I am delighted to have secured this debate on the important subject of human rights, or perhaps I should say their violation, in Burma. I begin by declaring my interest, duly recorded in the register, as parliamentary adviser to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The timing of this debate could hardly be more apposite or opportune. On
Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that towards the end of the last Session—on
When we talk about abuse of human rights, we think often of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Sudan under al-Bashir, and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. We should think of Burma more readily than we do, because there is no doubt that the military junta that rules Burma and has continued to flout its people's views is one of the most savage military dictatorships to be found in the world. The record is well established, the documentation has been provided and the evidence has been regularly collated, but let the argument be reiterated so that we are clear and so that outside observers unfamiliar with the historical record are in the know.
Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers and human minesweepers, and the daily destruction of rural villages, especially in eastern Burma, are all part of the cocktail of barbarity that has disfigured that beautiful but long-suffering part of the world. The use of child soldiers in Burma is on a scale proportionately greater than in any country in the world. The suffering is immense. The situation in Burma is not simply a matter of historical events about which there is continuing argument. The crisis is real, the atrocities continue, the pain is now. In the past 12 months or so, there have been continual attacks by the Burma army—the Tatmadaw—on the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan and the Chin people, to name but four examples of ethnic nationals targeted, vilified, attacked, maimed, disfigured, raped and murdered on the deliberate say-so of the so-called State Peace and Development Council, the name of the ruling regime.
It is salutary to note that, on the advice of an American public relations company, I believe, the governing body of Burma changed its name from the State Law and Order Restoration Council—otherwise and perhaps more fittingly known by the acronym SLORC—to the State Peace and Development Council. When I was a young boy first taking an interest in politics, I asked my father what I thought was a simple but valid question. "Dad," I asked, for I regarded him as the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, "Why, given its reputation for human rights abuses, is the German Democratic Republic so called?" He sagely replied, "Ah, son, it is called the German Democratic Republic precisely because it isn't." There is a sense in which that is true in respect of the Burmese Government. Military offensives, not only against army opponents of the regime but against unarmed, innocent and non-political civilians, are a fact of life. We are talking about a 100,000-strong army attacking villages.
Visiting the Thai-Burmese border last year, courtesy of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I met parents who spontaneously volunteered to me that they had seen their children shot dead in front of them. Similarly, I met children who told me spontaneously that they had seen their parents shot dead in front of them. That is the scale of the savagery and wanton destruction of which the Government of Burma are guilty.
The sources of evidence are many, respected and compelling: they include the United States State Department, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Free Burma Rangers, the International Labour Organisation, the Karen Human Rights Organisation and the Shan Human Rights Foundation. The evidence is all on the record and documented, and the papers have been provided. Governments throughout the European Union and in north America and UN member states have been told of what is happening in Burma. I believe that the abuse of human rights in Burma is the most shameful and under-reported such abuse to be found anywhere in the world.
New evidence has recently been provided by Mr. Guy Horton, the author of a new report, which he calls "Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma". Mr. Horton, who has presented the evidence in Washington and will shortly do so at a press conference in London, argues that the Government of Burma are guilty of human rights violations that contravene three important protocols and public declarations. He argues that the regime is guilty of, first, crimes against humanity under article 7 of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and, secondly, breaching common article 3 of the convention on refugees. He concludes, that in addition to those crimes against humanity and war crimes, the Government of Burma are guilty of attempted genocide under the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. That is an extremely serious charge. My understanding—the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—is that the British Government are not currently persuaded that the evidence constitutes proof. I hope that they will be prepared to look at that further when they have the chance to study the detailed report.
There is also serious concern about reports in the past few months of what circumstantial evidence suggests was either a chemical or a poison weapons attack on an army resistance camp in Karenni state. Independent medical examinations of residents of that camp have led to the conclusion that they have symptoms of what appears to be illness resulting from a chemical or poison weapons attack. We have heard about the explosion of shells, a sinister disgusting yellow vapour, and the consequences for the people in the camp of severe irritation to the eyes, damage to the lungs, a marked deterioration in the muscles and a period of prolonged weight loss, to name but four of the symptoms. We have also heard testimony from army deserters that they were instructed by their controllers in the Tatmadaw to carry boxes containing poison weapons. It is incumbent on the British Government proactively to consider the evidence and either satisfy themselves that it is compelling and that referrals of identifiable suspects to the International Criminal Court should take place forthwith, or decide that that they are not so satisfied, in which case the Minister has a responsibility on behalf of the Government clearly and openly to explain to the House why they are not persuaded by what appears to be compelling evidence.
Let us, briefly—I am conscious that many hon. Members in the Chamber wish to take part in the debate and have serious and informed contributions to make—look at the overview of the position in Burma. I have deliberately not subjected the Chamber to a history lesson about what has happened in that country. Many people present will be familiar with the brutality of the regime over the past four and a bit decades. They know only too well that the results of the 1990 elections, in which the National League for Democracy was manifestly victorious, were ignored by the Government, who are absolutely hellbent on retaining the aggressive and intimidating power of the military component of the regime.
There were a few cursory and tokenistic releases of prisoners from jails not long ago, which were trumpeted by the regime and its naive or malign agents as constituting evidence of a dramatic march towards the democratic process on the part of the regime. Of course, they were nothing of the sort. The truth is that there are still between 1,300 and 1,400 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience incarcerated in varying conditions of severity and deprivation in Burma's jails. The offices of the National League for Democracy remain shut and there is not the slightest sign of the release of one of the heroines of the struggle for freedom, justice and democracy in the world today, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The regime, typical of authoritarian and, worse still, totalitarian regimes, spends a vast proportion of its national budget on the military, but spends, I believe, 19p a year per person on the health of the people. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that one in 10 children in Burma do not survive beyond the age of five. That is an horrendous state of affairs.
