leadership—but the compromise of transition to democracy cannot come at the cost of turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing. That is abhorrent, and a total corruption of democracy and everything that democracy stands for.
There is an idea that Aung San Suu Kyi has no power, but for many years not only did she have no power, but she did not have liberty, yet she used the one power she did have—the power of her voice, the power to speak out—and now she has fallen silent and brought her Nobel peace prize into disrepute. If she has not been utterly silent, all she has done is to act as an apologist for the military regime and to deny the truth of the crisis that has fallen upon the Rohingya in Burma.
The point about Aung San Suu Kyi raising her voice is so important because she must stand up and make the argument for democracy. Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority having a vote and persecuting a minority. It is founded on the principle that human rights are universal, and the universality of human rights must be accepted in Myanmar if it is ever going to be a democracy worthy of the name. That is the argument that Aung San Suu Kyi could and should make, and we in this House must call her out. If we, in the mother of Parliaments, do not stand up for the true nature of democracy, I fear all will be lost.
In effect, there is no debate in this place this afternoon, because we are all of the same voice and of the same opinion, as we know from the words that right hon. and hon. Members have read out by way of testimony from the Rohingya people who have suffered in this dreadful genocide, and from the right hon. and hon. Members who have seen with their own eyes and listened with their own ears to the plight of these people.
As it turns out, the Rohingya people have been persecuted and treated appallingly not just by the Burmese authorities, but sadly, often by many of the Burmese people themselves, and not just for years, but for decades if not centuries. This is a long-standing problem, but it is now of a scale that is absolutely, totally and without any doubt unacceptable. I praise the British Government for being at the forefront in calling out the terrible, terrible persecution of these people, and for the aid that has been provided thus far.
Our hearts do go out to Bangladesh. It is not exactly one of the world’s richest countries, yet the people of Bangladesh have opened their borders, opened their hearts and given of their limited resources to people who are in the most appalling of situations of flight and plight. One cannot sit in this place and not have been touched to one’s core by the words of the real testimonies we have heard about this atrocious act of inhumanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Those words are all the right ones to use—they convey right hon. and hon. Members’ passion and emotion—but words are not enough. We now need not only action from our Government, with all that they have done, but for our Government to continue to lead across the world in saying to the Burmese authorities that this is not acceptable and we will not tolerate it, and in doing more to put full pressure on the Burmese authorities.
I must say two further things. The first is that I very much join right hon. and hon. Members in the words they have said about Aung San Suu Kyi. She was a woman who I always believed had shown great courage in her overriding humanity, and I am afraid she has let herself down, never mind the Rohingya people. All of us believed so much in what she stood for, and I gravely fear that she has put her own position in the history of our world at peril. How can I argue against those who are calling for her peace prize to be removed from her?
My other point is that when Dr Allin-Khan and I went to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, we saw people who had been there for four or five years, and she told me about her work in Palestinian refugee camps and about the people who have been there for 15 or 20 years. It worries me more than perhaps anything else that these wonderful, good people may be living in refugee camps for decades to come. They want to go home, and it is our duty throughout the world to make sure that the camps are not still there in decades to come. We must make sure that these people, like all refugees, can go home.
The right hon. Lady mentioned refugee camps in different parts of the world. What is happening to the Rohingya is horrendous, given the testimony that we have heard today. In common with many past disasters, is it not absolutely vital that there is access for agencies so that they can go in and gather evidence and testimony, so that the case can be made and the people responsible for perpetrating the atrocities are brought to justice in the international courts?
I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said. I am absolutely sure that all those things will be done. As the Minister explained, the Government have not stood back on any of that. In fact, they want to step up and assist. Somehow, somewhere along the line, it has to be more than words and the sticking-plaster that refugee camps can almost become. We do wonderful things through our great aid agencies and DFID. We are proud as a country that we provide aid in that way, but there is a danger that we do all those great things but do not solve the real problem, which is genocide, racism and hatred of a good people for no other reason than that they happen to be Muslims. It is not good enough, and the world must step up and say, “We will not tolerate this. We will stop this.” It is 2017. The history of the world is ridden with all sorts of genocide. Too often we have stood back; now we must step up and make sure that it never happens again.
May I begin by conveying to the House the extensive number of responses that I have received from my constituents and others about the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar? I have been contacted by people involved in fundraising efforts and grassroots protests, which provide an outlet for their outrage and dismay. Like many hon. Members who have spoken, I have done whatever I can to provide support, particularly by raising funds for refugees in Bangladesh, but we can all do more.
Let us be direct: what we are witnessing is ethnic cleansing. More than half the Rohingya population has fled. Starvation is a new tool that is being used to drive the Rohingya from their homes, in addition to the burning of villages, looting, and the mass use of gang rape, including of young girls and pregnant women. The recent violence is the result of decades of persecution.
I would like to make three short points. First, we should not restrict our criticism to the Burmese military. Aung San Suu Kyi has been a symbol of democracy, the rule of law, and resistance to oppressive regimes for decades, but she has disappointed us all. Not only has she failed to speak out, but she has denied that this is happening. I agree with many of my hon. Friends who have asked for her Nobel prize to be revoked. Supporting freedom and democracy in Myanmar is a laudable aim, but it means nothing if we ignore ethnic cleansing.
Secondly, the Government need to spell out what concrete action they will take to end the persecution of the Rohingya beyond ending the training of Burmese armed forces. At a recent Security Council meeting, the UK’s ambassador to the UN set out five ways in which the Myanmar Government should resolve the crisis. What steps have the Government taken to encourage them to comply? We should look at what economic sanctions the global community could exert to put further pressure on Myanmar and end the violence.
Finally, I would like to raise the issue of sexual violence. The coalition Government drew international headlines with the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict that they arranged in 2014. In response to a written question that I submitted, the Government said that they had urged Myanmar to accept a visit by a Human Rights Council fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of sexual violence. That mission was announced months ago—in March. What additional pressure have the UK Government exerted on Myanmar in response to the recent escalation of violence in Rakhine? We cannot afford accusations of peddling empty words; these issues are too serious to be cheapened by rhetoric.
Some years ago, I secured a Westminster Hall debate in which I said to the Government that although we had been told that there had been a transition to democracy in Burma, its military and junta were still carrying out rapes, murders, systematic discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya people. I said then that we should not have lifted sanctions and been supplying arms to Burma; we should have waited until the Myanmar Government started treating people—especially the Rohingya people—fairly. Sanctions should not have been lifted, and development funds and military assistance should not have been given.
I am afraid that the Government did not listen. Nobody paid any attention. Unlike some Members, I do not accept that the Government have done enough. This issue has been pointed out for a number of years and nothing has happened. After we came back from the recess in September, I raised an urgent question about the current crisis, and I was very disappointed when the Minister for Asia and the Pacific effectively said that what had happened was the fault of the Rohingya. At that time, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports showed satellite images of Rohingya villages being systematically burned. Even at that point, more than 100,000 Rohingya people had fled as refugees into Bangladesh. I am afraid that the ministerial response was not good. Madam Deputy Speaker, you are looking a little puzzled, but I can refer in Hansard to the Minister’s suggestion.
