[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

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.