When I think about the reports of domestic organisations on the ground whose representatives I was privileged to meet last year, I think that we cannot look the other way and choose to think of and talk about something else. The Karen Women's Organisation's 2004 report "Shattering Silences" and the Shan Human Rights Foundation's May 2002 report "Licence to Rape" tell us about premeditated attacks on innocent people by the representatives of the army, which are all calculated to keep people down, to deny them protection and to send a message to anyone who might be thinking of arguing against the regime that they should not consider doing so. The Burmese people's plight is extremely serious. I do not think that that is be a matter of disagreement in this Chamber. The question is: what do we do to improve the situation? Can the Government, unilaterally, multilaterally or supranationally, take any action that would alleviate the plight of the people of Burma, in particular the long-suffering ethnic nationals, and offer the prospect of relief and progress in the future?
There are steps that can be taken. First, I appeal to the Minister to confirm that the Government will actively investigate the Horton allegations, if I may describe them so. Will he confirm that the Government will examine, painstakingly and in detail, the allegations of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide? Secondly, will they examine the particular accusation made public by Christian Solidarity Worldwide of an attempted chemical or poison weapons attack on the Karenni army resistance camp?
May I touch on a point that the hon. Gentleman has not yet talked about and might not reach? He has mapped out the details of an appalling regime, which has continued since 1962 in the face of worldwide opposition. We must recognise that it has survived since that time whereas other equally turbulent regimes have collapsed. What does he think are the reasons for the longevity of that appalling regime in Burma?
There are reasons for the longevity of the regime and I will detail them in broad terms and in short order. First, the regime is militarily powerful and its opponents are nothing like as militarily powerful. Secondly, there is an absence of television cameras in Burma. They would help open up to public and international view the reality of the violation of human rights that is taking place and would give the opportunity for independent testimony to the scale of the savagery.
Thirdly, the United Nations and other organisations have not accepted their responsibilities. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman, not for the first time and probably not for the last, has most helpfully prodded me to the third point that I want to make to the Minister about action to be taken and the attitude required for it to be carried out. I hope that today he will accept that, however well intentioned the policy of engagement might have been—I accept that it is a policy that applied under the Conservative Government as well as under the present Government—it has proved to be an abysmal failure. Under the Conservative Government, trade fairs were taking place in Rangoon between 1994 and 1996 when people were being slaughtered in Burma. Imports from Burma, which were worth £17.8 million in 1998, now total about £74 million.
Let us consider the EU-wide position. Since 1988, $4 billion-worth of trade and investment has been conducted with Burma by member states of the European Union. Total—one of the most serious offenders, whose activities have done a great deal to prop up the brutal, savage military dictatorship in Burma—is in the process of investing about $400 million in Burma. I have raised the matter with the Prime Minister in response to his statements in the aftermath of European summits. I have urged him to add to the list of agenda items on which he is regularly in dispute with President Chirac by rightly remonstrating with him about allowing the disgraceful, antisocial and deeply damaging behaviour of Total to prop up the regime in that way.
I say to Dr. Pugh that the international community must accept responsibility. The European Union must acknowledge that engagement has failed, that the brutal military dictatorship continues, that the semi-moderate Prime Minister in office until last year has been deposed, that a hard-line fascistic military despot is now in place and that the road map to democracy and the national convention that was supposedly to take place to facilitate a multi-party dialogue about the country's future are things of the past. We need the European Union to get serious: it must implement a targeted sanctions policy and apply a comprehensive investment ban on Burma. Targeting the pineapple juice sector and a tailor's shop in Burma does not constitute evidence of serious intent on the part of the European Union to bring the regime to heel. Indeed, the word "tokenism" readily springs to mind.
I have waited many a long year for an opportunity to tell my hon. Friend John Bercow that he is being far too optimistic and sanguine about the European Union; that opportunity has now arrived. The chances of the European Union doing anything effective against Total are minuscule. However, the company is this country's fourth biggest oil supplier. Can my hon. Friend not think of measures that this country could take to hit Total where it hurts—in its pocket? Such measures might prove slightly more effective.
The interesting point to emerge from my hon. Friend's intervention is that although I have not thought of ways to improve the position unilaterally, he has manifestly done so. It would be profitable for me to have further dialogue with him in the hope that we can launch a joint approach or two-handed initiative. The House ought to be aware that my hon. Friend and I, who have been friends for a long time, have always understood that we have only one brain and we have decided to share it between us. On this occasion, my hon. Friend has considered the issue carefully and contributed substantially to my thinking on this matter. I had not worked out precisely how we should proceed, but perhaps we can proceed within EU trade rules. If so, we should not wait for the collective response of the European Union—we might wait for that for a long time—but take unilateral action.
The UN has a role to play as well. It is a counsel of despair for the Government to argue, as the Minister did in a parliamentary written answer to me on
In terms of sanctions, there is another stick that we can use against Burma. Everyone knows that Burma treasures the forthcoming chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations in 2006. In respect of international credibility, that post is important to Burma. We should say that that is unacceptable. Parliamentarians in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, to name but three ASEAN countries, have objected to the idea that Burma should have the chairmanship. Through its military expansionism, its involvement in the drugs trade, and its spawning of a humanitarian crisis as a result of the flow of refugees over the border, Burma now poses a serious threat to regional stability. Apart from its regional threat, it is also guilty of terrible human rights abuses. Unless and until Burma can comport itself in accordance with the standards of civilised behaviour, it should not be allowed to parley on equal terms with the world's democracies. We should say through the European Union, "Unless and until you clean up your act, you will not have the chairmanship of ASEAN." One thing that we can say is that we will have no part in meetings under Burma's chairmanship if it is allowed to go ahead.