This is a very serious issue. It is fair to say that the latest element of the crisis, triggered on
But there has been systematic abuse of the Rohingya people for years. The fact is that Governments around the world—not just ours—and also the UN have been approached about this issue, but nobody has taken any notice.
More recently, things have gone to the extreme. More than half a million people are now in Bangladesh. The situation in Myanmar is such that those people will not be able to come back. We have heard real, cogent evidence of children being raped and murdered in front of their mothers’ eyes. I do not know what proof the world needs that genocide and ethnic cleansing is taking place right now. I am afraid that the international community seems not to have done enough, if anything, to deal with the issue.
It is all very well people saying, “We’ll give you more money,” or, “We’re going to provide money for the people in Bangladesh,” but that is not enough. Loads more money is needed, but the Rohingya people still in Burma now need to be looked after, and what is happening to them needs to be stopped. The powerful nations of the world need to get together and tell the Burmese to stop. Only when they do so will the Burmese actually do that.
I remember the Libya debate in this House. There were fears then that people might get killed. The world came together: we were able to get a UN Security Council resolution and bomb the place. I am not necessarily saying that we should start bombing, but there seems to be a complete lack of action compared with what happened in Libya, although the Foreign Affairs Committee found that the threat there had perhaps not been as imminent as everybody had suggested. Over there, we did not even know who the good guys and the bad guys were; in Burma, it is clear who is carrying out the ethnic cleansing: the Myanmar Government, the army and the military junta. One general clearly said, “This is unfinished business,” so we know what they want. They want to prevent the Rohingya from going back to Burma, where they belong and have lived for centuries.
Does my hon. Friend agree that because actions speak louder than words, we need to do more now? This has been going on for years, yet we sit back and do nothing, which is the opposite of what we should be doing. Does she agree we should do more now, make a stand, and do all we can to stop this genocide?
I agree entirely, which was why I said at the start of my speech something that I think no one else has said today. I said, with respect, that our Government have not done enough. We saw what we could achieve when we invaded Iraq and when we intervened in Libya, and I am not even asking for military intervention. We could do more to stop the situation in Burma. Myanmar is not a rich country. I refuse to believe that if members of the international community put their heads together they could not stop what is happening—the ethnic cleansing, systematic genocide and rape.
The hon. Lady talks about doing more but says she is not asking for military intervention. What would she like us to do rather than say?
Years ago, when I raised this matter in Westminster Hall, I said that the sanctions should be maintained, that military assistance should be stopped, and that the sale of weapons from across the world to Burma should be stopped. People need to get together and talk. I do not believe for one minute that if the richest countries in the world said to the Burmese generals, “Stop doing this,” they would not stop doing it—they would. If all the money and military aid was pulled out, they would stop. I am sorry to say, however, that the international community is still sitting and watching while genocide and ethnic cleansing take place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and Mrs Main on securing this debate, and I am grateful to be called to make a brief contribution, acknowledging the disaster befalling the Rohingya people, described as ethnic cleansing by the UN.
I endorse many of the comments that colleagues have made this afternoon in their many passionate contributions. I pay tribute to the Government for what they have done so far to help the international aid effort, and I look forward to the Minister updating us on the latest from UK Aid Direct when he winds up. I commend the Disasters Emergency Committee for its efforts to raise awareness and funds to combat the human tragedy that continues to unfold, and I praise the efforts of the Bangladeshi Government, as have many others, to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have descended on their territory. I also want to mention the efforts of two small UK-Bangladeshi charities, the Sreepur Village orphanage, of which I am a patron, and Shishu Polli Plus. Our founder, Pat Kerr, has collected clothes from the garment factories around Gazipur and taken them to Cox’s Bazar to do what she can to help. I am sure that her efforts are replicated by many small likeminded charities, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the atrocities and the disaster we have heard about this afternoon.
I attended a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the United Nations global goals for sustainable development last month when it was addressed by Achim Steiner, the new head of the UN Development Programme. When asked about the situation in Myanmar, he described it as “democracy hanging by a thread”. That thread, in my view, is Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady has been under house arrest or arrest for 15 of the last 21 years, her country has been a democracy for only 18 months, and my understanding is that the military, under a constitution that it drafted, is guaranteed 25% of the places in both legislative houses and therefore has an effective veto in Parliament over every major decision, since every such decision requires a 76% majority to pass. The military controls Parliament and the military forces, therefore, and it is the military that is carrying out the atrocities. In addition to that distorting effect, allegations of corruption at the highest level of the military, negative influence from foreign interests trying to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources, and armed movements in regions such as Shan and Kachin—which were mentioned earlier—show that the challenges to the country’s fledgling democratic status are huge.
I would be grateful if the Minister told us what we are doing to encourage Aung San Suu Kyi to live up to the promises that she made in her speech in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, on
I should be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance, for the Rohingya victims and also for Myanmar’s democracy. If democracy—with all the attendant respect for human rights for every citizen—does not prevail, the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya for so many centuries will continue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for securing this important debate—although, as other Members have said, it is not really a debate, because most of us agree. We are all horrified. We have heard the details of atrocities for weeks in the House, and none of us can have failed to be shocked by the child beheadings, the rape, the murder and the burning of homes—the ruthless targeting of innocent civilians.
The recent outbreak of violence against the Rohingya people began on
Does the hon. Lady agree that access to Myanmar is crucial, and we must ensure that the United Nations and non-governmental organisations have access to those who are left there in a vulnerable state, living and enduring this nightmare?
Absolutely, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point.
My constituents and I—and, I am sure, many Members on both sides of the House—want to see the British Government lead not just in respect of the naming and shaming of the military and on humanitarian aid, but in the long term, when the current crisis has calmed down, in respect of a permanent solution that will implement the recommendations of the Rakhine commission. That is vital. Points have already been made about the British Government’s taking a lead, and I would say, “So we should.” We have a moral obligation: our history dictates that ours should be the loudest voice in the world on this issue. We should not be content to leave it to the United Nations or the European Union.
There is a strong perception that we have still not done enough, and that more must be done. Indeed, nearly eight weeks on, not much has been done, and Burma Campaign UK is very critical of our lack of action. I know that we may have gone further than it is suggesting, but we have not gone far enough, and we must do more. I want ours to be the loudest voice. I hope the Minister will confirm that when we have delivered the humanitarian aid, when we have stopped the violence and when we have taken the honours from Aung San Suu Kyi, we will lead in securing a permanent, peaceful settlement for democracy and the rights of everyone in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya Muslims.
I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for securing this important and impassioned debate. I pay tribute, too, to all those who have contributed to the debate, particularly those who visited the area recently and have given their accounts in graphic detail; that has greatly helped to ensure that the debate be taken more seriously.
The Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar has faced persecution for decades. They have been marginalised and victimised, and have had their rights withdrawn by a Government who do not recognise their ethnicity, their language or their customs, and who have sought, through different ways and means, to oust them from land the Rohingya have occupied for centuries.
The disproportionate and overblown retaliation by the Myanmar military, which began on
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and we have already heard some of the reasons why.
The Myanmar military and its civil Government led by the now disgraced Aung San Suu Kyi have refused to allow humanitarian agencies to enter the country to inspect the situation. If I may digress, I would like to point out that Sheffield has already taken steps to remove the freedom of the city award from Aung San Suu Kyi over her silence on the violence that has unfolded, and I hope that the Nobel Committee will also review and reconsider revoking her peace prize.
