[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair] — Burma

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 9th December 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Blizzard.)

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 9:30 am, 9th December 2009

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

It is highly appropriate that we are considering the human rights crisis in Burma just one day before we mark the anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights and celebrate international human rights day. Burma is ruled by one of the world's most brutal regimes, which is guilty of every possible violation of human rights. The military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council, has cruelly suppressed democracy and is perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity against many of its people.

The Nobel laureate and democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, led her party, the National League for Democracy, to a remarkable and overwhelming victory in elections held in 1990. Despite the party winning 82 per cent. of the parliamentary seats, 19 years on, most of those who were elected are in jail or in exile. The junta rejected the results, imprisoned the victors and has intensified its grip on power. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent over 14 years under house arrest.

In May this year, her term expired and even under Burmese law, she should have been released. However, the regime found an excuse to keep her under house arrest after an American, John Yettaw, swam across the lake to her home. He went there uninvited, she asked him to leave and he refused. Despite that, she was taken to Insein prison and charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest. A sham trial followed and she was sentenced on 11 August to a further 18 months of house arrest.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is right that the charges were trumped up. Does he agree that if it had not been for the American journalist swimming across the lake, the regime would have found other charges to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi remained in prison for much longer?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

If it was not for that incident, there would have been something else. The one thing that the junta does not want is to see Aung San Suu Kyi released and for her to be free among her own people who want to see her lead the country.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Burmese regime was in any way serious about political engagement with the United States or its Asian neighbours, it would take the important first step of releasing the political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi in particular?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

That is one of the things we want to see. That has to happen before people will take the junta seriously. It is not just Aung San Suu Kyi. As my hon. Friend rightly said, a number of other political prisoners are being detained as we speak.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this odious regime is using the mental health system to remove and illegally detain politically active monks who are seeking justice and fairness for the people and for the regime's political opponents?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Absolutely. I will refer to that later.

Despite being detained, Aung San Suu Kyi has courageously and consistently called for dialogue with her captors. On 20 May this year, from inside Insein prison, she said:

"It is still not too late to achieve national reconciliation."

In September, she wrote to the head of the regime, Senior General Than Shwe, proposing dialogue. May I ask the Minister what the United Kingdom and the European Union are doing to support Aung San Suu Kyi's call for dialogue and to urge the regime to come to the table? Two months ago on 9 October, she met the British ambassador for the first time in at least six years. What was the outcome of that meeting and what attempts are being made by the United Kingdom to secure further such meetings?

Aung San Suu Kyi has stated clearly to the regime that she would like to work with it to

"create conditions conducive to lifting of sanctions on Burma".

Let us be clear that the conditions conducive to lifting sanctions do not yet exist. The United States has made it clear that it will maintain existing sanctions while pursing high-level engagement, until there are clear and tangible signs of meaningful progress. Does the Minister agree with me that the European Union should not lift any sanctions unless and until all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are released; a nationwide ceasefire against ethic nationalities is declared; and a meaningful and irreversible process of tripartite dialogue between the regime, the National League for Democracy and the ethnic nationalities is begun? Furthermore, does he agree that unless the regime ends its campaign of brutality against the ethnic nationalities, the next European Union common position on Burma should tighten sanctions, including the introduction of new targeted financial sanctions such as a ban on insurance companies, which would affect some of the sectors from which the regime benefits most?

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is talking about engagement, but would it not be best to talk to our friends in the Chinese embassy in this country to try to get the Chinese Government to put pressure on the Burmese regime, with which it has a close relationship?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. There is no doubt that China is a superpower and has an influential role to play. I believe that it abdicates its responsibility when it fails to do so. I hope that in the coming months, we will see China play a more positive role in trying to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners are released in Burma.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Further to that point, here we have the evil regime in China propping up the regime in Burma. In fairness, we could ask the people of Tibet just how good China is. I do not hold out much hope. It is also interesting that the largest democracy in the world, India, also supports this evil regime. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could do more through the Commonwealth to put pressure on India to stop supporting Burma?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have made reference to China and will refer to India as well. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, it is the largest democracy in the world and a leading member of our Commonwealth, of which we are just one member. I hope that India uses its immense influence in the region to bring about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the other 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, which include 200 Buddhist monks.

Some political prisoners have been sentenced to extraordinary terms, some to 65 years or more. Several prominent political prisoners need urgent medical treatment, but have been denied it by the regime. In particular, there is an immediate need for medical treatment for U Gambira, who has contracted malaria in Kale prison in Sagaing division; Min Ko Naing, who is suffering from a severe eye condition and high blood pressure; and Zaw Htet Ko Ko, who is suffering from serious gastric problems. What steps is the Minister taking to urge the authorities in Burma to ensure that all prisoners receive proper medical treatment? What steps is he taking to highlight the plight of political prisoners and to make their release a priority?

I have mentioned the plight of the ethnic nationalities. Let me describe it in more detail. The State Peace and Development Council is pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing. In eastern Burma, more than 3,300 villages have been destroyed and more than a million people internally displaced since 1996. Rape as a weapon of war, forced labour and the use of human minesweepers are widespread and systematic. Burma has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. Those are crimes against humanity.

This year, the Burma army has intensified its attacks in Karen state, driving thousands across the border into Thailand. Women and children are among the victims. For example, on 26 August a Karen woman, Ma Khin Kyi, was shot and severely wounded in the neck, jaw and mouth. Relief teams who provided assistance said that she was unlikely to survive because she was unable to eat or drink. On 27 December 2008, the body of a seven-year-old girl was found near her home after she had been raped and shot dead by a soldier from the Burma army.

The Karen are not the only ethnic group that has faced such offensives. In August, more than 10,000 people were driven from their homes in Shan state. At least 100 were arrested and tortured, and at least three people were killed. One woman was shot while trying to retrieve her possessions from a burning house and her body was thrown into a pit latrine. Another woman was gang-raped in front of her husband. On 3 August, soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 514 attacked and beheaded a 29-year-old woman.

In Chin State, the people face severe religious persecution, as documented by Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the report, "Carrying the Cross," which was published two years ago. The Chin's suffering is compounded by a chronic food shortage that the regime has done nothing to address. The plight of the Kachin people should not be ignored. The Kachin have a ceasefire with the regime, but still the abuses continue. The Rohingya are primarily Muslim people and are denied citizenship, despite having lived in northern Arakan state for generations.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman is at a particularly moving part of his speech. I have actually been in the jungle and have met the Burmese, the Karen, the Kachin and the Chin ethnic groups. I have seen the evidence of these atrocities-many more than he has outlined for us-and I have met the Myanmarian. There are more than 100,000 refugees in the Thai border refugee camps. I can testify to the accuracy of the odious statements that he is making.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful for that contribution, and for the documentation that Baroness Cox has sent me. She visited Mizoram and the people of Chinland from 15 to 30 November 2009, and she has presented me with a very moving report about the atrocities that are taking place in Burma.