The Prime Minister has often displayed a truly laudable determination to tackle rogue states and to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world. Sadly, to date, Burma has not formed part of the equation. I am not making a party political point: it is a great indictment of the House that, so far back as records can be traced, not one ministerial oral statement has been made in Parliament about the abuse of human rights in Burma. That situation should change. If we declared our intention as a Parliament to oppose the regime, we could make a difference in time. If we were to adopt, through the European Union and the United Nations, the sanctions that are needed in respect of the oil, gas, timber and gems sectors on the one hand and follow up with a comprehensive UN arms embargo on the other, what a difference that could make.
The Government of Burma have a responsibility to stop subjugating their citizens and to start liberating them. If they will not act voluntarily, they must be squeezed, squeezed and squeezed again. Like many other despotic regimes throughout the world, the Government of Burma are contemptuous of weakness. They respect only strength. They will respond only—if at all—to pressure, pressure and more pressure. If we take the approach that I recommend and if the Prime Minister is willing for his remaining period in office to put himself at the head of a movement to bring about change in Burma, that would be right in itself. It would also enable us to send the most delightful and welcome 60th birthday present to Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow John Bercow. I congratulate him not only on securing the debate, but on presenting his case in the way he did and on his persistence in pursuing such an incredibly important matter.
I first became involved in issues in Burma when I was approached by a constituent, the late Bruce Humphrey-Taylor, an elder of the Karen nation. He had fought for the British Army during the war and had a spent a lifetime working in my constituency. On his retirement, he and his wife discovered a young relative who was living in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camp on the Thai border. Having lost her family in the terror of that awful regime, she had been a victim of the abuses of human rights that the hon. Gentleman described. I hope that one thing unites all of us who are present in this Chamber: that her case was genuine—that she was a genuine refugee—and that it was absolutely right on humanitarian grounds that the Government allowed her to join her only living relatives in the United Kingdom in 1998.
It was a great move by the British Government. That person is now settled: she has gone through her UK nationality qualification and learned English, and she is holding down a job in one of our hospitals. Having examined her case and spoken to her—and to Bruce, before he died—about the abuses, I became convinced that there were additional pressures that we could apply. The hon. Gentleman described some of them extremely well. I broadly agreed with the five points that he made, and I totally agree—as, I hope, do our Government—that the current European Union sanctions are grossly inadequate, and that more can and must be done.
Dealing with the oil industry is a problem. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, my constituency is dominated by the petrochemical industry. Because of the global nature of the economics of the oil industry, it would be difficult to pursue the suggestion of putting pressure on Total, but if there is a way of doing that, we should try and unearth it and make it happen, because that would be a very valuable step.
It is one of the great ironies of this topic that Burma has the potential to be an extremely wealthy nation. It has enormous mineral wealth, not only in terms of oil but in other reserves, and it has great potential with regard to tourism and other economic activities. That Burma is not fully exploiting its economic potential is a tragedy, not only for the 600,000 displaced persons—that figure is probably higher now—or for the thousands of people the regime has tortured and the villages it has destroyed, but for the nation as a whole.
We should certainly be doing more through the EU, but I also believe that more can be done through our work in helping China's economic development. There is a trade in arms across the Chinese border. It is not as strong as it used to be, but it is still the key supply chain for arms, as it has been for a considerable number of years. However, many western European weapons have been identified as well. We must try to close any loopholes that exist in the supply of arms to the regime from both Europe and China.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned genocide. I am familiar with the technical arguments about the legal definitions of genocide. It is an interesting subject; indeed, I was involved in a discussion of it several years ago in an Adjournment debate in this Chamber. However, I merely ask my hon. Friend the Minister to put himself in the position of the people who inhabited some of the villages that have been burned down and to try to understand the situation they face. Yes, there may be a technical argument about whether what has happened strictly falls within the UN definition of genocide, but it does not mean that no action should be taken. We should find ways, as the hon. Gentleman says, of naming and shaming countries like Burma.
The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but am I right in thinking that, since 1996, no fewer than 2,500 villages in eastern Burma have effectively been destroyed?
I have seen figures on that scale. Looking at the number of displaced persons, one would take that to be a sensible figure. As we discovered in a ping-pong match with the Home Office when I was trying to persuade them that Hilda should be able to come to the UK—they said "Where are her papers?" and her papers, of course, had been burned with the village—we do not truly know how many people were destroyed, because the records have all been destroyed.
All the evidence from people like Horton, and many others who have been brave enough to cross the border and look around, particularly in the east, suggests that the numbers are very significant. I certainly agree that the Horton report should be investigated. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to initiate some action on that front.
Similarly, on the issue of chemical weapons, I, too, have received the report. It was probably not from the same source, I have to say, as the one received by the hon. Member for Buckingham, but that it is coming to British Members of Parliament from different sources perhaps underlines the fact that it needs investigating.
The one area of the five suggestions made by the hon. Member for Buckingham where I think we must tread very carefully is how we manage the issue of the ASEAN chairmanship. It would be regarded as Britain at its imperial worst if we went around telling people in south-east Asia who should take office in various organisations that they are involved in. The point, however, is well made. We should try to encourage those countries that have already put their heads above the parapet and said, "We do not want Burma as our chair," and try to work on Commonwealth countries in particular, where we may have some influence, to seek to persuade others to back the position that the hon. Gentleman has described. We must handle that with great care and put our best diplomats to work on how we achieve it.