The reports of systematic human rights abuses are harrowing, and no doubt we have also seen the shocking images broadcast of the Rohingya fleeing their homes and livelihoods. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that the Myanmar military forces, often accompanied by individual Rakhine Buddhist villagers, have surrounded entire Rohingya villages, firing indiscriminately at villagers, setting houses and land on fire, and threatening villagers nearby that if they do not flee the same will happen to them, with the effect of both expelling Rohingya from Myanmar and giving them no option of return. These actions were, as the report notes,
“executed in a well-organized, coordinated and systematic manner”.
The same report gives first-person accounts of young and teenage girls having suffered sexual violence, a tactic we see too often in war and conflict. In one account quoted by the report a 25-year-old woman recounts the moment she heard her sister being raped, saying that four men
“in uniform took my sister when we were hiding in the hills;
they raped her in front of us as we were hiding behind the trees.”
Over 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and they tell similar stories of destruction, killings and sexual violence. What we are witnessing, after proclaiming “Never again” so many times before, is surely
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
This is all happening in the view of all of us and the international community.
I urge the Government to explore what more they can do to support the efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis and to continue to lead the international pressure to address the root causes of the crisis: the policies of the Myanmar Government and the actions of the Myanmar military.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali on securing this timely debate. With the world sitting and watching the events unfold in Burma with fear and trepidation, we need to bring the Rohingya people some hope—some hope that we can help them find a solution, some hope that one day they can return to what is left of their homes as real citizens of a country they are very much a part of.
Many of my colleagues have talked movingly about the systematic rape, murder, pillaging and burning of villages. Human Rights Watch says that as of this week almost 214 villages have been destroyed. We have heard accounts and seen videos of children and the elderly being burnt in their homes, of mass rapes and murders, and the forcing of the Rohingya people from their country.
The numbers, the methods and the actions show a clear and systematic intent, and it is essential that we continue to repeat UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s description of the Government operations in northern Rakhine state as
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Is it acceptable for the Burmese Government to defend the actions of their military and militias while systematically carrying out the eradication and removal of a people, and for them to escape proper censure from the British Government?
Yesterday I welcomed a Bangladeshi human rights activist, Mokon Miah, to Bradford. He told me of the pressures that Bangladesh is facing in dealing with this crisis. The country faces its own challenges, as Mrs Main succinctly outlined earlier. We need to support not only the Rohingya but Bangladesh and the work that it is doing.
Only two weeks ago, I was approached by a delegation from the British Rohingya community, whose UK headquarters are based in my constituency of Bradford West. They are currently in Bangladesh supporting refugees. My office has worked closely with the Rohingya diaspora community in Bradford, including individuals who have lost members of their direct family in violence in Burma. We must come together and find a way of ending this violence. We know that the distribution and routes of aid within Burma are still difficult and that the Government there are still blocking access, which is despicable. They have already taken so much; now they are leaving people to starve to death. What progress has been made on providing aid within the Rakhine state?
The persecution of the Rohingya is sadly nothing new, as many Members have said today, but maybe this is the time—if our Government can be stronger and if the institutions can show some strength and protect people globally—for us to find a way to help to change these people’s future. The eyes of the world are on the situation in Burma, and the generosity of the British people in giving to the relief effort demonstrates the global will to eradicate this form of evil from our world. The conditions are right to find a sustainable and long-term solution to the identity conflict that exists.
I plead with the Government to consider introducing targeted sanctions against the Burmese military and to look at their business interests in that area. Only then will we get the Burmese military—not just the leadership—to accept what is going on and change the status quo. Great Britain has the power to bring in targeted sanctions, and I ask the Minister to tell the House what is stopping us taking this action that is so needed. Hundreds of thousands of people are relying on us to act and to show them the support that they so desperately need.
I would like to begin by congratulating my honourable colleagues for securing this important debate, and of course I echo many of the concerns that hon. Members have already raised. I am pleased that there are so many people here today to add their voices to the call for an end to violence against the Rohingya people. This is the third time in recent weeks that I have raised the persecution of the Rohingya people with the Government. Unfortunately, despite continued pressure from myself and many other Members on both sides of the House, very little progress has been made on this issue. I welcomed the long overdue announcement of the suspension of British military ties to the Myanmar armed forces, but there is still so much more that must be done. We are here today to urge the Secretary of State to do more.
The persecution of the Rohingya people has been allowed to continue for decades. Indeed, the UN has referred to the situation in Rakhine state as a
“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and yet the international community has stood back and watched as the Rohingya people have suffered at the hands of the Burmese authorities. This most recent outbreak of violence is the most aggressive that we have seen in recent years, and we cannot remain silent. I am sure that many Members will have seen the harrowing reports from those who have escaped from Rakhine state, and we have heard many horrific stories in the debate today. We have heard reports of elderly people being burned alive in their homes; of innocent civilians being shot as they tried to flee; of girls as young as five being sexually assaulted by soldiers; and of expectant mothers giving birth on the hillsides as they made the journey to Bangladesh. The levels of suffering and brutality that these people are facing cannot be imagined by the majority of us here today.
It is unbelievable that that has been allowed to happen in the 21st century, yet it has become a daily reality for the Rohingya, over half a million of whom have been forced to flee to Bangladesh after being driven from their homes by violence, fear and starvation. The situation is becoming increasingly dire in Bangladesh, where close to 70% of refugees are without adequate shelter and half have no safe drinking water. The efforts of the Bangladeshi authorities and the aid agencies simply cannot be sustained without more support. The international community must do more.
This truly distressing situation has inspired many to take action to support the Rohingya, and I want to take this opportunity to commend the work of two of my constituents. Mohammed Abubakar Ahmed and Mohamed Amir Siddiq exceeded their initial target of £6,000, raising over £30,000 to help the Rohingya. They are travelling to Bangladesh entirely at their own expense to support the refugees in any way they can. That is just one example, but I know that it being repeated across the UK.
Before the recess, I handed in a petition on the behalf of my constituents, and I have received several emails since then requesting that I ask the Government to do more. They have suspended the training of Burmese military, but that is not enough. A constituent of mine also pointed out that the media were slow to pick up on the situation, so I want the Government and everyone else to note that the media should have starting reporting a lot sooner.
I totally agree that the media have a great responsibility to raise awareness of the issue.
It is now the Government’s turn. Will the Minister commit today to take further action, such as imposing travel bans and freezing assets, to ensure that the civilian and military authorities in Myanmar put a complete end to any further violence? Will he commit to providing financial aid directly to the Rohingya through non-governmental organisations to ensure that adequate resources are available to meet the needs of the refugees who have been forced to flee their homes? Will he also ensure that the British Government take action so that those responsible for these horrific crimes are held accountable for their actions? In the face of systematic persecution, we have a duty to humanity and to the Rohingya people to speak up and take action. We must fulfil that duty.
For the purposes of this debate, I declare that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is my aunt.
I thank my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for securing this important debate. As everyone has said, the situation is not a recent phenomenon. Myanmar’s history shows that the systematic oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has been going on for decades.