A new report, "Crimes in Burma", has been published by the Harvard Law School and was commissioned by five of the world's leading jurists, including the former deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, and Justice Richard Goldstone. That report concludes that

"there is a prima facie case of international criminal law violations occurring that demands UN Security Council action to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate these grave breaches further".

The jurists conclude that these violations

"may amount to war crimes, as well as crimes against humanity".

The report draws almost exclusively on the UN's own statements. By the UN's own admission-in resolutions of the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the International Labour Organisation and in reports by four consecutive special rapporteurs-the human rights violations in Burma are "systematic and widespread". In 1998, the then special rapporteur stated that the violations by the regime

"have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehaviour by middle and lower-ranking officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level, entailing political and legal responsibility."

In 2006, his successor reached a similar conclusion. Last month, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the regime in Burma

"to take urgent measures to put an end to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the targeting of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups, the targeting of civilians by military operations, and rape and other forms of sexual violence, and to end impunity."

The resolution also calls on the regime to end the

"systematic forced displacement of large numbers of persons within their country and other causes of refugee flows into neighbouring countries."

Will the Minister agree that the violations in Burma amount to violations of international law and may qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity? Will he announce today that the United Kingdom will work to establish a UN commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes?

In 2008, a new constitution was introduced in a sham referendum. The new constitution guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament, disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, and excludes former political prisoners from contesting elected office. The constitution has been described by the General Secretary of the Karen National Union as a

"death sentence for ethnic diversity".

As the regime plans to hold elections next year, will the Minister agree that, unless the constitution is revised through an inclusive process, the elections will offer no hope of freedom or human rights and will simply enshrine military rule?

The military regime in Burma is widely regarded as among the worst in the world. The regime spends more than 40 per cent. of its budget on the military, and less than $1 per person per year on health and education combined. I welcome the leadership that the United Kingdom-particularly the Prime Minister-has given on the issue of Burma over the past two years, and the support that the Government have expressed for a universal arms embargo. However, will the Minister tell hon. Members what proactive steps the Government are taking to propose a universal arms embargo at the UN Security Council?

Burma is ranked by the Heritage Foundation as one of five most repressive economies in the world, by Transparency International UK as the third most corrupt country in the world, by Reporters Without Borders as one of the worst violators of press freedom, by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the worst country for internet bloggers, by the US Department of State as one of the worst violators of religious freedom, by Minority Rights Group International as one of the top five countries where ethnic minorities are under threat, by Médecins sans Frontières as one of the top 10 humanitarian crises in the world, by the genocide risk indices as one of the top two red alert countries for genocide along with Sudan, and by Freedom House as

"the worst of the worst".

The UN has placed Burma on a monitoring list for genocide. Considering that catalogue of horrors, it is time for the international community to take urgent action to address the political and humanitarian crisis in Burma.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Transport), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the urgency of the debate. He is coming to the nub of the matter now in terms of India, China and our own Government. The test of the international community at the UN will be how quickly we can help to resolve the problems in Burma for its people.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the hon. Gentleman is right. I am coming to my conclusion. The important thing for this debate is that we keep the matter in people's minds. We last had a debate on the subject at the time of the cyclone, when we heard how repressive the regime could be in stopping aid getting through to the very people who needed it most. Now that cyclone has passed we must make absolutely certain that the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the political prisoners and, indeed, the ordinary people who live in fear in Burma is not forgotten. That is why this debate is particularly timely. The action we take now and in the first few weeks of 2010 will at least give the people of Burma some hope. Let us think about 2010.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that what we actually need in Burma is free, open, transparent elections to take place without any military interference. What conclusion can he make to ensure that we can achieve that through the international community or through his own involvement with this House and in Europe?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Burma is not alone in this. Violations have taken place only recently-just this weekend-in Iran. We know what happens when free and transparent elections take place: the people really do speak out. I pay tribute to the bravery of people, both in Iran and Burma, who put their lives on the line in speaking out and taking action to try to bring about regime change within their own countries. One of the things that will have a huge impact is people within their own countries being motivated for regime change. However, they also need help and support.

These debates are important to those people, because they let them know that they are not forgotten. For those people who are in prison, for those who live in fear of persecution and, indeed, for their families, it is important that they know there are Members of Parliament and people in the United Kingdom who support them in their fight. They are not alone. We will not forget them, and we will act to give them the freedom that they are fighting for. Minister, can we please make sure that 2010 will deliver for the people of Burma?

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

It is my intention to call Members for the winding-up speeches at 10.30. Can I get an indication of how many people would like to speak? I have got Stephen Crabb on the list, so he can provide the first contribution-he informed me that he would like to speak. May I ask who else wants to speak in the debate, so we can try to fit everybody in? [Interruption.] Dr. Pugh has indicated that he wants to speak. Okay, I call Stephen Crabb.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:49 am, 9th December 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Evans on securing this important and timely debate, and thank him for doing so. He is a staunch defender of human rights and a true friend of the peoples of Burma, and I am please to have the opportunity to speak for a few minutes in this debate.

I will start by thanking the Burma Campaign, an organisation that operates with few resources, yet that punches far above its weight in ensuring that the issue does not move far from our agenda in this place. It does a sterling job in briefing MPs, peers and Ministers and ensuring that we return to the issue time and again, because it is too important to lose sight of. I also pay tribute to the work of people such as Ben Rogers at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which my hon. Friend has already mentioned, and Baroness Cox at the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. Together, those individuals and their organisations have been doing some extremely important work on Burma, specifically in relation to some of the ethnic groups, such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan people of eastern Burma and the Chin people of western Burma, on the border with India, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions. I also pay tribute to the Minister and the Government for their work and the steps they have taken in recent years to respond to the growing crisis in Burma. The Minister and I have shared platforms on the issue before, so I know from talking with him that he has a personal commitment to this, and I look forward to his remarks.

I make no apologies if I repeat some of the points and evidence that my hon. Friend gave in his contribution. It is absolutely right and vital that we keep coming back to the issue, both for the people of Burma, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions, and because it is a test for us and for the international community on how well we deal with the worst of the worst. The situation in Burma is a litmus test to show how serious the international community is in giving real meaning to the terms of the universal declaration of human rights, the anniversary of which we will celebrate tomorrow on international human rights day. Are we serious about seeing basic civil freedoms upheld for all peoples everywhere throughout the world, or do we just pay lip service to those things?