I shall finish—because I know many Members want to speak—where I started. The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service by raising this issue. I hope that we can continue, hopefully on a genuinely all-party basis across the House, to find ways of working with my hon. Friend the Minister to make progress in a country that has so much potential but is suffering so much and has done for such a long time.
I ask hon. Members present to do a little mental transposition and imagine that, instead of talking about Burma today, we are cast back in time and are talking about apartheid South Africa. The question I want everybody to ask his or her conscience is this: if we were indeed talking about apartheid South Africa, would we be satisfied with the measures that are being proposed and taken today in respect of Burma? I think the answer to that is, "Not in the slightest."
I am old enough to remember the agitation, the campaigns, the harassment and the pressure which were rightly applied to the apartheid regime. It was essentially a policy of allowing no political hiding place for that regime, or anyone or any company that did business with it. When I was an undergraduate, for example, there was a perfect parallel with what my hon. Friend John Bercow has been talking about in relation to Total and its support for the Burmese junta: Barclays bank and its investments in South Africa. We were contemporaries, Miss Widdecombe, so you may remember some of the demonstrations in and around Oxford university against Barclays bank. They were very effective.
My mind goes back even further to the perennial problem that civilised democracies have in dealing with dictatorships. Do they try to reason with them or do they confront and defeat them? That great man Winston Churchill was right about this, as about so many other things. Once, at a reception at the German embassy, he was asked by a press attaché why he was so confrontational towards the Nazi regime. He replied, "When a mad dog makes a dash for my trousers, I shoot him down before he can bite." In other words, there are some regimes that are so awful, so despicable and so brutal that they do not understand anything other than the pressure of force.
We have a dilemma in the world since the creation of the United Nations. Recently, in relation to Iraq, we have heard that the notion of overthrowing a Government simply for the purpose of regime change is considered illegal under international law. However, we have also heard that one of the very limited number of circumstances in which it is legitimate to try to overthrow regimes is when a humanitarian catastrophe is being perpetrated. It must be said that the record of the UN, the body originally conceived during the second world war as a world policeman, is not good in that respect. One has only to think of Rwanda, of the long delays before there were interventions in the Balkans, and of the uprisings in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, to know the powerlessness of a world body, particularly when the brutality is being carried out by a regime that is either a superpower itself or enjoys the protection of a superpower.
However, I am not an absolutist about such things and I take the view that just because one cannot intervene effectively against every abuse of human rights, that is no excuse for not intervening effectively against those abuses of human rights where effective intervention is possible. Burma, like Zimbabwe, seems a case in point. I am not here today to argue the case for military action, but to pose a dilemma. We hear it said that the leader of Burma's democrats takes the view that force is not the answer and that peaceful civil resistance will eventually triumph. I hope that she is right, but it certainly will not triumph without effective international and commercial pressure, which is so far nowhere near being applied.
We must recognise, however, that those regimes where real force was not applied lasted a very long time indeed. In his famous essay "On Liberty", John Stuart Mill observed that there is no guarantee that liberty will always triumph. He said that history is replete with examples of liberty being thrown down and suppressed time after time, and that it is only because there is a natural urge towards liberty that it will tend to revive itself and try again and again until it may be successful. The intellectually bankrupt Marxist regimes of the Soviet bloc lasted in excess of 40 years before imploding, despite repeated attempts to destabilise them from within by democratic means. The ghastly Soviet Union survived for more than 70 years before its internal contradictions brought it to an end. If the policy in Burma is to be passive resistance, the regime may continue for a considerable time, as Dr. Pugh observed when referring to its longevity.
I am drawing my comments to a close because many hon. Members want to speak. Part of the Minister's winding-up speech will have been written for him. I do not blame him for that and have no advance knowledge of it, but I suspect that I know what the structure will be. Part of it will be descriptive and say what a terrible state of affairs there is in Burma, just as Ministers always say what a terrible state of affairs there is in Zimbabwe. Hon. Members should try to distinguish between that part of the Minister's speech, which I predict will occupy at least three quarters of his time, and the recommendations and proposals for action that will be included at the end of his comments. I am not optimistic that it will be a long list.
The hon. Gentleman talks about a lack of optimism. Clearly, an economic stranglehold around the country would be helpful in the case of Burma. However, one of the problems that has been alluded to is the fact that a key economic partner in this respect is China. It is a superpower and currently engaged with Microsoft in eliminating words such as "democracy" and "freedom" from the internet. So, the task is not an easy one and is not solely dependent on western Governments.
The hon. Gentleman is spot-on in his observation. That should be a cause for realising where pressure points are. Just as there are possibilities in this country for exerting pressure on Total if the campaigners get their act together, so there are possibilities for exerting pressure on China, which is anxious to improve its relationship with the west. Even as we speak, China is trying to engage in major commercial deals with both Europe and America, but should not be allowed to compartmentalise such ambitions and separate them from its behaviour in supporting the appalling regime in Burma.
I shall give a couple of examples of the way in which the Government have responded to typically perceptive questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. He asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
"what recent assessment has been made of the political situation in Burma?"
The reply was:
"We continue to believe that it is essential for the State Peace and Development Council to enter into a genuine and constructive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy".
It would have been helpful if the Nazi regime had entered into a genuine and constructive dialogue with all those democracies that it was in the process of undermining and overthrowing, but that would not have been a practical suggestion.
When my hon. Friend also asked the Foreign Secretary if he would
"(a) make representations to ASEAN to strip Burma of its chairmanship, (b) make it his policy not to participate in meetings with ASEAN under Burma's chairmanship and (c) urge ASEAN to suspend Burma", he was told:
"We are . . . concerned about Burma's forthcoming chairmanship . . . It is too early for the EU to take a decision on the approach it will take in July 2006.
