It is a privilege to open this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. The issues of human rights, equality and justice and the plight of the persecuted people of Burma are potent for Members of both Houses and have caused considerable concern to a number of my constituents in Bolton South East who have family and relatives living in Burma. Indeed, a number of them formed a small campaign group called the Burma Action group, which has organised two peaceful vigils in Bolton town centre. I thank both that group for its hard work in raising awareness of human rights abuses in Burma and the London-based charity, Burma Campaign, for its excellent work. I acknowledge and pay tribute to Members who have worked hard to raise the awareness of some of the issues, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).
The Foreign Secretary once said that the Government of Burma must be judged by their actions and not their words, yet over the past 18 months the UK Government have reversed a decade-long policy of prioritising human rights in Burma and supported the lifting of all European sanctions on the country despite the fact that none of the human rights benchmarks of the European Union has been met. Even TheDaily Telegraph described that decision as “deeply embarrassing”. Undoubtedly, there have been some changes in Burma over the past two years, but still more need to be encouraged. However, the policy must be carefully calibrated, taking into account the wide disparity between words and action. Burma still has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Since Thein Sein became president, human rights abuses, which violate international law, have increased.
In June 2011, the Burmese army in Kachin state broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation, and for the past two years it has pursued a brutal war against the Kachin people, targeting civilians and violating international law. The United Nations special rapporteur has documented widespread abuses, which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Rape and gang rape, torture, executions, arson, mortar bombing of civilian villages, beatings and the use of child soldiers are commonplace. The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma, passed in March 2013, highlighted serious human rights abuses that violate international law, including arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as other violations of international humanitarian law. None the less, the Government of Burma still deny that human rights abuses have taken place, and when asked about the abuses in a recent interview, Lieutenant General Myint Soe said:
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of the conflict in Kachin has been the widespread use of rape by the Burmese army. It is reported that more than half of the women raped or gang raped by soldiers were also tortured, mutilated and killed. Perhaps the Minister could explain why, in the G8 summit, the Prime Minister decided to leave Burma out of the preventing sexual violence initiative? I would have thought that highlighting the increased use of rape by the Burmese army was of more importance than promoting an inaccurate positive image of Burma, which is what we have seen in recent months. I urge the Minister to press the Burmese Government to enter proper political dialogue on Kachin state to ensure that they address the root causes of the violence instead of constantly delaying such talks.
In Rakhine state—or what is now known as Ankhar state—we see the heartbreaking plight of the Rohingya people, described by the UN as the
“most persecuted group in the world”.
They are a little publicised Muslim people, who are historically located in the coastal Rakhine state, dating their ethnic lineage in the region over centuries. When the military junta under General Ne Win, an ethnic Burmese, came to power in 1962, it implemented a policy of “Burmanisation”, which was based on a nationalist ideology of racial purity. It was a crude attempt to bolster the majority Burmese ethnic identity and to strip the Rohingya of any legitimacy. The Rohingya were declared foreigners in their own native land and labelled illegal Bengali immigrants. By stripping them of citizenship and denying them citizenship, the Government institutionalised discriminatory practices in Rakhine state.
The Rohingya have no rights to own land or property and are unable to travel outside their villages, repair their decaying places of worship, receive education, or even marry and have children without rarely granted Government permission. Although I am sure that hon. Members will recall the events of last summer, I will none the less run through them quickly. In June 2012, deadly violence erupted between the Buddhist Rakhine community and the Rohingya Muslims. Human Rights Watch, a respected and independent international body, reported that state security forces failed to intervene to stop the violence or protect civilians, and in some cases they directly participated. Rather than defuse the situation, President Thein Sein was highly provocative. He called for the “illegal” Rohingya to be sent to a third country. Since most Rohingya, even those whose families have resided in Burma for generations, lack formal legal status, his language implied that the great majority of Burma’s Rohingya did not belong in the country. His comments were eagerly seized on by those who favour the expulsion of all Rohingya from Burma.
In a recent Human Rights Watch report, a copy of which I have with me, it is documented that the violence that resumed in October was a co-ordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing, which sought to remove or relocate the state’s Muslim population. The October attacks were organised and carried out by local Rakhine political party officials, Buddhist monks and ordinary Rakhines, often directly supported by state security forces.