Let us be clear: with the military junta in Burma, as my hon. Friend said, we are dealing with the worst of the worst gangster regimes to be found anywhere in the world. The regime continues to have one of the worst records for imprisoning political opponents and for forcibly recruiting child soldiers. In fact, it has the largest number of child soldiers of any army in the world. It is waging a brutal war on its ethnic minorities. It is a regime that turned the humanitarian crisis that followed Cyclone Nargis into a near-genocidal catastrophe. It is a regime that has, time and again, laughed in the face of the international community and run rings around the whole succession of toothless UN envoys and special representatives.

I will provide more detail by discussing the proposed UN commission of inquiry on the crimes of the Burmese regime. Following the failure to secure a UN Security Council resolution two years ago, it is vital that that issue is a top priority for the UN. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on the proposal for a commission of inquiry, which is being pushed for in this country by the Burma Campaign and across the world by the worldwide Burma democracy movement.

In October, in a statement to the 64th session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, the UN special rapporteur on Burma described the human rights situation in that country as "alarming". He noted that

"there is a pattern of widespread and systematic violations" and that

"the prevailing impunity allows for the continuation of these violations."

Would the Minister give a view on how best the proposal for a commission of inquiry could be taken forward and, indeed, whether he supports such a proposal? If he does not support such a commission, what alternative course of action are the Government pursuing at the UN to bring pressure to bear on the generals over their appalling record of human rights abuses?

Supporters of democracy are also pushing for a universal arms embargo on Burma, and stressing the need to build a global consensus to ensure that a true, universal arms embargo is imposed, which is now more necessary than ever. On 12 October 2008, the President of Timor-Leste, Dr. Jose Ramos Horta, added his voice to calls for a universal arms embargo on the Burma regime, stating that

"the events of the past two years in Burma have shocked the world...The deterioration in the political and humanitarian situation calls for a clear response by the international community...There can be no justification for selling arms to a regime which...uses those arms simply to suppress its own people".

A large number of countries have already signed up and support a global arms embargo, including the UK and many European countries. As far as I can see-the Minister can correct me if I am wrong-the British Government and the EU have stated that they support a global arms embargo but have taken few practical steps to secure it. Perhaps the Minister can set me straight on that.

I will move on to the detail of the recent reports by Baroness Cox, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred. Baroness Cox has just returned from a visit to Chin state and earlier this year visited eastern Burma and produced two excellent reports, which I strongly encourage the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for International Development to read in detail. Chin state is experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian situation and a famine caused by the flowering of bamboo and an infestation of rats, which has lead to serious food shortages and increased rates of morbidity and mortality. Children are not going to school, because they need to search for food or are too weak, and reports are coming through of entirely deserted villages and large migration flows of people into India, Malaysia, China and Thailand. At the same time, severe and grave human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated by Burmese military troops, who are dispersed across Chin state. There are reports of forced labour, torture, rape and the systematic refusal by the regime to provide anything like adequate health care. The result is widespread suffering in Chin state.

In 2008, DFID committed initial funding of £600,000, specifically to address the food crisis in Chin state. That sum was increased to £800,000 in March 2009, which we welcome. However, there is concern that in some areas, international funds for emergency food relief channelled through the UN Development Programme allegedly are being provided not as aid, but as loans that are repayable at rates of up to 200 per cent. If the Minister does not have the information to hand to respond to that point, would he write to me after the debate to assure me that more assistance will be provided to Chin state, and will he investigate the claims that in some areas, the UNDP is providing money in the form of loans charged at 200 per cent?

In eastern Burma, the absurdly named State Peace and Development Council-they are brutal military thugs-continues to inflict gross human rights abuses on the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan peoples. In the so-called brown territories, human mine sweepers and forced labour are used. In many parts of the black areas, where there is a sustained military offensive by the Burmese regime, there is a shoot-to-kill policy and widespread reports of the torture and rape of civilians. There has been a large increase this year in the number of internally displaced people as a result of the military conflict. I understand that there are approximately 30,000 IDPs among the Karen people alone, hiding in the jungle in appalling conditions. Would the Minister update us on what steps he and his colleagues are taking to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those oppressed ethnic groups?

Is the Minister aware of the very difficult debates among the ethnic groups of Burma on how to respond to the forthcoming national elections? Should they participate or boycott them? They are loth to confer legitimacy on those elections by participating, but they are worried that by not voting they might lose the opportunity to provide evidence of vote rigging in future and that doing so will deny them any sliver of representation, however minimal, once those elections have taken place. Does the Minister agree that whatever decision those ethnic groups reach on whether to participate in the elections, the international community must not endorse the regime's sham elections and must lend no credibility whatever to the process? To do otherwise would be a huge disservice to the democracy movement in Burma and a massive setback for its ethnic peoples.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Karen, 30,000 of whom were displaced in the jungle. I have met some of those groups and seen the children walking three miles to carry water in old petrol cans. I met the elders and saw the conditions in which they lived, with no health service, no family planning for the young girls and no education. That really needs to be tackled by the international community.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The convergence of difficult humanitarian conditions with gross human rights abuses is creating a dire set of circumstances for the oppressed ethnic groups.

Moving on to the subject of political engagement, in September, the US Administration announced the outcome of their review of US policy towards Burma, something which many of us were watching closely. A general welcome, which I support, has been given to the noises being made by the new US Administration, but I have some questions which I would like to put to the Minister. I have read in detail the transcript of the report by Kurt Campbell, an official from the US State Department, on why there has been a slight change of tack on the part of the Obama Administration in respect of Burma. What does the Minister think that it has shifted? Has there been any substantive shift at all on the part of the Burmese regime which has led the US Government to announce that they are willing to engage in some form of political dialogue? What gesture or shift has there been by the Burmese Government? As far as I can tell, there has been none.

For example, there has been no release of political prisoners or move in the direction of improving the conditions in which Aung San Suu Kyi is held, let alone any talk of her being released. So what have the Burmese Government done to deserve the announcement that the US Government are now willing to engage in dialogue with them? The risk surely is that their status as a reprehensible pariah is slightly reduced by this shift on the part of the Obama Administration, and unless there is real toughness on the part of the international community, particularly the US Government, in upholding sanctions and being absolutely firm on the conditions under which they will engage with the Burmese Government, the Burmese Government will achieve an important gain.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

The problem is that two members of the BRIC countries are the biggest countries that prop Burma up; that is where our difficulty is. Human rights in China are not different from human rights in Burma. What can we do about India and China? That is the big issue.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. China and India, particularly China, are hugely influential in discussions about the future of Burma. We must also consider the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has not been mentioned so far in this debate. I shall come on to it in a second, but first would like to conclude my comments on US policy.