I hope that Members will allow me to speak about the experiences of my mother, who visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh last month. The UN states that, as of
What my hon. Friend and other colleagues have recounted is horrifying. Does she agree that, in addition to physical humanitarian aid, we urgently need to get psychological and psychotherapeutic support into Bangladesh to help the people who have suffered such appalling horrors?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. My mother described the women and children. Women are the largest group in the refugee camps, and they are dead behind the eyes.
My mother is not a stranger to suffering. She fought in Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971, in which 3 million people were killed—it is called a genocide. She said that what she saw in the refugee camps has all the hallmarks of a genocide. It has been going on for so long, but the acceleration of violence in recent months means that the world has finally woken up to what is happening in Myanmar and to the fate of the Rohingya.
What can the Government do? I implore them to do a few things. First, they should push Myanmar to allow these people, who desperately need it, to access humanitarian aid. They should build on the sanctions already in place at EU level. They should ensure that we cut all links with businesses and investors that have anything to do with the military in Myanmar. They should join the UN’s global arms embargo.
On a lighter note, I am often asked the Norman Tebbit test. I always support the underdog because I am a socialist, so in cricket I always support England. I am proud of what Bangladesh has done. As hon. Members know, Bangladesh is a very poor country. Having lived and been to school in Bangladesh, I know there is enormous poverty in that country. Bangladesh has opened its doors and accepted people who are so vulnerable, and I call on the Government to support Bangladesh because it cannot handle the sheer numbers of Rohingyas who are crossing the border. Those people are desperate to live, but they do not have the means and resources to go on.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the delegation the Burmese sent into the camps said, “I see no Rohingya.” They do not recognise that the Rohingya even exist, which is the problem. The Rohingya are stateless and nobody recognises them.
The hon. Lady has done an enormous amount of work both in the Rohingya camps and, more generally, in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. The situation is so disgraceful because this is not fake news; it is real human suffering. I will be going to the Rohingya camps in December, but I do not need to go there to know what is happening on the ground. We need to speak up for the most vulnerable people in the world right now.
My mother told me there are women in the camps who wait and look over the sea desperately hoping that their men will join them soon. They have not let go of that element of hope, but all they see are the dead bodies of people who have tried to cross to safety—the journey is too dangerous. Urgent help is needed.
Returning to the Norman Tebbit test, I am proud of Bangladesh, but I would like my Government, the British Government, to help it to ensure we stop this ethnic cleansing and genocide so that people point to my country, England, where I am an MP, and say, “They are the people who helped to stop this crisis.”
Order. I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. If there are interventions, some people will not be able to speak at all.
I commend my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali, who is no longer in her place, for enabling us as parliamentarians to bear witness to this atrocity and to hear extremely powerful speeches from Members on both sides of the House; but sadly, speeches are not enough.
Anyone who heard the testimony a few days ago of the mum whose young daughter’s hand slipped out of hers in the raging sea as they tried to reach the sanctuary of Bangladesh on a boat that was barely seaworthy, or who heard the young son who carried his skeletal, disabled mum, barely alive, talk about how he watched the soldiers burn his village—he is unsure where the rest of his family have ended up—or who heard about the three children and their mum who were trampled to death by wild elephants as they slept, having been forced to build their temporary shelter on elephant walkways due to the unprecedented numbers of refugees huddled in the forested hills of Balukhali, cannot fail to be heartbroken.
These are people—people like all of us in this Chamber. They are women and children, exhausted, injured and traumatised after walking for days. More than half of all new arrivals are children, and one in 10 is a breastfeeding mother. They are human beings who deserve to live in peace. We cannot stand by; we must call it out. The scale of suffering is unimaginable. Over half a million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. They are destitute, scared and hungry. But the Myanmar Government refuse to accept what the world knows to be true: we are witnessing ethnic cleansing. Farah Kabir from ActionAid has said:
“'In nearly 15 years of working on humanitarian disasters I’ve never seen a crisis on this scale. The scale of need is far outweighing the response.”
If anyone saw the recent posting on Twitter of a drone flying over the refugee camp in Bangladesh, they would have seen that the conditions for those who do manage to escape are barely fit for animals, let alone human beings.
Yet it seems as though the world is holding the coat of the oppressor, standing by, wincing when it is all too much, but doing nothing to protect the victims. We need political will. We need to pressure the EU to support a UN-mandated global arms embargo. Yesterday, EU representatives met to discuss the crisis and issued a joint statement suspending invitations to military leaders, reviewing defence co-operation with Myanmar in the light of the disproportionate use of force against the Rohingya minority—
I will keep going. The EU had also placed an embargo on weapons and equipment. That is all good, but it is not enough. We need to ban new investment in and business relationships with military-owned companies and members of the military and their families. We need to reinstate the annual General Assembly resolution on human rights in Myanmar. The international community, including the European Union, has failed the Rohingya, and hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, have paid the price. To do nothing is unacceptable. To speak without taking action is unacceptable. It is time to have courage to do the right thing. The Rohingya are counting on us because we are all they have got.
I had a speech ready and, as happens on all these occasions, I might as well just put it down on the Bench. However, I do not need to say a lot of what has been said already, because the way in which people have articulated the plight of the men, women and children who have suffered and these human stories has been touching; there were points during the debate when I could barely keep composure. In some ways, that is what makes me proud of this Parliament and proud to be British—the fact that our values drive our decisions, and that we do not allow inhumanity to take place and stand aside as though it had nothing to do with us.
I am proud of the contribution my constituents have made. I attended an event in Coldhurst where people were fundraising and I know the mosque community has raised tens of thousands of pounds for the refugees. But in many ways what people really want is for the end to be in sight, and it feels as though that is so far away. The plight of people who are fleeing will continue, as will the uncertainty about whether they have a homeland to go back to at all. Even if they do, what is there to go back to? Their homes have been torched and there is no infrastructure. Even before this—35 years before—they were denied their citizenship. They were denied education, the right to free movement and the right even to hold government jobs. This community has been persecuted for a long time, while the international community has stood by and allowed it to happen because this is not quite important enough to be on the agenda.
The time has come for us to have the courage of our convictions, to stand up for the values we stand for as a country, and to say that we will not stand by and allow ethnic cleansing—genocide—to take place on our watch. We do have a historical legacy there and we cannot deny that, and it is right that we put that right. If people in Britain question why the UK Parliament is discussing an issue in a land far away, as some have said online and on social media, let me say this: bring this back home and consider what it would be like if it was your daughter who had been raped when she was five years old, your son who had been killed when he was 12 years old or your father who had been burned to death in the house you once lived in. Just imagine if you were in that situation. What would you want to do? You would hope to God that there was somebody in another land who was willing to step up and do the right thing to save them, wouldn’t you?
I thank Rushanara Ali for securing this incredibly important debate and for all the work she has been doing to ensure that the Rohingya have their voices heard. I thank her and all the other hon. Members for their powerful speeches this afternoon, calling out ethnic cleansing for what it is. I am not going to repeat the catalogue of horrors that others have documented so clearly in all their terribleness, but I do want to say how important it is that this place is speaking out so powerfully. It is shameful that we have not heard that same level of urgency and outrage from our Government. It matters because people throughout the country and further afield are watching, and they do notice what we say and do not say. They cannot understand why there has not been greater condemnation, and not only from here in the UK; we heard from Sarah Champion what happened at the EU meeting yesterday, with those present failing even to use the words “ethnic cleansing”.