The report says that Rohingya men, women and children were killed; some of them were secretly buried in mass graves, and their villages and neighbourhoods were razed. In the months since the violence, the Burmese Government have done little to investigate the killings and abuses or to hold people to account for such crimes.
Along with complicity in crimes against humanity, the Burmese Government have contributed to the severe humanitarian crisis facing the displaced Rohingya and other Muslim communities. More than 125,000 people are now living in internally displaced persons camps in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, yet the Government have consistently obstructed the delivery of aid to them. The camps are overcrowded and lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, as well as medical care. Unless there is a dramatic improvement in conditions in the camps, including unfettered access for international humanitarian organisations, the situation will almost certainly deteriorate further, especially with the coming monsoon season.
We are faced with considerable evidence of crimes against humanity; ethnic cleansing; mass graves; and the obstruction of humanitarian aid to displaced communities. Those claims should not be taken lightly. There has been a tendency to describe the violence in Rakhine state as communal and a reflection of deep-seated hatred between communities on the ground. However, the findings in the Human Rights Watch report tell a very different story—of extensive state involvement, and planned killings and destruction of property, as well as the forced displacement of a population.
Only last month, the Foreign Secretary congratulated the Burmese Government on their role in leading “remarkable changes” in the country. That upbeat assessment was premature, just as the EU was premature in its haste to lift economic sanctions on Burma. Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected non-governmental organisation, has carried out more work and it has found that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed, and that Government forces were involved.
There are some questions that we naturally ask. Why have no steps been taken to hold to account for their actions those who are responsible for organising the violence? It is easy to call on the Burmese Government to investigate themselves when we are fully aware that they will not do so. The Burmese Government-organised Rakhine commission, which was set up to investigate the violence, did not even consider any issues relating to who was responsible.
There needs to be an international investigation into the violence. I urge the Minister to support the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to examine the allegations of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. After all, we worked with the rest of the international community to set up the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, precisely because there had been ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in those countries. I do not see why there should not be a similar inquiry in Burma; even if there is not a tribunal, at least in the first place there should be an independent inquiry led by the UN, which can investigate and deal with all the issues that have arisen. Obviously it must be an impartial international investigation.
Then we will know the truth, and we will be able to hold to account the people responsible. Of course, such an investigation may also provide useful information and act as the basis for future reconciliation.
The Rohingya people have no place on earth to call home; they are a stateless people. The Burmese Government should face international pressure to repeal the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law. All the Rohingya people want is reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it. Human rights must be the single most defining test for the Burmese Government’s commitment to democratic change and the rule of law. It is a test that they are failing.
I sincerely ask our Government to push for an independent inquiry into what is going on in Burma, because the evidence is clear. These are not just communal riots because different communities do not get on with each other. Since the 1960s, there has been a deliberate policy of effectively trying to drive out people who are not ethnic Burmese Buddhist.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate on a very important matter. Does she agree that, on occasions such as this, it is international pressure and the embarrassment and shame of the individual Government responsible for many of the actions that will bring the necessary change, and that we all have a part to play in applying pressure and bringing embarrassment and eventually shame to the Government responsible?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. That is why we are asking other Governments to put pressure on the Burmese Government. There have been suggestions that we are almost in haste to have negotiations and win contracts with the Burmese, to increase financial gains or financial stability. That is all very well, but the human rights issue is paramount, and the Burmese Government must be told that what they are doing is wrong.
As I was saying, the issue is not just that different communities are not getting on with each other, as it has been described. Those who have studied the history of Burma, particularly what has been going on since the 1960s, know that there is a deliberate, calculated policy effectively to get rid of people in Burma who are not ethnically Burmese Buddhist. In Kachin state, which I have talked about, most of the people who are persecuted are, in fact, Christians; they are treated badly. The Rohingya people are Muslims. In another state, the Karen people are treated just as badly because they happen to be neither Christian, Burmese Buddhist nor Muslim. It seems that there is a pattern. There is not just one group the Burmese Government are against; there is a very sinister and deep underlying issue. The motive behind most of these actions is to get rid of other communities and other religions in Burma, not only to leave the Burmese Buddhist community as the main community but perhaps to keep Burma almost ethnically pure Burmese and Buddhist.