My fear is that the US has changed tack slightly because of other regional issues across Asia, North Korea and China, and that Burma risks becoming part of a subset of a wider set of geopolitical issues and therefore does not receive the specific and dedicated attention that it deserves. We need to hold on to it as a human rights and humanitarian issue. It is not part of a subset of a wider range of geopolitical questions. I have said before in the House that we need a much more intelligent approach to ASEAN. Two years ago, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I was able to visit three ASEAN countries shortly after the ASEAN summit in which discussion of Burma featured heavily. It is clear that politicians and Governments in Asia do not have quite the same view of human and civil rights as we do, and that they do not see Burma in the same way that we do. It is important that while we engage with them and try to understand their position, they understand just how reprehensible the Burmese Government are in our view. If they want the EU to take ASEAN more seriously as a representative organisation for Asian economies, they need to understand that there are certain things that they need to fix within their club, Burma being one of them. I look forward to what the Minister and other speakers have to say.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Thank you very much for a thoughtful contribution, Mr. Crabb.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:04 am, 9th December 2009

I congratulate Mr. Evans on securing this important debate. I had not intended to speak at any length this morning. This is more a question of a few observations off the back of my chairing the all-party Burma group last week. The fact that I was doing it and not someone more exalted-for example, people such as the Speaker are very much involved in the all-party group-shows that there was a somewhat thin attendance. That was slightly disappointing.

Baroness Cox, Julie Morgan and I were there. In addition, there was a contingent of Karen people who had come to inform us about their plight in a touching way. There were people there who, in the course of giving testimony, broke down in tears as they described not general events but events that had happened specifically to their family. It was a difficult time for MPs, but I am glad to say that today there is wider representation, and I am sure that all MPs, whether able to be here or not, fully recognise the awful plight of the Burmese.

I would like to relate to the Minister how the people who came to see us the other day have an almost touching, slightly naive faith in what we can do for them. They treasure democracy, they are exiles in this country, and they are aware of the huge and manifest difference between their plight in Burma and their situation in the UK. We might grumble about our country from time to time, but they certainly do not.

Their purpose, and the purpose of the meeting, was twofold. One was to verify the charges against the Burmese Government through eloquent testimony. I pay tribute to Baroness Cox who, from her own experience and reports that she has prepared, was able to amplify and add to that. The Burmese people listed on an individual and collective basis things that hon. Members have already spoken about such as the use of forced labour, the displacement of people, the use of rape as a policy instrument, the malnutrition and all the other awful effects that follow consequently. That has been done umpteen times in this place, in the media and throughout the world.

The other object of the meeting was to show a way forward, and I have to say that at first I was slightly sceptical about it. The main burden of the meeting was to put across the idea that a United Nations inquiry stimulated by activities at Harvard Law School could do some positive good and be a small step forward. One may think that that is a somewhat doomed strategy because one knows that, in the world of realpolitik, the Chinese and Indian Governments and many other interests in south Asia have little interest in taking the Burmese issue head on. In fact, I voiced some of that scepticism while chairing the meeting, because I thought that people needed to recognise what could and could not be done. However, they impressed on me the idea that the activity by itself, if done on an official basis through the UN, would not be futile, because evidence against previous serial abusers of human rights such as Saddam Hussein and Milosevic has often been collected prior to their apprehension, downfall and conviction. That kind of evidence and inquiry has a horrible habit of coming back to haunt the culprits-the people who currently are, or feel that they are, safe and secure. That is one positive reason for getting on with an inquiry.

A second positive reason is that the people who suffer genuinely want official international recognition of their suffering and the abuse of power and human rights. The victims genuinely want that, and certainly the people who I saw last week wanted that, even if it did nothing other than to declare that recognition and announce it to the world, thereby ensuring that nobody could be in any doubt about it.

The third reason why the strategy might do some good-I would take some persuasion about this, and people may have more than one view about it-is that perpetrators, even people who are in a secure position in their country, backed by their own military and currently in charge, do not welcome international condemnation. They do not like the idea simply because, in the back of their mind, they know that there is insecurity attached to all power and that, at some point, whether in the Third Reich or other regimes, the chickens can come home to roost.

So there are four practical things that we can do for the people of Burma, and there is a range of people for whom we need to do things. The Shan and Karen people have been mentioned, as well as pro-democracy people in the cities, the monks and so on. Those things are fairly obvious and the Government can do all of them. They can continue to support sanctions, although I am not optimistic about that as a strategy to change the nature of events, because of the influence of China and so on. We can do our utmost-we hon. Members are doing so today, I guess-to publicise the issue to try to get a bit of media attention for what is surely an intolerable situation. But as the campaigners themselves mentioned, the press are fickle. The strange thing about suffering is that if it goes on and on and is always there it does not get reported, although it is all the worse for being so perpetual.

Thirdly, we can put pressure on India through the Commonwealth, as Mr. Hoyle mentioned in his intervention. India genuinely has a part to play here and we should not exonerate it from its responsibilities. India has its own human rights issues, as does China, but it surely cannot play its current role and be seen as totally supportive of human rights. India must do more to assist the people of Burma, if only because it gets the outfall of that problem-the refugees coming across its border and into parts of that country that are deprived and cannot stand extra burdens imposed on them.

Fourthly, we must press for the United Nations inquiry, on which we want an answer from the Minister today. I was sceptical about that inquiry and did not think that it would necessarily do any good, and I can see all the problems that it could incur with other members of the UN, but pushing in that direction is a step forward. Even if I did not think that, the people I spoke to a week ago thought so, and that is one good reason for doing it.

I hope that our Government will take all those four steps.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 10:11 am, 9th December 2009

Mr. Hancock, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship. I congratulate Mr. Evans on securing this debate, which is timely, as he said. It has been an interesting debate, as debates often are in Westminster Hall. In particular, real value has been added by those hon. Members who have brought to bear their personal experience of talking face to face to the individuals who have been living with the consequences of this horrible regime. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh.

I would like to touch on the elections, the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the human rights situation, many aspects of which have been explored by hon. Members in some detail. I shall focus on what the response might be and what we and the rest of the international community might be able to do.

