[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair] — Burma

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:42 am on 9th December 2009.

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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.