Myanmar - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:22 pm on 11th February 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 1:22 pm, 11th February 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for bringing this Statement to the House.

It is, indeed, extremely concerning that once again the military has taken over Myanmar. The military says that this is because of irregularities in the elections, even though, as the Government and others have said, there is no evidence of significant problems in an election that delivered an overwhelming majority to the civilian Government. Once again, we see the damage done when, in liberal democracies, leaders say that elections in their own territories are fraudulent, when there is no evidence of that, or they seek to break international law, even in a “limited way”. We need to rebuild respect for the rule of law globally.

The Government are right to say that this coup threatens Myanmar’s recent progress. There have been widespread demonstrations and we are beginning to see the army take more aggressive action, for example with the use of rubber bullets and, it seems, live rounds. A couple of days ago a woman was shot in the head and critically injured. Can the noble Lord update us on how the Government see the perceived risk of army brutality being unleashed on the protestors? Do the Government think that the military leaders in Myanmar are confident that their army will fully support them, given such widespread opposition, especially among young people? We hear that some police have crossed over to join the protestors. Now we hear of a draconian new cybersecurity law being fast-tracked, which would force internet and mobile phone providers to share their user data, which is extremely worrying. Can the noble Lord comment?

Can the Minister also comment on what role China is playing in Myanmar, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked? It is perhaps not surprising that China blocked action in the UN Security Council but I am glad, as the noble Lord said, that the UK took that action. Popular protest is not something that the Chinese Government could easily condone but we gather that they are playing a more significant role in Myanmar, which they jealously guard as “their” neighbourhood.

What is happening on the Thai border? What is the attitude of the Thai Government—also under great pressure—with protests again authoritarianism there? We will need to work proactively with others if we are to help to protect the many demonstrators from a brutal crackdown.

One key recommendation is that we should work with others to sanction military companies. The military earns a great deal from its businesses; this has funded its attacks, including this coup. The UN fact-finding mission had already recommended that sanctions be put on military companies even before this coup. I am aware that the UK put Magnitsky sanctions on 16 individuals in the Myanmar security forces. However, these freeze assets in the UK, which they do not have. I realise that these sanctions may send a warning to others in the region—they are important in that regard—but, in this case, they are not very effective in the case of Myanmar. Surely the Government, as president of the UN Security Council and the G7, should lead the way in terms of a widespread arms embargo on Myanmar. What are we doing, for example with our EU allies and others, on this or other strategies?

The US has just placed sanctions on those who led the coup. Is the UK engaging with the US on how to make such sanctions as effective as possible? Do the US plans include military companies? The asset freeze announced by the US on Myanmar Government assets in the US certainly sends a strong signal that this regime is illegitimate.

In addition, the UK should formally join the ICJ genocide case in The Hague; here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Can the Minister update us on that? The Government have said that they are considering it. Now is surely the time to do so.

Can the Minister also comment on the very vulnerable Rohingya and other minorities in this situation? What emerged from his discussions with the Bangladeshi Government last week? What preparations are being made in case of an increased outflow of refugees? We do not want borders closed, as we saw before, but we recognise Bangladesh’s need and that the refugees need to be properly supported. As the Minister knows, more than 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar over the past few years.

The military leaders in Myanmar’s brutal assault against the Rohingya were described by the UN as a

“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

We cannot stand by and allow further such crimes to follow this coup. Can the Minister tell us what effect the Government’s decision to cut the aid budget will have on their ability to sustain the level of humanitarian and development funding that has gone to Myanmar and is for the Rohingya refugees?

In this very worrying situation, I look forward to the Minister’s response.