The most high-profile symbol of the corruption and anti-democratic and repressive nature of the regime in Burma is the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. We should bear in mind that her detention has now lasted 14 years-it is sometimes difficult to imagine such a huge amount of time-yet still she retains the faith, strength and ability to keep going. During that time there have been little false glimmers of hope. Burma's Foreign Ministry has told the Associated Press that the junta plans to release Dr. Suu Kyi from house arrest to allow her to organise her party before the elections in March 2010. But before we get too hopeful about that, we should remember that the regime has dashed such hopes in the past. For example, in 2004, the then Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung promised the UN envoy that she would be released, but in May 2007 her term of house arrest was extended for another year. It would be a fabulous outcome if her release were to be secured, but that is still in doubt. Even if she were released before the elections, there is still a huge challenge to face and a long way to go before Burma is anything approaching a democracy, because, as has been mentioned, the constitution would prevent her from standing for election even if released.

In preparing for such debates, I always find new information: in this case, horrific new information. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned, a quarter of the 440 seats in the Burmese Assembly are automatically given to the military. When I read that I could not believe the total brazenness of the regime's changing the constitution to reserve a quarter of the seats for the military junta. In this circumstance, people are left thinking, what chance is there for democracy unless there is wholesale change of the constitution?

The horror runs much deeper even than the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the difficulties with the constitution, because the number of political prisoners has more than doubled since the beginning of 2007, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 2,100 people are detained in 43 prisons and over 50 labour camps, where they are forced into hard labour projects. Anybody who speaks out against military rule is routinely locked up. There is no such thing as a free press. That shows us that, even if the junta follows through this time and releases Dr. Suu Kyi, that is little more than a token gesture to try to make the elections seem credible: it is not a commitment to democratisation. Having said that, we must still push for the junta to do that.

I now turn to the aftermath of the cyclone that hit in 2008. We need to remember the destruction that that caused: 140,000 people dead or missing, which is a huge natural disaster on any scale. But, of course, that natural disaster was compounded by the authorities' refusal properly to allow aid agencies to get in and do their work. I remember the debates in the House at that time and the indignation around the world about what happened. However, we have not heard the story of what has happened since.

Amnesty International has reported that, as recently as October this year, the Burmese authorities arrested at least 10 journalists and political activists for accepting relief donations from abroad for survivors of the cyclone, because more than 18 months after that devastation the authorities have not dealt with it. The aid is still needed, yet the regime continues to make arrests and lock people up for doing no more than trying to help those whose lives have been devastated by the natural disaster.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

At the time of the cyclone, when the United States was sending aid, the regime preferred to see its people die while it repackaged some of that aid so that the people receiving it did not know that it came from the US. Does not that say everything that we need to know about the regime? It would rather see its people die than let them see where the aid has come from.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful intervention, with which I think all hon. Members would agree. It is almost inconceivable that a regime could be so heartless and so unbothered by its people's suffering. Burma still needs extra funding for new houses, cyclone shelters, livelihood programmes, water and sanitation-the basic tools of life-and education and health services. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Yet the funding has not properly flowed.

Only £75 million has been committed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations tripartite core group's post-cyclone recovery project, which is expected to cost £415 million. I congratulate the Government on the Department for International Development funding for the aid programme, which rose from £12.5 million last year to £25 million this year, and on the plans to increase it further to £28 million in 2010-11. In the context of difficult economic circumstances, that shows a commitment from this Government, but it is not enough on its own, which is why I am also pleased that they are encouraging other donors to increase their aid contributions.

Cyclone Nargis did not get the same coverage around the world as other disasters, such as the tsunami. Although the cyclone was prominent in our news media, it was not quite at the same level as the tsunami, because-this is a big aspect-journalists with cameras were not able to report freely in the country, so there was not the same number of pictures to accompany the story. The broadcast and print media are driven by pictures so Burma suffered doubly, because the public donations were not as high as they might have been had the natural disaster happened in a country where media coverage could have been greater. The Government aid programmes are even more important because of that.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was particularly powerful when he painted a grim picture of the repression of minorities, especially the use of rape as a weapon of war. The internal conflict between the military rulers and the minority ethnic groups in Burma has continued for the past 60 years, and the sad truth is that it is increasingly common in such conflicts that a frequent mode of attack is a systematic policy for soldiers to rape women and children.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women submitted a report on Burma to the UN General Assembly in November 2008 in which it expressed its

"deep concern at the high prevalence of sexual and other forms of violence, including rape, perpetrated by members of the armed forces against rural ethnic women, including Shan, Mon, Karen, Palaung and Chin women."

It notes that the perpetrators have virtual impunity. Only a few cases have ever been prosecuted, and it reports intimidation of those who are brave enough to come forward even to complain. There is obvious violation of UN Security Council resolution 1820 on sexual violence in armed conflict. I am pleased that this year the UK co-sponsored Security Council resolution 1888, which led the council to appoint a special representative to tackle sexual violence in armed conflict. That is important in Burma and, sadly, in other countries.

The UK has a strong record on tackling violence against women, but I understand from a parliamentary answer that the Government are not putting forward a UK candidate for the new post and I would be interested to hear, today or later in writing, why, and who they will support. It is obviously vital that the special representative can put the matter at the heart of the international community, and ensure that it is, rightly, high on the agenda.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

On rape as a matter of policy, I have been told by people from the Karen community that the sinister ideological rationalisation is that the military rulers regard the tribes as troublesome and feel that by diluting the gene pool through rape and the creation of mixed-breed children they are doing their bit to progress ethnic cleansing. That is a particularly revolting rationalisation.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I agree. It is hard even to listen to such a rationalisation, and to hear that the individuals involved think that they are, as my hon. Friend puts it, doing their bit.

Going through the catalogue of horrors-that phrase was rightly used earlier-brings us to what our response should be. Within the international community there seems to have been some movement recently. Obviously, the Government have targeted sanctions against the regime at EU and UN levels, and my party has supported that. I echo the calls for a universal arms embargo, because there can be no justification for selling arms to such a regime.

Barack Obama has decided to try to engage with the military junta in a break from the Bush policy of isolation, but I do not know whether a specific event, other than the change of presidency, prompted that change in strategy. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed support for sanctions, but more recently has offered to co-operate in getting them lifted. Dr. Suu Kyi's conditions for agreeing to co-operate are not yet clear, but the commitment will obviously not be open-ended. It would be helpful if the Minister enlightened the debate on the conditions that Dr. Suu Kyi has specified, and whether the Government would agree with her if such progress were made, and review their approach to the regime. Obviously, if she, as an individual in the country, can achieve some progress, that might be an alternative strategy. I echo calls from hon. Members to use every diplomatic lever at our disposal to persuade India and China in particular, who have a strong influence in Burma, to put pressure on the regime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport made a powerful case for the UN inquiry, and perhaps it is even more powerful as it comes from someone who was previously a sceptic. I hope that the Government will support those calls.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

As the hon. Lady is mentioning other countries, will she mention the two roles that Thailand is playing? One is a positive role in allowing refugee camps on the border, which is extremely good of it. It is trying to care for those people as best it can. On the other hand, it is trading with and propping up politically the odious regime in Burma. It is involved in some of the large and illegal infrastructure projects on ethnic people's land in Burma. There is tension in Thailand, and we must maintain pressure on the Thai Government.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well, and although China and India are key players, we should not forget that other countries also play a role.