That is why the state has been completely complicit, as has the army. Yes, Burma held elections last year, which we thought would bring progress, but everybody knows that all that happened was that most of the generals took off their uniforms and got into civilian clothes, and the majority of the people who are involved in Parliament are military people. There is still very much a military dictatorship in every form. The situation should not be seen as conflict between communities who are not getting on; a much worse and far more sinister agenda is being pursued by those in power at the moment in Burma.
In the past, other Governments have gone into various parts of the world on the basis that there were human rights violations. I am not for one minute suggesting a military intervention, but there should be robust sanctions and a robust programme against what the Burmese Government are doing. They should be held to account.
At the G8 summit that is taking place, rape will be looked at in different countries. Burma has been omitted from those countries, yet Burma is the place where most rapes are taking place. As the Minister may be aware, many years ago an international case held that rape is, in fact, a form of genocide, because the idea of carrying out rape—not to get graphic—is effectively to ensure that the women of the population being attacked are impregnated by members of other ethnic groups, and therefore rape is effectively about trying to get rid of that particular generation. There is a high level of rape in Burma, and it is an indicator of what I described earlier, which was not scaremongering or exaggeration; it seems to be part of a ploy to make Burma a Buddhist Burmese country. Surely that cannot be right, when there have been communities made up of different ethnic or religious groups living in Burma for hundreds of years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am pleased to take part in this debate and I congratulate Yasmin Qureshi on securing it. This is the most recent in a series of debates, each of which has shown that hon. Members are passionately committed to seeing Burma emerge as a successful, flourishing country with a mature and maturing society at peace with itself. Unfortunately, although a lot of progress has been made, that is not the case at the moment.
I am also here because, like the hon. Lady, I have been approached by constituents concerned about the human rights situation in Burma—not exclusively the matters on the Order Paper today. As the hon. Lady rightly said, conflicts in various parts of Burma involve all the minority groups in the country, including minority religious groups such as Christian and Muslim groups as well as animist groups and those from other marginal religions, and they seem to involve just about any group that does not have some claim to what might be described as pure Burmese heritage or lineage. That cannot be right. The persecution of religious and racial minorities—of those who have been excluded from citizenship—is what this debate is about and what I want to spend a few minutes talking about.
It would be wrong not to recognise that there has been progress, as shown by the 42 by-elections last year that resulted, for the first time, in Opposition Members being elected to Parliament. We need to recognise that the restoration of some stability in the country has led to rapid economic growth, the rate of which the Library briefing states was estimated at 6.5% last year. Let us face it: that is something we cannot match in this country. There are plans for fair and free elections in 2015. Those are all things that we ought to celebrate and encourage and not in any way undermine.
The reality is also that Burma is the poorest country in south-east Asia; it is a by-word for poverty and under-investment and, as the hon. Lady passionately pointed out, for discrimination as well. I support exactly what the hon. Lady said—that discrimination is not casual and not accidental; it is clearly orchestrated and state-sanctioned, or at least the state allows things to proceed with complete impunity. Reports of destruction of mosques and homes, and attacks on individuals, with the police and security forces standing by and simply allowing it to happen, illustrate that point.
I do not want us to be blind to our own history, either. There is a tendency for us—perhaps particularly in England, but certainly in western countries—to imagine that we have lived for the past 1,000 years in countries with secure human rights, where these things could never have happened, and we seek to export that to other people. I remind hon. Members that 200 years ago I would not have been permitted to be in this House, because I am not a member of the Church of England.
So we have history ourselves. Even 70 years ago, we had a somewhat flaky history about what to do about the Jews—the internment of Jews who came from Germany, for example, is not necessarily something that we would want to celebrate. The idea of universal human rights is politically contested, even now, within this building. We sometimes need to stand in other people’s shoes.
Burma is having to catch up with 200 years of our history and our developing understanding of what it means to have a civilised, mature democracy. It is only to be expected that that will be a difficult and sometimes painful process.
