[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair] — Burma

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:11 am on 9th December 2009.

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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.