Mr. Crabb asked whether we are serious about getting to grips with human rights issues, and the question is appropriate. Westminster Hall debates on foreign affairs are often depressing. By their nature, they tend to be about the world's problems rather than shining examples of good practice and success. Debates during the past few weeks have been on Iran, human rights in China, the death penalty, and Burma, so it is right to ask the question. Human rights abuses are so severe and, sadly, so prevalent throughout the world, that it is important to highlight them, and to ask whether we are doing everything we can. Having said that, we can be proud of some aspects of our record, and I give credit where it is due to the Government, but we should never stop asking the question.

The Government have a good record, and sanctions have been an important part of that. If things change in the country, we would need to review our strategy, particularly if the change in the US's strategy bears fruit. As many hon. Members have outlined, the human rights situation in Burma is dire, and it is vital that the Government use every tool at their disposal to put pressure on the Burmese regime to bring the awful abuses to an end.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:27 am, 9th December 2009

It is a pleasure, Mr. Hancock, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Evans on raising this issue. He and other hon. Members who have spoken from both sides of the Chamber have a track record of raising the matter. Many of us feel the presence of the Speaker hovering over us. In a previous incarnation, when he was a troublesome and noisy Back Bencher, he had a distinguished track record of raising this issue and speaking out both in Parliament and outside.

The last Westminster Hall debate on Burma was in December 2007, but the matter has been raised during other Westminster Hall debates-for example, the debates on China and the west in October, on India in May, and on human rights in December 2008. On 9 June there was an Adjournment debate on the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is not just a stand-alone issue; it has a thread in other areas. It is important to understand that the context is not just the suffering of the Burmese people, but the wider issue of human rights.

As Jo Swinson said, anyone who discusses foreign affairs and UK policy may become depressed that so many countries are carrying out the most horrendous crimes against their own ethnic people or their ethnic minorities. That applies on a much smaller scale in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Tibet of course, and a raft of others. The issue that we must address as parliamentarians and in terms of the Government is what we can realistically do to bring pressure to bear on regimes that do not respond easily to outside pressure to modify or, hopefully, to stop their behaviour.

I am conscious of one other element as far as Burma is concerned. We governed Burma for a period of 80 or 90 years, so it might be that we have a moral debt. Many of us have not forgotten that during the second world war, many Burmese people suffered horrendously under occupation. Many of those ethnic groups who are the most persecuted, aided the Commonwealth armies, hid British and Commonwealth troops who had been left behind, and faced the most horrendous consequences for what they did. There is an additional moral imperative.

Let me touch briefly on a number of issues, some of which have already been raised by colleagues. First is the question of the US policy review. The Americans have carried out a major review on how to engage with Burma, which I suggest is part of a wider Obama strategy of trying to engage with a whole raft of regimes, of which Iran is another example. However, that does not mean that all other elements should not be used as well. The Obama Government have concluded-quite rightly-that the idea that one should not engage directly or indirectly with a regime is a false position in which to be. It does not use an important weapon that a Government have at their disposal-that of diplomacy.

The Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, told a Senate hearing:

"Lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on our concerns would be a mistake...any easing of sanctions now would send the wrong signal".

The Americans are not prepared to ease sanctions without seeing some degree of progress, but as a number of colleagues have asked: how do we define that progress? What type of US engagement will be pursued, and how will the US ensure that it is co-ordinated with the rest of the international community? Perhaps the Minister can clarify that, because the international approach is crucial.

That brings me to the role of the United Nations. Last week, the UN announced that the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, will become head of the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. He will assume that position on 1 January next year, and his replacement is currently being sought. I do not know whether the Minister can give us information on any name that might be in the frame.

The military junta failed on a number of occasions to give Mr. Gambari a visa. He managed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during one visit to the country, but interestingly, she refused to meet him on a later occasion. There has been considerable criticism of Mr. Gambari on the grounds that he did not have a sufficiently robust attitude towards the Burmese regime. Over the past 40 years, there have been 40 visits to Burma by UN envoys.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is being very measured and diplomatic in his description of Mr. Gambari's effectiveness. I was not aware that Mr. Gambari had been appointed to a role in Darfur. How much optimism does my hon. Friend have for the work that Mr. Gambari will do in Darfur, given that he was such a manifest flop during his work in Burma?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I do not know whether it is an insult or a compliment to hear that I am being measured. Perhaps I am doing my Sir Humphrey act. If I were a Foreign Office mandarin, which I am not-although I probably look like one from the 1950s-I would say that Mr. Gambari is going to be "challenged" in Darfur. There is no doubt about that. I agree with my hon. Friend: it is an amazing appointment given Mr. Gambari's demonstrable failure to engage with the Burmese regime. That does not mean that another UN envoy would have no trouble in engaging with that regime, but most independent observers regard Mr. Gambari's work there as a failure. I hope that whoever is appointed as his successor will be more robust in dealing with the regime.

What further discussions have representatives of the UK Government had with Aung San Suu Kyi following her meeting with the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, on 9 October 2009? What opportunities are there for engagement between the UK Government and representatives from Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League of Democracy, in advance of the 2010 elections?

A number of colleagues touched on the 2010 elections, and it has already been pointed out that the new constitution guarantees the military one quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of the new national Parliament. The UK Government have strongly criticised the planned elections. Earlier this year in answer to a written question, a Minister stated:

"The military regime in Burma is determined to maintain its hold on power regardless of the cost and suffering of its people. The junta's 'Roadmap to disciplined democracy',"

-that has a wonderful sound of 1984 to it-

"including a new constitution and elections planned for 2010, is designed to entrench military rule behind a facade of civilian government."-[Hansard, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 356W.]

It is clear that the 2010 elections planned by the military junta do not represent genuine progress towards democracy. Will the Minister outline the conditions that the UK Government think are necessary for a credible election process? How can we measure those in the forthcoming months?

A number of colleagues have mentioned EU sanctions. Will the Minister assure us that existing EU sanctions will not be relaxed until clear progress is made by the Burmese regime, including an end to human rights abuses and the oppression of minorities? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that existing UK sanctions on the import of timber and gems from Burma are enforced, and not violated as is currently the case? That is only a small part of the sanctions, but it is important and involves members of the regime personally.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been mentioned. There is no doubt that the ability of the ASEAN powers to put pressure on Burma is considerable, at least in theory. Many of us have been disappointed over the past few years that some ASEAN countries have not been more robust towards Burma. Burma's main outlet to the world is through ASEAN meetings and conferences. I hope that the British Government, both bilaterally and in direct relations with ASEAN, will bring more pressure to bear on ASEAN countries, and stand up for what many of those countries believe about democratic accountability, free elections and so on.