The repercussions of this conflict and the lack of response to it go right around communities far from Myanmar. I recently had a meeting in my constituency with the Brighton & Hove Muslim Forum, at which community members powerfully expressed their shock at the senseless nature of the atrocities that are being committed. They also shared their deep concern that inaction from international leaders and the relative silence on matters that affect the Muslim diaspora have the potential to isolate Muslim communities here at home. The danger of inaction is not only yet more terrible suffering overseas, but the potential for greater radicalisation here at home. Young people are asking why the mass-scale scorched-earth campaigns, the blocking of access for humanitarian organisations, the deep concerns about the repatriation of refugees and the need for EU action are not getting more attention. Community leaders in my constituency warn of the risk that young people’s anger and sense of injustice might make them even more susceptible to being recruited to go over there and fight. We must act on this appalling human injustice, not only because such terrible atrocities are being committed, as we have all heard this afternoon, but because in so doing we will be able to demonstrate to our Muslim communities and young people that we in Parliament share their outrage at this appalling crime against humanity.
There is so much more to be done. In the 20 seconds remaining to me, I simply wish to add my name to those of all the people who have called for much greater action from Governments. They have called for support for a UN-mandated global arms embargo, for humanitarian aid access, for the revival of the UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in Burma, for visa bans on military personnel, and for the military to stand trial for the crimes against humanity that they have committed.
I shall break with the conventions of the House by not repeating what has already been said by other Members. In the limited time I have on the clock, I wish instead to focus on what additional things need to be done in response to the most unspeakable ongoing atrocities affecting the Rohingya in Myanmar.
What discussions has the Minister had with the military and civilian authorities in Myanmar about improving humanitarian access to northern Rakhine and the other parts of the state that are currently inaccessible to NGOs? The Government have faced criticism for not being as strident as they might have been in their criticism of the Myanmar Government. I wonder whether that has borne some diplomatic fruit, but I have certainly recognised that the Government’s language has strengthened as we have seen a lack of progress from the Myanmar Government.
We must consider the question of regional leadership, and particularly China and India’s roles in influencing the Myanmar Government. Will the Minister say something about that?
Members from all parties have rightly commended the Government of Bangladesh. The humanitarian response of one of the poorest countries in the world really ought to make this country—one of the richest in the world—blush when we think of debates in this Chamber about our response to refugee crises on our own shores. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in EU member states and other countries around the world about how they can support the Government of Bangladesh? Money is of course important but, as my hon. Friend Kate Green said, there is also a need for psychological support and other capacity building to support the Government of Bangladesh.
What conversations has the Minister had with his counterparts in Bangladesh about the registration of refugees, and particularly about the risk that some refugees might be treated unfavourably, depending on the route they found themselves taking across the border?
The International Organisation for Migration has been tasked with leading the response co-ordination so far, which has of course been welcome, but is it not now time for the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to step up to ensure better co-ordination, particularly bearing in mind the upcoming conference in just over a week?
On operational space and planning, accommodation is understandably trumping other services, including nutrition stabilisation. What more can we do to support the Government of Bangladesh to make sure that sufficient space is available for such critical services? People have praised the Government of Bangladesh, but there have been some issues with how the Bangladeshi military is confining people to the camps. What support and training can be provided on that?
Let me add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali on securing this debate. On behalf of many of us, may I say to her and to the hon. Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and for St Albans (Mrs Main) that the debt that we owe to them for the courage with which they have borne witness and given testimony this afternoon is really very significant? The level of violence that they have described has sent a very clear signal to all Members that what we are watching in Myanmar today is the creation of a new dark heart in Asia.
The incalculable violence is simply the prelude to what is a strategy of scorched earth, with the destruction of hundreds of villages, the landmines across the border, and the destruction of cultural and religious institutions. What Members have described this afternoon is certainly ethnic cleansing and certainly war crimes. It is a level of barbarism that we have seen in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia, and we have to say very clearly this afternoon that that will not go unpunished.
The message that we send from the House this afternoon is that we will not look away. We will ensure that justice is delivered and that, whenever we can, we will see the leaders of these atrocities in The Hague on trial for war crimes.
All totalitarian regimes down the ages have traded on delusion, fear and silence. We are not under any illusions in this House. We are not afraid and we will not look away until justice is finally done. We will not tolerate this and we will certainly not appease it. We are not an empire, thank God, but we have a moral responsibility. We are, thank God, still members of the EU. We still have membership of the UN Security Council. We are still a leader of the Commonwealth.
This House expects the Government to use every instrument at their disposal to mobilise the international community around the aims set out in this debate. We must be unflinching in our determination to see justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to set out clearly why we should not see an EU ban on arms sales and new investment. Why would we not expand the visa ban on military personnel and others of interest? Why would we not see an end to all EU co-operation around training for senior personnel in Myanmar, and why would we not reinstate the annual General Assembly resolution on human rights in Myanmar? The arc of history is long and it does bend towards justice, but we do not have forever. We need to end this injustice now.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, although this is not an easy subject to talk about. Some of the experiences that we have heard about today are heartrending and bring tears to our eyes. I have spoken about this topic before, and am happy to speak on it again and to say very clearly that this persecution must be brought to an end as a matter of urgency.
Some years ago, I watched the film “The King and I”, in which the King of Burma sent a slave as a gift. That was make-believe, although perhaps it was partly from history, but now it is a reality that takes place every day for many thousands of people. The Rohingya have been denied identification cards, all freedom of religious practice, and access to employment and most social services.
The UN Secretary General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have described the violence as textbook ethnic cleansing. Myanmar has received billions of dollars in aid since 2011, but has now prohibited aid organisations from delivering lifesaving food and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya Muslim population. Can the Minister tell us what has been done to address that issue of getting aid through to the people who need it the most? As other Members have said, the Bangladeshi Government have stepped up to provide limited humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and some 30 NGOs have been cleared to operate in the region since September. I am worried that Bangladesh still has plans to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees to Thengar Char, an uninhabited, undeveloped coastal island that is often flooded and submerged during monsoon season.
Christian minorities in Myanmar, such as the Kachin, Chin and Naga peoples, have also been persecuted by the state. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, there have been incidents of intimidation and violence against Christians, the forced relocation and destruction of Christian cemeteries, violent attacks on places of worship, sexual violence in church compounds, torture, and an ongoing campaign of coerced conversion to Buddhism. To date, approximately 120,000 Christians out of that massive number of 800,000 refugees have been forced to flee their homes.
There is concern among some NGOs that although Bangladesh has been more hospitable to Rohingya refugees since the most recent wave of violence, that policy could change. I ask the Minister for a commitment to financial assistance for Bangladesh to ensure that it can continue. The Minister is a compassionate man and a man of feeling who understands the issues—I mean that genuinely and sincerely—so will he call for the Myanmar Government to review or repeal the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law to grant the Rohingya their citizenship rights? If that happens, they could have some hope that they might someday return. What more can be done and would the Foreign and Commonwealth Office be prepared to do it?
This House stands with the voiceless. We stand for and alongside those who have been tortured, and who have suffered pain and violence.