We will continue to take advantage of our regular bilateral and multilateral contacts with all ASEAN nations to encourage substantive change in Burma".—[Hansard, 25 May 2005; Vol. 434, c. 132–34W.]
I finish where I began—with Churchill. Such recommendations are like Churchill trying to negotiate and appeal to the better nature of the mad dog as it approaches. One cannot negotiate and appeal to the better nature of mad dogs; one has to shoot them down before they can bite.
I congratulate John Bercow on obtaining the debate, on an excellent speech and on sharing with me the privilege of chairing the all-party group on Burma. He has spoken more fluently than I ever could on the depth and gravity of human rights, and I do not intent to repeat any of what he has said.
Let me turn briefly to how I see the Horton report, as we have already started to call it. It re-examines existing evidence according to the most recent expositions of international human rights law that come from the Rome statute that set up the International Criminal Court, and from the tribunals on Rwanda and Yugoslavia. It concludes—relying on those modern expositions—that the process of "Burmanisation" that the nasty military junta has implemented, could be seen as an attempt at genocide of the Karen, Karenni and Shan, who live in the eastern states. Of course, the eastern parts of Burma are the only parts to which there is access. We do not really know what is happening in many other parts of the country. It is a slow genocide—a concept that is recognised in international law, and consists not merely of the random killings and brutality that have been cited, but of forced relocation to places where people will inevitably die for want of food, hygiene, medical care, water and shelter and because of military incursions.
It is asserted that the scale of human rights abuse set out by the hon. Gentleman, the flight of refugees en masse and the spread of drugs are a threat to international peace and security meriting an intervention under article 24 by the UN, which has a duty to act to restore international peace and security where they are in danger of disruption. That is a new link between the situation, which has previously been seen as confined to Burma, and the international community. That link well merits a close look. Of course, it is primarily a challenge for the UN, which would have to take the action, but our representative must also consider that argument closely.
It is equally clear that the iniquities of the regime are not confined to the ethnic groups that have been mentioned: the lowland Burman people, too, suffer subjugation, forced relocation and forced labour. They, with all the other ethnic groups, reject the military regime and all it stands for and did so most clearly in 1990. The all-party group was lucky to have Dr. Sein Win, the Prime Minister in exile of the national coalition Government of Burma, and the UN representative Thaung Htun, to talk to us last week. He spoke of his dismay at what he sees as a sharpening of military action against those ethnic groups, and cited that with other evidence to show that there is no evidence that the junta will ever compromise with its own people. I am paraphrasing, but I am not using words a million miles away from his. There is no hope of home-grown national reconciliation; consequently, the Burmese must look to us for help.
A campaign led by the estimable Burma Campaign, which has been taken on by the all-party group, sends Aung San Suu Kyi birthday cards on her birthday. They know that the cards will not reach her, but the sending of a huge number of such cards will have some impact none the less. Tomorrow, there is a reception to make the points that we seek to make through such demonstrations. First, we are watching what is going on, which we hope will keep her that bit safer. Secondly, we know that the junta fears her—it fears her courage and her popularity and the fact that it is thrown into evil relief by her stance.
Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly called for strong political and economic pressure against the junta. The EU measures that we participate in are very weak. Briefly, they consist of a visa ban on senior generals who do not want to come to us anyway; an asset freeze when less than £4,000 is held in the EU by any member of the regime; and a ban on investment in state enterprises, which has not stopped a single piece of investment, since the Burmese law itself bans investment in state enterprises. In other words, the measures are entirely symbolic, and the generals are used to living with condemnation.
The EU common position is due for review after our presidency ends. I urge the Government to put it on the agenda for consideration before our presidency ends. I had the privilege of accompanying Glenys Kinnock MEP, and other women on a visit to the Prime Minister last Friday to discuss the issue. We believe that he is inclined to ensure that the common position is put on the EU agenda, with a view to tightening it up, before our presidency expires. Is my hon. Friend the Minister able to confirm that that is indeed the intention?
It is imperative that the EU imposes a total investment ban—which is a slightly ironic thing to say in the present debate. If the Government carry through their apparent intentions but nothing follows from that, we must consider unilateral sanctions. It is perfectly plain that we can impose them, despite our initial concern that EU law would prevent us from doing so. A short piece of legislation might be required: it could easily be attached to another Bill and would, I am sure, be passed with all-party support. The UK is Burma's second largest trade partner, largely through the British Virgin Islands, which is not wholly out of our control. Our unilaterally imposing sanctions would send a very strong message.
There has been a counter-argument that the imposition of such sanctions is damaging to the poor. That brings me to ASEAN. Contrary to what Dr. Lewis said, pressure has been put on ASEAN. I understand that Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philipines, Cambodia and Laos are all impressed by the need to prevent Burma from taking the chair of ASEAN. Embarrassment about the action that western Governments might have taken in the Asian Ministers meeting after ASEAN if Burma had been the chair has played a part. I further understand that some compromise way of presenting its non-chairmanship has been arrived at, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman was a bit hard. I agree that China and India remain major problems; however, we trade strongly with both, so I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibilities for trade, what he can do to influence them.
I shall speak briefly in support of what others have said about the UN. It is said that if we put a proposal on the UN agenda, the Chinese will veto it and the Burmese will regard that as a victory. It is not at all clear that that is the case. The Burmese democracy movement have asked us to put the matter on the agenda and it appears that if the junta fears anything at all, it is the UN Security Council. I am told that, although it took five days before 9/11 was reported in Burma, the most recent suggestion that Burma's affairs be put on the Security Council agenda was reported in 24 hours, which suggests that there is truth in the claim that Burma takes that body seriously.