I will conclude with a number of final points. First, we are all overwhelmed by the tales of suffering that we hear, not only via the media but through personal meetings with people who have been in Burma, and from Burmese minorities. The Burmese people are not alone in their suffering as there are many other regimes, but they are a quiet, dignified people, and it is important that we speak up on their behalf through Parliament. It is depressing that over the past four years in which I have participated in such debates, we have seen only a small amount of progress. However, we can at least collectively express our outrage through Parliament. I hope that in a positive, rather than negative way, we can put pressure on the British Government so that the Foreign Office can say to countries, "Pressure is being brought to bear on us by the democratic representatives of the British people".

We need a dual track of attempts at dialogue with the Burmese Government, but also to put pressure on them and their neighbours, crucially, as colleagues have mentioned, the two big states. The first of those states is India, which is a member of the British Commonwealth. I take the point made by Mr. Hoyle, who is no longer in the Chamber, about using the good offices of the Commonwealth. The second state is China, which I know is less easy. The Chinese do not wish to discuss their relations with a whole raft of regimes throughout the world, about which it is to their economic benefit to keep quiet regarding demonstrable crimes against humanity and, in some cases, war crimes. Nevertheless, the British Government have a duty to be quite robust with the Chinese Government on the matter. My right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, raises these points whenever we meet senior members of the Chinese Government.

The pressure exerted through the United Nations is also crucial. Dr. Pugh made a very important observation, recognising that he had not originally been persuaded of this. Many of these regimes may brush aside the threat of a war crimes inquiry, but I think it gnaws at their vitals. It makes them incredibly careful about where they travel to and they are always fearful that one day or other, their regime might fall.

Regime change does not usually happen quickly. I just scribbled down some notes on this, à la the old staff college lecturer in me. Regime change can come about internally; ultimately, there can be a revolution or coup d'état. It can come about externally, by two methods. One is what happened to the old white Rhodesian regime when the South African Government literally turned the power off and said, "That's it, gentlemen. It's the endgame. We're not prepared to support you any more." There is a chance that that could still happen, ironically, in Zimbabwe, but the current South African Government do not want to do it. The Chinese could probably bring about regime change in North Korea by switching the power off, but for understandable reasons, they do not want to do so.

Finally, there is the threat of force. One of the great tragedies of international relations in the past decade relates to the fact that there was a narrow window of opportunity after 9/11 when the world actively supported and sympathised with the United States of America. The American threat of force and, indeed, its intervention against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan caused many regimes suddenly to change their attitude and policies. The North Koreans shifted-they were absolutely terrified-and Colonel Gaddafi, who, crab-like, was already moving in that direction, moved very quickly indeed. Sadly, that has gone, but at least the threat of force should never be removed from the diplomatic table. If the threat of force is removed, there is no requirement on these odious regimes to make any change at all.

I hope that the Minister will accept not my remarks but the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, who initiated the debate, and of other hon. Members in the way in which they were made, which I hope he will regard as both constructive and supportive.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:42 am, 9th December 2009

I begin by congratulating Mr. Evans on securing this important Adjournment debate and on the passionate and authentic way in which he presented our shared concerns on the human rights abuses that continue to scar Burma and the issues of greatest concern to the international community. The debate has displayed a unity of purpose, shared concern and a determination to find ways to adopt practical measures that will influence the regime and move the situation forward.

I also pay tribute to Mr. Crabb for his long-standing work on raising the profile and the issue of Burma in the House and for his work to promote the need to take more decisive action. I join Mr. Simpson in paying tribute to the work, over a very long time, of Mr. Speaker in championing this issue and ensuring that Britain regards it as a priority.

I am sure that hon. Members would acknowledge on a cross-party basis that this matter concerns my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister very deeply. He has given the issue a considerable amount of his personal attention and leadership. He has rightly described Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the most courageous individuals of our lifetime-of our generation-as a result of the sacrifices and suffering that she has had to tolerate because she has stayed true to her people and her principles. She has suffered a lot of personal pain and tragedy as a consequence.

We share the deep concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House for the Burmese people-the concern about the multiple humanitarian crises, appalling human rights abuses and the fact that there has been precious little progress towards genuine democracy. We are committed to doing all we can, in a number of ways, to help the people of Burma to a better future, as hon. Members suggested. Tough EU sanctions targeted at the regime leadership underline our determination to see real political reform. Robust dialogue makes our concerns clear, but also emphasises our readiness to respond to progress. With regard to humanitarian aid, the UK, as hon. Members said, is the largest donor this year, alongside Japan, which genuinely makes a difference in alleviating the suffering of Burma's poor.

On the points made by the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), there is concern that people are being charged for some of the aid; that is what we are told. The UNDP is investigating those allegations as a matter of urgency, and we will report to the House when we receive clarification of exactly what is happening on the ground. Our key objectives remain the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi-we should remember that there are more than 2,000 political prisoners-and the start of a genuine process of political dialogue involving all opposition and ethnic groups. The elections planned for 2010-hon. Members asked where we stood on this-will have no international legitimacy unless those and other steps are taken as a matter of urgency. That point was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked, reasonably, what credible steps would allow us to take a more sympathetic view of the elections next year. First, the very constitution on which the elections are based would have to be changed, because it inherently means an unfair process and an unfair outcome. Inevitably, the release not only of Aung San Suu Kyi but all political prisoners would be necessary before any elections, to give sufficient time for those people to participate and to organise appropriately by campaigning and making their pitch to the people of Burma. The regime would have to take many steps in a very short time for us to be willing to consider those elections as having any legitimacy whatever, and I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is very little sign of the regime being willing to do that.

Many hon. Members raised the question of our contact with other countries and with international institutions. I assure them that we use every opportunity to make the case as to why those countries with the closest relationships with Burma should be doing more to make it clear to the regime that its behaviour is intolerable. The Prime Minister has discussed Burma in the past few weeks with the Prime Minister of Japan and the UN Secretary-General. In September, he raised Burma with the Chinese President. He has raised it on a number of occasions recently with the Prime Minister of India. There are many such occasions. Whenever we are involved in bilateral discussions at the highest levels, we constantly raise Burma and we acknowledge the point that hon. Members have made-arguably, those countries that have the closest relationships with the Burmese regime are in the best position to exercise influence. They are allies of ours and are countries with which we have a largely positive relationship, and we make it clear that it matters to our bilateral relationship that they take their responsibilities seriously with regard to human rights in Burma.

