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 Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 1:22 pm, 11th February 2021

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their contributions. They rightly raised a series of issues, which I will seek to address.

In her remarks, the noble Baroness asked for an assessment of the current situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also noted, it is a week since we last discussed this matter. Let me assure both of them and your Lordships that we have been not just monitoring but acting. Clearly, the situation over the weekend of 6 and 7 February saw large-scale protests; the noble Baroness rightly pointed to the scale of them in both Naypyidaw and Yangon. Notably, we have seen largely—I use that word deliberately but carefully—peaceful protests.

The noble Baroness is quite right to note that, in many instances, the police have been restrained when many people perhaps expected otherwise. However, as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, we are concerned by further reports of crackdowns on protestors in Naypyidaw on 9 February, including, as the noble Lord noted, the firing of rubber bullets and the use of water cannons. It remains unclear whether the security forces discharged live rounds, although that was being reported. When I looked into this, I came across a particularly shocking case where, as has been widely reported, a lady was shot in the head.

On the noble Baroness’s point about the cybersecurity law, I, too, have heard about proposed actions in that respect. She will have noted the internet blackouts that have taken place; we are concerned about these as they have made the flow of information in and out of the country that much more challenging. We are clear that internet services must be maintained and freedom of expression protected.

In that regard, I want to pick up on the point rightly made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the CDC. The CDC carries out due diligence for every investment it makes, including in its contract with Frontiir. The investment was made to ensure low-cost internet availability and focused primarily on key areas, including Yangon. In March, there was a Myanmar Government directive to all ISP providers to block websites, which Frontiir and others have followed. Of course, the UK has taken a number of steps over the censorship of websites, but I note carefully what the noble Lord said in this respect. It is part of our strategy to ensure that the internet is restored at the earliest possible opportunity. I would also add that the investment was made with the good intent of providing the most vulnerable people with internet access.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly mentioned the recent announcement from President Biden and his Administration. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary tweeted this morning about our support for the actions taken. I know that if I were sitting on the other side of the Dispatch Box, I would find this frustrating at times, but let me say that we are looking actively at all the tools at our disposal.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly noted the 16 sanctions. To put that in context, 14 of them have been directly rolled over and become applicable in UK law; this is part of what we led on with the EU. There were another two, most notably against the current commander-in-chief of the army and his deputy. They were part of the first tranche of global human rights sanctions that we introduced, and will also stay in place. The noble Baroness mentioned the UN fact-finding mission. Six specific individuals were named in it, and I assure her that all of them are part of the UK’s current sanctions regime.

I note the point made in the context of both individuals and other organisations and firms. All I can say at this juncture is that we are of course looking at the actions of the United States. I come back to the point that this requires co-ordination. While signals may be sent, as I have said repeatedly—I know that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord share my views on this—it is when we act in conjunction with others that we see the best benefit against those we seek to target.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what actions the UK has taken. He rightly pointed out that we are penholders, particularly on the issue of the Rohingya. However, we are also the current president of the UN Security Council. In this regard, we convened a specific meeting on 4 February. I totally concur with the noble Baroness’s assessment of the importance of China’s role, not just in the current crisis but in terms of the continuing challenge of the situation and suffering of the Rohingya community. China has an important role to play. Through our bilateral engagement and engagement at the UN Security Council, we continually remind China of its important role in this respect. It was notable that, although there was no resolution, a statement was issued by the UN Security Council on the worrying nature of the events and military coup in Myanmar. We will continue to look at the situation during our presidency for the remainder of the month.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the actions that we have taken, including at the UN Human Rights Council. Again, I, as the Human Rights Minister, have prioritised this. Together with our European Union colleagues—I somewhat expected the noble Baroness to ask me about the EU, but I will proactively provide her with this information—we worked at the Human Rights Council and will convene a meeting tomorrow on the situation. Of course, we are formal members of the Human Rights Council as well.

On action by the International Court of Justice, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to, we are supportive of the Gambia’s action. To put the UK’s formal intervention into context, we are looking at that. A number of countries have stated their intention to intervene but are yet to do so. There is a structured process at the ICJ, part of which is for Myanmar to come back on what has been levied against it by the Gambia and others. I believe that Myanmar has responded, while the other countries which have said that they will formally intervene are now considering their position, as will we, to see when a formal intervention, which we would support, would be best suited to give greater credence to the role of the ICJ in this respect.

I hope I have responded to some of the specifics put to me. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will appreciate that we are engaging on this issue proactively across our roles, including in the G7. They will both have noticed that on 3 February we issued a statement as part of the G7. We are using our role at the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council. I would add one further piece of information. Through our ambassador, we have also attended a briefing with the military-appointed Foreign Minister. We used the occasion to communicate directly to that representative of the current military leaders of Myanmar who are in charge our unequivocal condemnation of the coup.

We join all countries in calling for the release of those who been arbitrarily detained, not least Aung San Suu Kyi. I shall pick up the point about elections raised by the noble Baroness. As we all know, some of these elections are not the most perfect one could imagine. Nevertheless, there were external observers, and it is not for the Myanmar military to call them into question, given the general reports. Putting the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya people to one side, others in the country participated fully and the result was conclusive. I can assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that, through engagements beyond the Chamber, I will continue to update them both about the ongoing situation and will seek to provide briefings in a timely manner.