As the former colonial power in Burma, Britain has a particular responsibility to take the lead in bringing change to this monstrous state. I urge the Government to think one more time about Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 60th birthday we mark in this debate—in fact, her birthday is on
I am indeed aware of that. In fact, I arranged with my hon. Friend Mr. Clegg to borrow a couple of his minutes, no doubt to be repaid on some future occasion. I congratulate John Bercow on securing this debate but will heap the customary praise on him afterwards, when time permits.
This Saturday, I shall be cutting a birthday cake for Aung San Suu Kyi in Kirkwall. The Amnesty International groups in Orkney and Shetland have already held events to raise awareness of Burma. I mention that because that it is worth stating that concern about Burma is not the preserve of The Guardian-reading residents of Islington. Revulsion at and concern about the regime in Burma are felt the length and breadth of this country. Indeed, that concern is regularly reflected in my constituency postbag.
Andrew Miller spoke about the impact of the oil industry in his constituency. I can easily associate with that, because the oil industry has been a potent force for good in my own constituency. Throughout the last 30 years it has brought us a great deal of economic prosperity and stability. However, it is worth taking a few minutes to contrast the way in which oil has benefited our communities with the way in which it has operated in Burma and, in particular, to make brief reference to Total. To the French, Total is not a problem. As Dr. Lewis said, Total is the fourth largest oil company in this country. It has a turnover in the region of £2.2 billion per annum and supplies about 11 per cent. of petrol and other fuels. It is one of the biggest suppliers of plastics in the United Kingdom. How much of that £2.2 billion actually comes from the Government of this country? That is something that the Minister might wish to consider.
Total is funding the Burmese regime to a significant extent, and we know what the regime do with that money. The first down payment they got from the Yadana gas project was spent on buying 10 MiG jets from Russia. That is the political reality of the involvement of a company like Total in a place like Burma. We all know what the situation is in Burma, and as long as we know and fail to act, we are all diminished.
I join in thanking and congratulating Mr. Bercow on securing this debate, and on speaking with his trademark fluency, compassion and sincerity. There is no other subject that merits those qualities more than the subject that we are debating today.
Since Mr. Carmichael has stolen two of my minutes already, I am conscious that I must be brief. I shall focus on two issues: first, the personal dignity of Aung San Suu Kyi, and, secondly, what we might ask the Minister to do following the debate. I quote from a letter that Glenys Kinnock, Vera Baird and others sent on
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, according to the customs of the House, he should refer to hon. Members by their constituencies and not by their names.
I apologise. The letter stated that when Aung San Suu Kyi was questioned about her detention in an interview, she replied that she had never considered herself a prisoner and—pointing to her head—explained that she had always been free here, in her head. That statement and many others confirm that she can stand alongside many of the other great icons of freedom—Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, all of whom are distinguished in our collective political memory as having fought for freedom in their own ways and in their own context. Any surprise that I feel about the role that Aung San Suu Kyi plays in our public debate centres on the fact that she does not yet have quite the same scale of acknowledgement that many other figures have in other countries and in the face of other tyrannies and oppression.
One message that comes through clearly from this debate is that we must all, collectively, redouble our efforts to make sure that Aung San Suu Kyi's dignity and the personal sacrifice that she has made in the name of her cause should be as widely acknowledged throughout the world as others' have been.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important to recognise that there are still 15 elected Members of the Burmese Parliament in prison and that since 1990, more than 200 members of Parliament have either been detained or put in prison? As an elected representative himself, does he not think that that is a tragic state of affairs?
Indeed it is, and in almost every statement that is published about her views, Aung San Suu Kyi repeats that her plight and her conditions are as nothing compared with those of others who have fought alongside her. My objective was to stress that in our public debates and in the battle for the hearts and minds of decision makers and voters everywhere, it is important to personalise the conflict and to emphasise her role in it. It is legitimate to do that, not only in her name but in the names of all those whom she represents.
What should we do and what should we seek from the Government today? Many suggestions have been made, but in order to secure greater clarity, let me emphasise a few of them. First, the UK is about to assume the presidency of the European Union. If, as seems likely, the EU treaties do not change radically—that will no doubt be welcomed by others—the presidency will not come round to us again for 13 or 14 years, so that will be a unique opportunity. The presidency is able to place issues on the agenda, both formally and politically. I join others in urging the Government to do so in Burma's case, in order to put pressure on France and other countries that have been reluctant to ensure that the attitude of the EU is more muscular than it has been hitherto.
Secondly, we all recognise the realpolitik constraints on the Government if they attempt to put the issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council. However, politically, the very act of trying is important. Even if, through a diplomatic manoeuvre in New York, we do not succeed in putting Burma on the agenda of the Security Council, the act of trying will be noted. If we try repeatedly over a prolonged period, it will be almost as important as placing the situation in Burma formally on the agenda. Thirdly, we must endeavour to ensure that the abhorrent regime in Burma does not assume the chairmanship of ASEAN.
My final point has been made by others, too. This weekend is Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday, which provides an opportunity to afford her the oxygen of publicity that is so essential to her. I hope that all of us here and anybody who hears this debate will use that opportunity to cast a spotlight on a conflict and on the plight of that woman and all those whom she represents. For too long, the issue has not been sufficiently examined in this country or elsewhere.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend John Bercow on having initiated the debate in his usual passionate way. He is no Johnny-come-lately, but has long been a firm advocate of human rights. He was a good shadow Secretary of State for International Development and I hope that at some stage he will be recalled to the colours in that post.
