Human Rights (Burma)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 25th February 2004.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 9:30 am, 25th February 2004

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In broad terms, I agree with his comments. Later, I shall discuss the various different levels on which those of us in different parts of the world can hope to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese Government, and the importance of action within the region will be central to that process.

Minor steps in the right direction and vague promises of democratic reform must be set against the reality of the current situation in Myanmar. The Burma Campaign has summed up the present position as one in which there is

"disruption of democracy; the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues; the scorched earth policy against ethnic peoples; the use of rape as a weapon of war against women and children; the mass forced displacement of civilian populations; the widespread and systematic violation of human rights; the largest use of child soldiers in the world; the production and export of illegal narcotics; the spread of HIV/AIDS to neighbouring countries; and the looming humanitarian crisis resulting from the collapse of public services."

We in Britain must not have the wool pulled over our eyes. That will be critical in the run-up to the EU's review of Burmese policy in April and the Asia-Europe meeting in October. We should take the approach that Amnesty International took during its recent visit. It was highly critical of the regime because it judged

"concrete actions on the ground" and was not swayed by

"fine words, and vague promises for the future without any timetable for change".

After its visit to Burma, Amnesty outlined its serious concerns about arbitrary arrests, prolonged interrogation and incommunicado detention without judicial oversight carried out by military intelligence and other security personnel. It also believes that Burmese trials continue to fall short of international fair trial standards. According to Amnesty, those recently tried have been denied access to a lawyer or have been permitted to talk to a lawyer only minutes before their trial. In some cases, political detainees have not been able to speak in their own defence or to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. As a result, long sentences have been handed down solely on the basis of statements provided by police officers or military intelligence. Amnesty estimates that there are 1,300 political prisoners in Burma. Amnesty's lasting impression from the trip was that tolerance of criticism and dissent is shrinking while at the same time the regime talks of moving towards civilian government. We must not be fooled by a charade engineered in Rangoon.

Despite all this, the latest process initiated by the regime has already started to benefit the generals. The international community has stepped back from any concrete action against the regime even though Aung San Suu Kyi and the leadership of her party remain in detention. One of the first elements of the so-called "road map to democracy" produced by the regime is to reconvene a national convention that was first tried in 1993. The NLD boycotted the convention because of the authoritarian restrictions imposed on delegates, which included not being allowed to deviate from approved discussion papers; being allowed to express support only for constitutional principles proposed by the military; not being allowed to distribute any papers on the convention premises; and being subjected to intimidation by the military while the convention is out of session. One delegate was given a 20-year sentence for distributing a paper to other delegates.

When Burma was last debated in Westminster Hall on 2 July last year, the Minister said:

"We will also make sure that the deep worries that exist in the international community are not left as words but are followed up by actions, which means that clear messages must be sent. The way in which the economy of Burma has developed must be addressed, but the regime and its leaders will find that the international community will target them and their cronies for further sanctions."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 96WH.]

The Minister was right to take that position then, and the time for rhetorical pressure has surely now long passed. Since the July debate, the two largest UK investors in Burma—Premier Oil and British American Tobacco—have agreed to withdraw from the country. That is welcome, but the UK Government have still not introduced legislation giving them power to ban new investment in Burma. Will the Minister now give an undertaking to do so?

In response to parliamentary questions tabled by Vera Baird, the Department of Trade and Industry revealed in December 2003 that in 1998 the total value of UK imports of goods from Burma was just £17.3 million. By 2002, however, it had increased almost fourfold, to £64.3 million. Between January and September 2003, a further £44.3 million-worth of goods were imported from Burma. According to the Burma Campaign, the UK currently imports more goods from Burma than does any other European state.

In last year's debate, Mr. Spring, speaking on behalf of the Conservatives, said:

"Foreign investment has provided the regime with the money that it needs to cling on to power and has enabled it to double the size of its army."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 92WH.]

He went on to call for targeted sanctions and an EU investment ban. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in securing such measures and, indeed, whether they are the objectives of Government policy?

I can understand that some hon. Members may be reluctant to impose further sanctions on Burma. The Burmese people have suffered greatly under the current regime. I do not think, however, that targeted sanctions would hurt the poorest Burmese people, who tend to work in the informal economy, which is generally not dependent on foreign investment.