Although the right hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge the time it took us to achieve the standards that we hope other countries will achieve, would he not agree that now our role and that of the EU, in engaging with Burma, is to apply our influence to ensure that history does not repeat itself and that people in Burma who are being persecuted do not have to wait hundreds of years before they have the kinds of rights that he enjoys now, and which his forefathers should have had?
The hon. Lady, for whom I have a lot of time, could have been reading the next paragraph of my speech, so I have to agree with her. Indeed, our own history should give us the determination to help and support other countries and ensure that they do not have to spend 200 years getting to where we have got.
I give credit to the work that successive Governments have done, particularly in the past three years, in making this country the biggest aid donor to Burma at the moment. That gives us a significant role and voice in respect of Burma’s future and how it should develop. A contribution of some £1 million was made last year towards improving governance and civic society in Burma, and humanitarian help was in the order of £2 million or £3 million. That means that it must be right for us to engage strongly, as a country, as well as through EU and UN institutions, with the Burmese authorities to ensure that our voice, and our learning, can be shared with them.
Of course, the humanitarian aid and support is going in not simply because there are poor people and a harsh climate in Burma, but because of the purges and the cleansing that the hon. Member for Bolton South East outlined so well. That is part of a bigger pattern, as she also said. It is to be welcomed that the military forces have signed some kind of ceasefire in 12 out of the 14 different conflicts that had been going on in Burma, but those remain fragile and do not in any way seem to represent the military power structure’s accepting the legitimacy of alternative views and alternative religious persuasions, let alone alternative ethnicities as having legitimacy inside the country. We can welcome the fact that there is less conflict in some parts of Burma, but we also need to recognise that that does not mean that the underlying problems have been confronted and resolved.
I think—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—that there is a certain amount of game-playing by the military authorities in Burma. They gave in to international pressure, and pressure from their own citizens, to go through at least the appearance of sharing power and drawing in the Opposition, but, as the hon. Lady said, the current President is a general, but not with his uniform on.
Some of the macho posturing that we have seen in conflicts inside Burma comes in the category of flexing muscles and demonstrating the role and strength—and perhaps the necessity, as the military authorities would see it—of continued military participation in the governance of Burma. That is surely something we need to keep a close eye on, and I hope Britain will challenge it.
I notice, again from the papers prepared for the debate, that the UK was proud to boast that its military officials were the first foreign military officials to visit Burma since 1950 or some other early date. I can see the value of getting alongside the military forces in Burma and of demonstrating to Burmese military officials and leaders our forces’ values and their role in civic society, but I would be concerned if we were showing them how to be better at suppressing internal dissent. It would be interesting if the Minister commented on the role of our military mission and on the placing of a defence representative in the embassy in Burma.
At the moment, we are seeing a denial of citizenship and deliberate tactics to drive out minorities. That is all cloaked in a dangerous racial nationalism, which we in western Europe have, thankfully, utterly rejected. I hope the Minister will be forthright in saying that we are determined to help Burma do the same and to reject utterly that nationalism, as it develops its state, which it very much needs to do. Perhaps we could start by simply saying that if a country denies people within its borders citizenship, that does not mean that it is entitled to deny them law, basic services and human rights. The right to life, the right to family life and the right to practise one’s religion are not dependent on citizenship, and it is a function of any state to ensure that those within its borders are free to worship and live as they wish.
Let me echo the words of the hon. Lady by saying that it is puzzling why Burma is not on the preventing sexual violence initiative list. I have seen some of the parliamentary answers on the issue. As somebody who was giving parliamentary answers himself until last September, I know how they are written and what lies behind them. There really is no good reason why we should not be saying that we want to put Burma on the list. It is an excellent initiative, which is capable of doing a lot of good. We should take real credit for initiating and promoting it, but there is a strange reluctance to apply it in this case.
The hon. Lady commented on the removal of sanctions. It is perhaps worth underlining that military sanctions remain in place, and rightly so. However, I would like to hear from the Minister whether consideration has been given to making the withdrawal of sanctions conditional on further positive developments. Sanctions have been lifted, but they could be reimposed, and the Burmese authorities need to be clear that that is a consideration.