Several hon. Members have referred to the anniversary of one person's incarceration, and have mentioned another anniversary—her birthday. May I mention an anniversary in which Burma will probably appear as a footnote? We in this country will soon make a great thing of commemorating of the end of the second world war in the far east—although not, of course, on the day on which the second world war ended in the far east. We will rightly remember the suffering of British people, but we should pause and remember the suffering of the Burmese people. We should remember not only what happened to them under the occupation, but the fact that thousands of British Commonwealth troops and civilians would not have survived had it not been for the courage of the Burmese people who assisted us. We should remember that as part of the commemoration and as a background to this debate on human rights.
We can agree about the extent of human rights abuse being committed in Burma by the military regime. It has been passionately described by a number of hon. Members. There is also consensus on what needs to be done to bring pressure to bear on the Burmese Government. The difficulty is in knowing to what pressures the Burmese Government will respond and whether the British Government and other members of the international community are applying those pressures.
Last Friday, purely by coincidence, I was fortunate to meet a constituent who, for obvious reasons, does not wish to be named in this debate—a man who, with his wife, has been working as a missionary on the Thailand-Burma border for the past 10 years. He asked me to speak about the plight of the Shan people and to emphasise, as a number of other hon. Members have done, the increasing level of persecution that they and others face. He particularly wanted to emphasise what he thought were the practical steps that the British Government could take. He was not asking for sanctions to be applied across the border or anything like that—he realised the difficulties of doing so—but he genuinely wanted the Government to apply specific pressure on the Burmese Government to which they might want to respond. Indeed, as my hon. Friend rightly emphasised at the beginning of the debate, we need to ask what the British Government can do to shift things along. It cannot be done immediately—it will take time—but what more can they do?
We have moved from engagement to targeted sanctions, and I would like to pull together some of the thoughts expressed by hon. Members and put some questions to the Minister. Perhaps cynically, I agree with my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis that the Minister and his civil servants might have second-guessed all our questions. In such debates, it is always interesting to see whether Ministers take notes. If they do not, either they have two brains and have thought of all our questions, or they merely wish to read a statement. I shall give this Minister the benefit of the doubt, hoping that he has prepared himself to meet the sort of questions that I shall put.
The first question is whether the Government will now raise the issue of human rights in the UN Security Council and whether they will do so unilaterally. As other hon. Members have said, we all know that such an effort might fail or be vetoed, but are the Government prepared in principle to try? Secondly, are the Government minded to follow the example of the United States Government under its Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and impose investment sanctions on Burma, even if those sanctions are unilateral? Are they prepared at least to consider doing so?
As many hon. Members said, Burma's geographical neighbours are crucial in influencing and bringing pressure to bear on the Burmese Government . What measures have the UK Government taken to persuade Burma's most powerful and influential neighbour, China, to reduce the support that it is giving to the Burmese military, without which the Burmese military would have incredible difficulty in carrying out the kind of genocidal actions that they have taken? To my mind, China is the crucial element in bringing pressure to bear on the Burmese military. What exchanges have the United Kingdom Government had with China about the support provided to refugees from ethnic minorities on its borders? The Chinese Government have a responsibility in that respect. In addition, what pressure and practical help can the UK Government put on the Thai Government to help the thousands of Shan refugees now camping out in Thailand? In the words of my constituent—as I mentioned, he was a missionary in that area—what pressure can be put on the Thais to be "merciful" to those refugees? I think that the Thai Government, often by sleight of hand, have done much to help the refugees on their country's border. We must think what our reaction would be if a similar thing happened to us.
Hon. Members mentioned the presidency of ASEAN in 2006. I agree with those who said that it would be counter-productive for Britain to demand loudly that Burma should not take up the presidency, as it would produce an exactly opposite reaction by many ASEAN members. However, I hope that the British Government are using their best offices to persuade the senior members of ASEAN that is not only in the interests of human rights but in the interests of ASEAN's public persona that Burma should not take up the presidency.
None of us is suggesting that there is a quick fix to the problem, but we are looking for effective action from the United Kingdom Government. In the words of my constituent, expressing what has been articulated by all hon. Members who have spoken, there should be vocal and public protests by the British public and the Government not only on behalf of those suffering from human rights violations in Burma who are represented here, but so that the Burmese Government cannot take silence to mean complicity.
I congratulate John Bercow on having secured the debate. I agree that it is appropriate that the House is considering Burma just before Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday. I assure all hon. Members that the Government share the concerns expressed about the appalling human rights situation and, in particular, the suffering of political and ethnic groups who challenge the Burmese authorities' misrule.
We have had extremely good contributions from my hon. Friend Andrew Miller, my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird and the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). We also heard important interventions from Dr. Pugh and my hon. Friend Julie Morgan. As the hon. Member for New Forest, East suggested, I could speak at great length about the situation in Burma; however, I propose not to do that, because hon. Members know the situation well. Instead, I shall explain the Government's position and cover the major points that have been raised in this constructive debate.
On a personal level, in the 37 days that I have been Minister for Trade, I have raised the issue of Burma with the Chinese ambassador, the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and the Japanese Vice-Foreign Minister. I also intend to raise the issue when I visit China next month. Burma is very much on my agenda, and the Government's. Our commitment to Burma is to promote human rights, democratisation and sustainable development as far as we can using all the tools at our disposal. It is important that we discuss openly and frankly the action and pressure that we can bring to bear on the Burmese Government that will be effective. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk focused on what effective action can be taken, and I agree with him that there is no quick fix or one measure that will change the appalling situation in that country.