The latest data show that 164,000 people born in Bangladesh held British nationality in December last year. In addition, there are many tens of thousands of British citizens who were born in this country, but whose parents were born in Bangladesh. This country has strong family ties with Bangladesh, and we all benefit from sharing, both economically and culturally.
The Bengali community in Ipswich is seriously concerned about the plight of the Rohingya. Bangladesh itself went through a period of oppression, with thousands of refugees created there before that nation’s independence, so the people of Bangladesh and the Bengali people here in the United Kingdom understand the ordeal that the Rohingya are suffering. I am glad to be able to say that non-Bengali residents in Ipswich are also joining in the campaign to assist the refugees, in solidarity with their Bengali neighbours.
More than half a million Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh in the past couple of months. That is a cautious estimate, as the number is probably now well over 800,000. This number is the same as or greater than the total immigration of non-UK nationals to this country in the whole of last year yet, according to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP per head in Bangladesh for 2016 was just £2,700 in purchasing power parity terms. For the UK, the figure was £29,500—more than 10 times as much.
It is often said that the poorest countries are the most generous, and it is certainly the case that the Rohingya who have managed to reach Bangladesh have found a ready welcome, and real sympathy and support, but we cannot stand by watching this humanitarian crisis unfold and expect Bangladeshi people to be able to deal with it on their own. Private individuals do a lot. I am pleased to hear about the constituents of my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid who have raised so much money, and I fully intend to work with the residents of Ipswich to do the same, because they care, but I call on our Government to do more to support the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi Government, who are faced with this humanitarian crisis in their midst and really are not able to cope on their own.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali on organising and leading such an important debate.
More than half a million people—mostly Rohingya women and children—have fled violence in Rakhine state, seeking refuge in Bangladesh. The latest reports from Amnesty International speak of massacre, murder and brutality on a huge scale, with women raped and tortured, and children shot in the back by the Myanmar military as they flee. The latest arrivals in Bangladesh have said they were driven out by hunger because food markets in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state had been shut down and aid deliveries restricted by the Burmese authorities.
The Government have donated £30 million in aid and pledged to match £5 million in donations to the DEC appeal for people fleeing Burma. The public response to this humanitarian crisis is profound. I pay tribute to all the fundraising efforts in my constituency of Bedford and Kempston—from the efforts of faith groups, mosque leaders, schools and charities to individual giving. That fundraising shows human nature at its best, and I am sure it will make the difference between life and death to those who are suffering terribly.
Families in Bangladesh are living huddled beneath sheets of plastic, with no access to clean water or toilet facilities. Let us not forget that that is the fate of the survivors. It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been executed, burned alive, raped or slain in their homes and villages, but it is in the thousands. Those responsible must be held to account. Myanmar’s military cannot simply sweep serious violations under the carpet by announcing another sham internal investigation.
While aid is vital, we know that money can only do so much. We must find a political solution to end this barbaric persecution so that the Rohingya can return home in a dignified way to rebuild what is left of their devastated communities. The international community must help to ensure that no Rohingya refugees are forced back to Burma if they remain at risk of serious human rights violations.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been rightly condemned for her refusal to intervene in support of the Rohingya, but she has since pledged accountability—
Order. I am immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but his contribution is at an end. I did not mean that unkindly—he has done very well—but his time is up.
Much has been said about the situation, and I will say nothing more about it. I merely want to add my voice to the concern expressed at the reaction of the British Government and the international community as whole.
On issues of human rights in recent times, the global north has been very long on rhetoric and very short on action. We have seen the atrocities in Darfur; we have seen the great city of Aleppo turned to rubble; and now we have this situation in Myanmar and the terrible plight of the Rohingya people.
There is something that connects so much of this. Is there a crisis in the UN itself when China and Russia refuse to accept a resolution that would condemn what we are seeing and that would see action? Is there a crisis in some countries including our own, because as we turn inwards, with huge concern about immigration, we turn away from the refugees fleeing atrocities across the world and we have so little to say?
This country was at the centre of the UN declaration of human rights in the first place. That came out of the huge atrocities committed by Hitler and out of the holocaust. That was a time when we learned that the plight of refugees is something we must face directly. It was also a time when we learned that ethnic cleansing and genocide should be condemned robustly and bravely.
Because of Britain’s historical relationship with Bangladesh and Burma, there is a moral responsibility in this House and on this Government to lead the charge across the world as we see human rights in crisis. These people are among the very poorest. Just as we have seen, on the continent of Europe, Greece, one of the poorest countries, picking up the burden of refugees from Syria and north Africa as most of Europe looks in the other direction, we now expect Bangladesh, in Asia, to do the same. This needs strong condemnation and a country aware of its own history and global history. This is a moment to stand up bravely for human rights.
I ask the representative of the Scottish National party not to exceed seven minutes because—I emphasise this to the House—a lot of people have put questions and I think it is important that the Minister has a proper opportunity to respond. I also want Rushanara Ali to have a minute or two to respond at the end, in conformity with the usual practice on these occasions. Chris Law is an obliging fellow, and I am sure he will oblige us.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will try to reduce my speech significantly because the key points have been made, particularly on the awful atrocities that have been happening to the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We have heard horrific stories from Members around this Chamber, beginning with Rushanara Ali. Those atrocities include Government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40 mm grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them. That says it all. When the UN branded the Burmese Government’s actions as “textbook ethnic cleansing”, that was being polite, to say the least.
For those who have survived to get into Bangladesh, the torture continues—not directly from the Burmese military but from malnutrition, cholera and other diseases. Save the Children has warned that over 14,000 children are already suffering acute malnutrition and over 250,000 refugees need food urgently. Sixty per cent. of all refugees going into Bangladesh are children—more than half. This is the story that should be dominating our national newspapers and on our television screens day after day, instead of the Cabinet’s squabbling, yet it goes largely ignored. We have heard about the history of this. It has been going on for decades. As Human Rights Watch has said, the Rohingya have faced
“decades of discrimination and repression under successive Burmese Governments. Effectively denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, they are one of the largest stateless populations in the world.”
As we heard earlier, the International Development Committee has just begun an inquiry into the situation in Myanmar for our first report on the subject. My colleagues and I on the Committee will be going to Myanmar and Bangladesh and reporting back here as soon as we can. It is encouraging that the Department for International Development announced on Thursday that it will pledge £2 million to the crisis in addition to the £3 million it has already donated. The Scottish Government have also played a key part in pledging £120,000 to be made available for the emergency response.
I want to turn my attention to the UK Government’s decision to provide UK taxpayer-funded training to the Burmese army to the tune of £305,000 a year. The UK Government initially claimed that the training related to human rights, but were later forced to admit that only one hour in a 60-hour training course covered human rights. Considering the history of the Burmese military, the decision to train and trade with them is a spectacular failure of this Government’s foreign policy. The UK Government announced only last September that military training contracts between the British military and Myanmar would be immediately suspended, and I welcome that. However, ending the free training programme should be just one small part of a wide range of measures that put pressure on the military to end its violations of international law.
