Burma — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:26 am on 18th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:26 am, 18th November 2010

To ask Her Majesty's Government how they plan to promote democracy and human rights in Burma, following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

The Prime Minister spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi on 15 November, making clear our determination to support her efforts to promote democracy and national reconciliation. We will continue to work with our international partners and in UN bodies to press for progress. We will maintain pressure on the regime following Burma's recent sham elections and continue to highlight its appalling human rights abuses, including the continued incarceration of more than 2,200 political prisoners.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive and welcome reply. I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to this brave and remarkable woman whom I had the good fortune to know as an undergraduate studying PPE at Oxford 45 years ago. Can I ask the Minister a little more about setting aside the results of the elections and pressing the Burmese authorities to hold fresh elections to ensure that that the National League for Democracy can play a full part and that Aung San Suu Kyi can be leader of that party in those elections? What pressure can our Government and others place on governments in the region who have been somewhat supportive of the Burmese junta until now?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

We all share the noble Lord's absolutely correct assessment of our sentiments. We salute this very brave woman and want the world that he described to come about, with her at the centre of it. The situation is delicate in that how investigations into these sham elections can be made are still obviously in the minds of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. I believe that she has authorised her party to look at irregularities, but we must be guided by her approach as she is in the midst of it while we are on the sidelines.

As to the other countries that have somewhat ambiguous relations with Burma and who have not been as strongly critical as we would like against this unpleasant regime-India is the obvious example-we are in discussions with them. I am not sure that we will make much progress with Beijing which seemed to welcome the elections and thought they were okay, so there is not much progress there. Other countries are united in recognising that this was not a serious election. It was rigged and there was all sorts of evidence of irregularities. The day will come, if we can keep up this pressure, when Burma can again join the comity of nations and be a prosperous, free and open place.

Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the days before her telephone was cut off I used to be able to speak to Aung San Suu Kyi on the phone but that has not been possible for the past 10 years. Does the Minister agree that we should couple tributes to her with tributes to her late husband, Michael Aris, because when he was dying of cancer they refused him a visa to visit her, in the hope that she would leave and not come back? They were a remarkable couple, dedicating their lives to the furtherance of democracy. Will he press on regarding the question of the release of the other 2,000 political prisoners?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Most definitely yes to all those observations. We salute not only this remarkable lady and her husband, but the way in which she now comments on what must have been the appalling experience of her imprisonment over the years. As she rightly says in a remarkable interview in the Times today, revolution takes place in the mind, and her mind is a wonderful mind to be playing on this situation.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, if, after 15 years and 20 days, Aung San Suu Kyi's release is to be a Mandela moment for Burma, will it not require the ethnic minorities and the National League for Democracy to enter into real dialogue and reconciliation with the military junta? Will it not require their reciprocity, and must we not do all we can, through the United Nations, engaging the Secretary-General directly in these negotiations, to bring that about? Can the Minister say something more about the ethnic minorities and their plight, given the information I gave him last week and the subsequent letter about the fighting in the Karen state and now the repatriation of those refugees across the border into an area where fighting is still under way?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

On the last point of the noble Lord, who follows these things very closely, we are worried about what has been happening on the border and the signs that the Royal Thai Government may have been returning refugees across the border back into Burma, or Myanmar. Our ambassador spoke to the Foreign Minister of Thailand this morning about the need to look at this situation and prevent undue suffering where these refugee pressures have been building up. As to the broader question of ethnic groups, we continually condemn the human rights abuses that ethnic groups continue to suffer. Our embassy in Rangoon regularly makes representations; we think that the elections were a missed opportunity to unite armed and non-armed ethnic groups, but I am afraid that we have to strike a pessimistic note in saying that there is little prospect of national reconciliation without their involvement and not much prospect while the generals are in charge. However, we will keep this matter very much to the fore, properly urged on by the noble Lord's remarkably persistent concern.

Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that now is not the time to consider weakening the EU sanctions against Burma, since nothing has fundamentally changed, as the Minister has said? Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, we need to see clearly a UN-led effort to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi gets what she wants, which is a dialogue between the genuine ethnic representatives, the military and democracy activists, such as those in the NLD. Thirdly, last week the Minister said that there was insufficient support for a commission of inquiry and therefore it was not something that the UK would press for. Will he give me an assurance that at the meeting on 22 November in the Security Council, when there will be a discussion on the protection of civilians, the UK Government will lead on this and press for a recognition that the UN special rapporteur on Burma has asked for such a commission of inquiry?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

As the noble Baroness knows, because she follows these things closely, we support the idea of a commission of inquiry, but we are anxious not to rush into it and have an early failure. We also note the view of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is slightly cautious about the pace of such an inquiry; but that there should be such an inquiry is, in principle, right and is, indeed, government policy. It is the pace and the approach that we have to watch. As for EU policy on sanctions, the EU has expressed its very serious concern about the elections and has made it clear that sanctions should be eased only in response to tangible progress, which we have not really seen yet. So there is an agreed EU position on Burma: the sanctions are tough and we are totally in support of them. On the noble Baroness's middle point about the role of the UN, I will look further into it, but we are broadly in support of the activities that she mentioned. I shall elaborate on that in a letter to her.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub-Committee F - Home Affairs

Does not the Minister agree that one thing that we could do is to increase our aid projects in Burma to non-governmental organisations and those who work for humanitarian purposes in medical and educational areas? That would be a good way to show that there is an alternative to the sort of regime that Burma has now.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I agree; indeed, the UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to Burma. We have significantly increased our humanitarian assistance from £9 million in 2007-08 to £28 million in the current year. Our aid focuses on health, basic education, rural livelihood, civil society and helping the refugees. I add as a personal observation that China is deeply involved in Myanmar, getting more involved all the time, pouring in vast sums of money for schools, infrastructure, and so on. We have a real problem considering aid-which is right-against the apparent determination of the People's Republic of China to have a massive involvement in Myanmar in every conceivable way.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear about the Prime Minister's call; that is something to be very well regarded. Can the Minister tell us whether other EU leaders have made similar calls to Aung San Suu Kyi? Can he also tell us whether there is now an EU resolve to re-engage with the ASEAN countries? After all, they value the EU-ASEAN relationship very highly, and were the countries of the European Union really to make a push on that at the moment, there might be a realistic possibility of getting more positive engagement.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I certainly hope that that will be so. It obviously makes complete sense that the EU must be extremely vigorous in such an approach. As to who has been making telephone calls to Aung San Suu Kyi, I have absolutely no idea; but I bet people have.