I assure hon. Members that the British Government remain at the forefront of international efforts to press for improvements in human rights in Burma. We are working actively with our EU and international partners to promote reform and respect for human rights in Burma, and we will continue to do so during our EU presidency. I was at the meeting that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar, Glenys Kinnock and the Burma Campaign had with the Prime Minister on Friday. The Prime Minister is committed to doing what the UK Government can to take the issue forward during our EU presidency, and I assure Members that it will be on the agenda for the UK's G8 presidency. We believe that it is right and important that we keep raising the issue—as hon. Members have said, part of the issue is its profile.
I am interested in what the Minister has said about sustainable development and the G8. One problem for Burma is that even in war zones where ceasefires have been agreed, there is still difficulty with sustainability because the army is confiscating land, which is causing further internal displacement. Will the Minister take that on board when dealing with the Burmese Government?
We need to take a range of issues on board. Human rights violations have been highlighted in successive highly critical UK co-sponsored resolutions on Burma in the United Nations General Assembly and in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We played a key role in drafting both last year's UN General Assembly resolution and this year's UN Commission on Human Rights resolution on Burma. They reflect the deep international concern about the situation in Burma and the human rights abuses committed by the Burmese authorities against their people.
The Government firmly support the mandate of Professor Pinheiro, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and we urge the regime to allow him regular, unrestricted access to Burma. As hon. Members will appreciate, one of the difficulties that we face is that good reliable information about what is going on in parts of the country is hard to obtain. It is important not only that the Burmese authorities are aware of our views, but that they respond and do something about the problems. The UK, as part of the EU troika, expressed its deep concern about the situation in Burma directly to the Burmese Foreign Minister in Kyoto on
We continue to believe—the hon. Member for Buckingham raised this issue—that it is essential that the regime enters into a genuine, inclusive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. That might be a pious hope, but it is important to continue to put pressure on the regime to reform itself. Only such a dialogue can promote a peaceful democratic future for all Burmese people.
I am interested to hear about all the various representations that the Government have made. However, given that the value of UK imports from Burma has increased from £17.8 million in 1997 to £74 million last year, does the Minister think that the Burmese regime might be getting a mixed message from us?
I do not believe that the Burmese Government are getting a mixed message from us. The Government have made their views about Burma extremely clear and will continue to do all they can to improve human rights in that country. However, primary responsibility lies with the State Peace and Development Council; the answer lies in its hands. For a start, it must begin to spend less on itself and its cronies and more on health and education. One telling fact is that the regime spends less than $2 per person per year on health and education combined.
The example of direct action against Barclays bank as part of a process of pressure on the Government of South Africa was pertinently highlighted by my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis. Does the Minister believe that a similar model could be applied in relation to Total? What will the Government do to try to bring that to fruition?
I remember the campaign against Barclays bank. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it was not a Government-supported campaign. The Burma Campaign and others may want to run a similar campaign against Total, but that is a matter for individuals. It is not for the Government to campaign against a specific company.
I think that members of the public would want to boycott those in the rag trade who are importing clothes from Burma. However, it has proved extremely difficult to ascertain exactly who is bringing in such imports—for obvious reasons, the labelling on clothes does not say "Made in Burma.". Will my hon. Friend's Department be able to help if I ask questions about who is importing material from Burma? Will the information be forthcoming so that we can indeed start such a public campaign?
There are restrictions on what information the Government can give out, owing to considerations of commercial confidentiality. Subject to that proviso, I shall look at the issue and get back to my hon. and learned Friend.
Let me answer some of the questions that have been raised directly. The hon. Member for Buckingham discussed whether the atrocities going on in Burma constitute genocide—a point also explored by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma does not use such terms when he describes the situation there. We will listen with interest, however, to what Guy Horton has to say. I can assure hon. Members that the Government do not have a closed mind on the matter.
As a Government, we led efforts in October 2004 to strengthen measures in the EU common position in light of the political situation in Burma. The common position was reviewed in April for a further 12 months. Hon. Members feel it is inadequate, and there is no doubt that, as a Government, we would like to strengthen the common position if at all possible. It does, however, have to be a common position—the support of all 25 member states is required. We have to realistic and, as people have said, do what we believe will be effective.
The National League for Democracy spokesman recently reiterated that it is not the NLD's policy to call for sanctions. We have to bear in mind the circumstances of the people in Burma. If the NLD is not explicitly calling on us to impose broad sanctions, we have to take account of that fact. We need to see whether there is something more effective that we can do, and I am happy to engage in debate and dialogue with people on that.
If that can be achieved at EU level, I believe that the Government would support it. As the Prime Minister said on
"we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people."—[Hansard, 25 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 1042.]
We will continue to make that view clear. As hon. Members are aware, we have persuaded companies in Britain not to invest in Burma. Since British American Tobacco completed its withdrawal last year, there have been no significant investments by British companies in Burma.
International aid was not mentioned during the debate, but the UK is the leading bilateral EU donor to Burma—not to the Burmese Government, but to the people of Burma. Approximately £25 million is delivered annually through the EU, covering health, education, human rights and community development. We need a twin- track approach. We cannot forget the plight of the people of Burma, and we should be providing humanitarian assistance where possible.
Hon. Members have spoken about the role of the UN Security Council. The position remains that there is no consensus. China in particular remains strongly opposed to any mention of Burma in any Security Council context. I will, as I said, raise this issue with the Chinese when I meet them.
On the chairmanship of ASEAN, we have made the difficulties that we believe would exist if Burma were to take its chairmanship clear to ASEAN countries. It is obviously a matter for those countries to decide—