For too long the international community has tolerated the intolerable. Therefore, the UK must put strong international pressure on the Burmese civilian and military Government to stop the persecution and help negotiate a process for the protection of the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar and the return of those who have been forced to flee. There must also be a full restoration of international sanctions and a global arms embargo on Myanmar, and this needs to be imposed now. The UK Government must take the lead in building international support for this.
I was sorely disappointed when Aung San Suu Kyi refused to speak out against the violence as Myanmar’s de facto leader. In fact, her silence was so deafening that even fellow Nobel prize winners such as Desmond Tutu urged her to intervene to help with the crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi has been a hero of mine for a long time. She was imprisoned for nearly two decades after calling for democracy and human rights under the country’s oppressive military. She played a part in inspiring me to become involved in politics, as I am today. In a recent speech to Myanmar’s Parliament, she denied that there had been any “armed clashes” or “clearance operations” since
I appreciate that Aung San Suu Kyi may need to be careful not to inflame the situation further, as her adviser has said, and that she may have little influence over the powerful military. However, as a politically elected representative of the Government, and as someone who has championed human rights for decades, she has a moral responsibility, as well as a political one, to do right by all her people, which includes the Rohingya.
Many parts of the UK have already taken action. Glasgow City Council has written to Aung San Suu Kyi to give her one month before she loses the freedom of the city. My own city of Dundee is in the process of writing, and I have spoken out publicly. I would like to send a message to Aung San Suu Kyi today in the strongest terms. Her Government must now speak to the military, community leaders of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists and the international community to end the cycle of persecution and violence, to prevent further loss of lives and homes, to restore law and order, to prevent violence from spreading to other parts of the country and to stamp out the online xenophobia that has been watched by the world.
I would like to end with some important words that inspired me in the past:
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Those are not my words, but the words of Aung San Suu Kyi. I therefore urge her to act fearlessly in the face of power, in the face of those who surround her and in the face of those who are committing—all of us in this Chamber can call it what it is—genocide on this earth as I speak.
Thank you. We can now enjoy the brilliance from Bishop Auckland for a maximum of seven minutes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for initiating this debate, to the Backbench Business Committee for giving it time, to Mrs Main for describing the testimonies that she has heard and to the other 28 Members of the House who have spoken so passionately this afternoon.
The whole country has watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar have been forced out of their homes and across the border into Bangladesh. The motion before us this afternoon is surely right. The UN defines ethnic cleansing as
“a purposeful policy…to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
It includes murder, torture, rape, severe physical injury to civilians, forcible removal, displacement, deportation of a civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks as well as the destruction of property, and robbery. These measures are clearly present in Myanmar. The office of the UN human rights commissioner found grave and serious violations, including the rape and murder of children. Rohingya villages in Rakhine state have been destroyed so as to ensure that the refugees cannot return to their homes. If they do, it would be to a barren wasteland that once held their crops, livestock and livelihoods.
The scale of the violence inflicted on civilians by the Myanmar military cannot be justified as a proportionate response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. In fact, the UN makes it clear that a strategy was pursued to drive out the Rohingya before this, violating their rights and traumatising them. It is very disappointing that Aung San Suu Kyi did not immediately condemn the military actions. I saw the Minister’s dispatch from his recent visit on the BBC, and I have to take issue with the way he expressed himself. No one is asking her to emote, as he put it. The horror of the crimes needs simply to be acknowledged. They speak for themselves. It is vital that we all put responsibility squarely where it belongs: with General Min Aung Hlaing, who has overseen the calculated attack on the Muslim Rohingya over many months, if not years.
I wrote to the Minister in September about a number of things, including Amnesty’s report on landmines. He replied to me, but he did not mention that. Could he please also raise that with the Myanmar Government?
The UK has a special duty to both Myanmar and Bangladesh due to our historical ties. The Foreign Secretary evidently knows them well, but reciting Kipling is not appropriate. We want to express our understanding in the form of an effective policy. The British public have been typically generous in responding to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and I urge people who are concerned to give in that way. It is the most effective way to help the Rohingya refugees, and I am pleased Ministers are matching the funding from the DFID budget.
It is now vital that we press the Myanmar Government to allow full humanitarian access to Rakhine and full, unhindered access for the UN Human Rights Council’s independent international fact-finding mission, and to allow independent media organisations to report freely. Will the Government encourage other countries to contribute to the £437 million target, which is the UN estimate of what is needed? It is essential to get the information that will secure the prosecution of those perpetrating crimes. Will the Minister go back to his colleagues to see whether more money can be made available from the British Government so that disease is not the next thing to be visited on the refugees?
It is now evident that the British Government need to be prepared to take a tougher line with the military of Myanmar. Will the Government please consider imposing personal sanctions and visa restrictions against the military and their families; promoting an international arms embargo mandated by the UN along the lines of the EU’s; and halting investment in and business with military-owned companies, and ending any aid flows to parts of the country that they control?
We need a long-term, sustainable solution. Myanmar has the highest number of stateless people, and until all minorities in Myanmar are equal under the law and are able to gain political representation, the transition to democracy for which so many have struggled for so long will not be complete.
I thank my constituency neighbour, Rushanara Ali, for initiating this debate. I think all of us admire her heartfelt dedication and commitment to the Rohingya, and I appreciate the strength of feeling shown in the House during the debate. Given the constraints of time, I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I deal in writing over the next few days with some of the specific issues that have been raised.
I very much welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s actions to address the appalling situation facing the Rohingya in Rakhine state. This has of course been a fast-evolving crisis over recent weeks. I pay tribute particularly to the hon. Lady, but also to my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who have been there recently, for what they said about what they saw, at least from the Bangladeshi side of the border.
As many hon. Members will know, the recent and continuing violence in Rakhine is, tragically, only the latest manifestation of very long-standing hostilities. The Rohingya have suffered terrible persecution over several decades. Their already very limited rights, if we can call them that, have been eroded by successive military Governments, and as people without citizenship—stateless folk—they have become increasingly marginalised in Burma and, indeed, at times in Bangladesh as well.
The Rohingya have previously been victims of outbreaks of sustained violence and displacement, including in 2012 and as recently as October 2016, but the movement of people since
As I have said, the consequences of this violence are appalling. I saw that for myself when I travelled there at the end of last month, as the first western Minister to visit Burma since the crisis began. What I heard in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, was truly heartbreaking. When I visited camps in Burma, the descriptions of murder, rape and other human rights violations and abuses that I heard about—they had taken place only a matter of weeks earlier—were horrifying. Over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled their homes and crossed into Bangladesh. Others, including members of other ethnic communities, have been internally displaced within Rakhine in recent times. This is a human tragedy and a humanitarian catastrophe.
I want to say something slightly personal in relation to the issue of ethnic cleansing. Many Members recognise that we are reluctant to use that phrase. There is a personal reason for that and a broader reason. We have been trying diplomatically as far as possible to secure movement from the Burmese Government. In fact, there has been quite significant movement by Aung San Suu Kyi, which I shall come on to. There is also a more personal reason, which goes back to the rather provocative statement from Jim McMahon. My mother was ethnically cleansed as a German national in the early months of 1945. She moved from the part of Germany in which my forefathers had lived since the 1720s, and to which she was able briefly to return as a visitor in her 50s. I have never seen that part of the world.