We are also working closely with the US, Australia and European Union partners. We agree with the US that any relaxation of sanctions must be only in response to tangible progress. The EU has not ruled out further sanctions if the situation deteriorates. The UK was instrumental in securing additional financial measures when Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced in August to a further 18 months under house arrest. We continue to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General and his good offices mission. The UN has a central role to play.

The hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire, for East Dunbartonshire and for Mid-Norfolk asked about US dialogue. Previously, the Americans' position was one of isolation and sanctions, but they have adopted one of engagement and sanctions following their review. It must be made clear, however, that there is absolutely no sign that the US, the EU or the international community has any intention of reducing economic sanctions against the regime, because we have seen no significant shift whatever from it so far. This is not an either/or scenario. It is perfectly reasonable, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, to have a strategy of engagement and sanctions. If we looked at the strategy adopted until the Americans undertook their review, we would see that they were right to decide that it was time to move from isolation and sanctions to engagement and sanctions.

Hon. Members have asked about the ASEAN countries, and I have raised these issues with ASEAN ambassadors on a couple of occasions-indeed, we constantly raise them. The ASEAN countries are an emerging institution, and the UK should engage with its power brokers and economies in a more positive and meaningful way. It is worth noting, however, that ASEAN recently set up a commission on human rights, so it recognises that it has a lot of work to do specifically on human rights. We should support the establishment of that commission, but we should ensure that it undertakes meaningful work and begins to pressure ASEAN members over their human rights performance. We will keep a close eye on progress.

I turn now to the contact that our ambassador and our country have recently had with Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting that took place between our ambassador and Aung San Suu Kyi on 9 October was a small but welcome development. She requested the meeting to discuss sanctions, and we invited US and Australian representatives to attend. At the meeting, she asked for information on the scope, impact and intent behind EU sanctions, and our ambassador answered her questions and provided additional written material afterwards. Importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi was seeking information, rather than setting out a clear position.

To respond to the question from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, we are of course keen for further meetings to take place, and we have made that clear to the Burmese authorities. No further meeting has yet taken place, but we do have regular dialogue with the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi's party. Subsequent to the meeting on 9 October, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a second letter to Than Shwe asking for a meeting with him. It will be interesting to see how the regime responds-it still has to respond-to that formal request.

If I might update hon. Members, we have been told that Aung San Suu Kyi today had a 50-minute meeting with the Burmese Liaison Minister, which is an interesting step forward. However, we should also note that the state media recently described Aung San Suu Kyi's initiative as dishonest, which remains a cause of concern. However, there is continuing dialogue, and we hope that Than Shwe will see fit not only to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, but seriously to engage with her on the changes that need to be made in Burma.

On the more general question of political prisoners, there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma. Some individuals have been given sentences of up to 104 years in jail and have deliberately been moved to prisons in isolated parts of the country. As hon. Members have said-Dr. Pugh put this most powerfully-we are talking about individuals and about the human cost of the abuses that the regime perpetrates every day, so let me give an example. Every month, the sister of one political prisoner travels three days each way by plane, road and boat to take food and supplies to her brother in a remote prison.

Through the UN and the EU, and in direct contacts with the regime, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. Furthermore-hon. Members asked about this-we pursue and highlight specific cases. To give a tangible example, the FCO has launched an online campaign that profiles different political prisoners each week. We are doing that in partnership with the Burmese Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and with Human Rights Watch.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Opposition Whip (Commons)

I welcome the developments that the Minister has just described, but can he point to any examples of the Burmese regime releasing any political prisoners at all following pressure from the UK, the EU or the United States?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Frankly, no. The regime is still reluctant to do so, but we believe that pressure can work. Despite the trumped-up charges in Aung San Suu Kyi's bogus trial, the regime clearly took some note of the pressure applied by the international community once the verdict was passed, so we need to maintain that pressure.

I was about to refer to the specific example of a former political prisoner about whom our ambassador wrote in his Guardian blog last week. Incredibly, the judge told this prisoner-a lawyer by profession-that he must be guilty of at least one of the 90 charges against him and, without further ado, sentenced him to 10 years' hard labour. The judge then invited him to speak, but warned him that every sentence that he uttered would add five years to his jail term. That is a recent example of what takes place from a court in Burma.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health), Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister may have good reason for this omission, but he has not referred much to the idea of a United Nations commission of inquiry.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I was coming next to crimes against humanity and the proposed commission of inquiry. As hon. Members have said, there is no doubt that appalling human rights abuses are committed daily in Burma. Political freedom is absent and dissent is brutally crushed. The treatment of Burma's ethnic groups is of particular concern. We will continue to use the UN human rights bodies to highlight those abuses. In recent weeks, the UK helped to secure a strong UN General Assembly resolution on human rights abuses in Burma.

The work of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma is crucial in investigating reports of human rights abuses, and we have urged the Burmese authorities to grant him full access. Comments have been made about the UN special envoy to Burma, who now has a new role. All that I will say is that we hope that his replacement proves effective, can make a real difference and has credibility in his engagement with the regime. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict. I hope that we get somebody of high esteem and status to fill that position. Britain is actively seeking to ensure that that happens, because this is an issue of growing concern around the world.

The UK position on the commission of inquiry is clear. We have sought to clarify the support for such an initiative in the Security Council, and it is clear that there is not sufficient support at the moment to achieve the consensus that would deliver the necessary resolution. For us to table a vote that would be defeated would be a propaganda victory par excellence for the Burmese regime. The reason why we are being cautious about the commission of inquiry is not that we do not believe that it is right in principle, but that we believe that tabling a resolution that was voted down would backfire considerably in realpolitik terms. I therefore ask hon. Members to consider the difficult position that we are in and to understand that we continue to engage with partners to see whether there will be any shift in the position.

Since the bogus trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, we have pushed strongly for the adoption of a comprehensive arms embargo against the Burmese regime. Our request for an embargo was made in a letter from the Prime Minister to the UN Secretary-General. We continue to believe that such an embargo would have a significant impact on the regime's behaviour, and we hope that the UN Security Council will give serious consideration to it in the near future.

This has been an excellent debate. It has sent a strong and clear message to the people of Burma and their representatives in this country that their plight will not be forgotten, that we will use the House to amplify criticism of the human rights abuses in Burma and that will do everything that we can across the parties to make a difference.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. I thank Members for their thoughtful and helpful contributions to the debate on Burma. I ask those who are not staying for the next debate to leave quietly. We now move to a debate on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.