[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair] — Burma

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:27 am on 9th December 2009.

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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.