It is because the phrase “ethnic cleansing” is loaded with great emotion and a sense of finality that I have been relatively reluctant to use it. That is not in any way to disrespect the Rohingya, but we still maintain hope that many of them will be allowed to return safely to Burma—it may be a forlorn hope. However, I accept that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the situation seems like a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. I conclude, I am afraid, that that appears to be an increasingly accurate description of what has happened.
What is essential now is that the Burmese Government and the security forces enact the positive measures announced by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday evening. That includes the establishment of a new civilian-led body to oversee the return of those who have fled and the development of Rakhine into a state, perhaps with martial aid, in which all communities can live together sustainably. The security forces should ensure that the Rohingya feel safe to return. They must, in my view, permit a massive upscaling in international humanitarian relief in Burma that is desperately needed to reach those who remained in Rakhine or, we hope, will return there.
Within the international community—I am glad to say that most Members, although I accept not all, recognise this—the UK is playing a leading role, and it is right that we should do so for historical reasons, in seeking a solution to this political, diplomatic and humanitarian crisis. We continue to engage extensively with the Burmese Government to seek an end to the violence, and to secure full humanitarian access to Rakhine and the return of those Rohingya who have fled. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi twice in recent weeks, and I held face-to-face negotiations and discussions with her in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Burma, on
Ministerial colleagues across Government have been putting pressure on the Burmese Government and military. We have suspended military visits from Burma as well as our defence education co-operation. We are calling on the EU to do likewise. In response to the terrible humanitarian situation across the border in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, DFID is providing extensive assistance, and I want to thank my colleagues in that Department for playing an important role in mobilising international support. Bangladesh, as we know, faces an almost insurmountable challenge in providing genuine assistance to those refugees. Within days of the latest outbreak of hostilities, the UK Government, as has been pointed out, pledged an additional £30 million in support. Those funds are providing essential shelter, food and water to those in desperate need. We want to do more—far more—and the message from the House today will be heard loud and clear in that Department.
I visited Bangladesh after Burma last month, together with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt. We met Bangladeshi Ministers and senior officials, the UN and other development officials, and expressed our appreciation for the support that they were providing. In turn, they appreciated the UK’s leadership in providing humanitarian aid on the ground. We have also been working tirelessly to focus international attention and pressure on the Burmese security forces. We have raised the subject of Burma three times at the UN Security Council, and convened an international meeting in New York with Kofi Annan only last Friday. The Foreign Secretary also convened a meeting of Foreign Ministers at the UN General Assembly in New York on
Through that engagement, we have galvanised the international community around a five-point plan: the security forces must stop the violence—no major violence has been reported since
Although the civilian Government have started to make progress on these points, the Burmese security forces have not yet heeded the call. We are discussing the next steps in the Security Council to increase the pressure. However, as Mr Lammy discussed, getting a UN Security Council resolution requires the co-operation of both China and Russia, which we reckon would be likely to veto any such resolution.
My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has made our concerns clear at the UN Human Rights Council, where we have mobilised the UN’s human rights machinery to address the situation. We have helped secure a six-month extension of the UN fact-finding mission to Burma so that it can properly examine the serious reports of human rights violations coming out of Rakhine, as well as the other conflicts in Kachin and Shan states. The role of neighbouring countries in restoring peace and security will inevitably be vital. That is why we continue to talk, despite our differences, with China, and with India and other regional states, to encourage them to play their part in resolving the crisis.
As I mentioned earlier, I also held talks with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi when I was in Burma. I very much understand the criticism and grave disappointment felt by many in the House, who previously regarded her as a heroine. However, if we fail to acknowledge—in part, at least—the pressures she is facing, that does not help us move towards solutions. She is walking a very fine line between international condemnation and Burmese public opinion, which, as my hon. Friend Paul Scully pointed out, overwhelmingly supports what the security forces are doing, terrible as that may sound.
Weakening Aung San Suu Kyi strengthens the military’s hand. Given how the security forces have attacked and persecuted the Rohingya in recent weeks, that is a terrifying thought. We must all help make a better future for the Rohingya still in Burma and for those who return. We also want to represent all the other people in Burma—there are many from all communities—who yearn for the human rights and democratic freedoms that we all enjoy. During our talks, Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated her pledge for a transparent process to allow for the return of all Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. She pledged to me that she would start immediately to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
As I mentioned, in the past week Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly outlined a plan and vision for resolving the crisis, including the establishment of a civilian force to deliver humanitarian assistance, the resettlement of refugees, and long-term development. The UK Government are watching closely to ensure that her positive words translate into swift action. We will keep challenging her to ensure that our five-point plan is implemented. I think I can speak for everyone in the House when I say that we stand ready to ensure that she gets whatever international political and technical support that is required to put the plan into place.
It was all too clear from my heartbreaking meetings in Rakhine with Rohingya Muslims, ethnic Buddhists and Hindus—civilians who had been forcibly displaced from their homes and had witnessed almost unspeakable atrocities—that communities in Burma remain deeply polarised. A palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust remains.
The terrible events in Rakhine have been the saddest of reminders of these divides and of just how far Burma still has to go to become an effective civilian democracy. Resolving the current crisis and helping democracy truly take root will require sustained diplomatic and humanitarian engagement. Ultimately, however, only a democratic transition can embed any long-term progress and rights for the Rohingya. We will continue, through diplomacy, slowly but surely to press the civilian Government for rapid progress.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said in his wise speech, the UK is unpopular in Burma for its activism on Rakhine, but there is much that the UK Government have already done and much that we shall continue to do on the humanitarian front. I must add in conclusion, however, that we also have vital diplomatic and political work to carry out. We cannot allow the humanitarian issue to crowd that out. If we do, future military dictatorships will believe that they can act with the same impunity in similar circumstances.
I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members across the House for their moving contributions, for the unity of purpose and for their support for the motion. In particular, I thank those who spoke from direct experience of visiting camps and who spoke out about the appalling situation facing the Rohingya. Their testimonies were extremely powerful. It is vital that we continue to let the world know of the plight of the Rohingya refugees.
I also pay tribute to the British people for their support for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal and to the people of Bangladesh for their generosity in campaigning and providing humanitarian assistance on the ground, where they now have a million refugees to host. I am grateful to the Minister for his contribution and the representations he has made on behalf of our Government, but I must emphasise the importance of the UK playing a leadership role in seeking a global arms embargo. Even if China, India and Russia oppose it, it is important that we can defend our position and that we do not regret our own lack of action or failure to put pressure on the military. It is also important that targeted sanctions against the business interests of the military be taken seriously and that the Minister provide an update on that point, which he did not address in his response.
Finally, I want to reiterate that we have been here before: in 2012, when more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced; last year, when the military instigated this scorched-earth policy; and again in September. It is going to happen again. It is the military’s intention. Unless our Government and the international Government put pressure on the military, we will be back here again. I hope that we are not.
Question put and agreed to.
I thank all colleagues who took part in today’s important debate. We come now to the Adjournment debate on the sale of puppies. Notwithstanding the excitement among colleagues, it is inexplicable that anybody should now choose to leave and not wish to hear the debate, both for the eloquence of the initial speech and with a sense of anticipation as to the Minister’s reply, but if colleagues insist on leaving, I know that they will do so quickly and quietly so that we can hear Mr Chris Evans.