The hon. Lady talked about the UK supporting a UN commission of inquiry, and there are established mechanisms for doing that. What is the Government’s view of how such an initiative might be proceeded with? If the Minister’s brief does not allow him to say that, will he at least tell us that the views of Members speaking in this debate will be taken back to the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister, to assist them in forming the view that they need to support that inquiry initiative as soon as possible?
I am not one of those Members who have been to Burma and seen it first hand; I have only newspaper reports and briefings. Some of those briefings have been eloquently put to me by constituents with first-hand, or at least immediate second-hand, knowledge of the country. There are real prospects for peace and development, and we celebrated that in this very building only 18 months ago. However, there are worrying and dangerous signs that the process is going off track, and I hope the Minister will reassure us that the Government are determined to help the Burmese authorities to get back on track, stay on track and deliver a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Burma in due course.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi on securing this important debate. As she knows, I recently visited Rakhine state, courtesy of Refugees International and Burma Campaign UK. I had the opportunity to visit Rohingya, Kaman and Rakhine camps. I went because I wanted to see first hand the humanitarian challenges faced by those communities, and particularly by the Rohingya Muslims, whose situation I, like other hon. Members, want to highlight. Many constituents have come to me to raise concerns about what is happening in Burma and about the treatment of the Rohingya community, not to mention the many other minorities that form 40% of the Burmese population.
Since inter-communal violence erupted a year ago almost this month, Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state have been forced into segregated settlements and camps, and many have been cut off from life-saving aid. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine state is dire. Tens of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps, where they lack food, water, sanitation, adequate shelter and access to health care.
The violence has caused not only massive internal displacement, but loss of life, livelihoods and property. Many have seen their homes and villages burned to the ground. I witnessed places where there was row after row of cut-down trees and nothing else. Such places used to be people’s homes, where Rohingya lived side by side with Rakhine neighbours. Muslim and Buddhist communities that had previously been able to live together, albeit not necessarily in full harmony, remain deeply divided, and the violence is spreading around the country. It is directed particularly against the 9% of Burma’s population that is Muslim. As Andrew Stunell said, Christian minorities are also likely to be affected.
During my visit, I met displaced Rohingya who were forced to flee to remote areas of the countryside completely unsuitable for displacement camps. I also saw informal camps, which were not registered, or allowed to be registered, by the UN, and which therefore had no access to humanitarian assistance. They had to rely on the good will of local people and Muslim charities, whose access to the camps is also extremely limited. Those camps need to be registered, but the UK Government and other Governments have been unable to get state authorities and the national Government to agree to register them. By any standards, these camps should be a high priority for registration and should be recognised as being desperately in need of help. They are adjacent to the registered camps.
One camp I visited, in Pauk Taw township, was accessible only by means of a two-hour boat journey. Non-governmental organisations had to bring drinking water in on boats, and primary health care was provided just one morning a week. The shores adjacent to the camp were covered in faeces, and dead rats floated in the water just metres from children who were bathing to keep cool in the scorching heat. Their home is a camp on a beach; I was there for only two hours, and that was long enough for me and the delegation I went with. I recommend that the Minister and his ministerial colleagues from the Department for International Development visit that camp. It is only when we see the desperate situation those children and families face that we can truly understand the plight of Burma’s internally displaced people.
Most of the shelters I saw were made of tarpaulins and rice bags, which cannot withstand even moderate rains. One Rohingya man told me that displaced people—particularly those living near the coast—were growing increasingly frightened of the rains. With the start of the rainy season there are serious concerns that flooding will exacerbate the humanitarian situation and increase the risk of waterborne diseases.
I visited a hospital that was set up with state assistance. A couple of charities were allowed to provide some additional funding, but the only people able to help there were untrained nurses. Doctors were not allowed in, even though international NGOs had offered to provide doctors. The only other place where people can get emergency care is the local Rakhine hospital, where there is a unit of 12 to 14 segregated beds for the whole population of 140,000 people. What I saw was shocking. A man was waiting for an operation. I did not see any sign of anaesthetics, and the hygiene was appalling, yet doctors could go in there if they were allowed access by the state and national Governments.
We need the British Government, and particularly the Foreign Office, to apply pressure on the state government and national Government to provide unfettered humanitarian access. There is no shortage of good will from international NGOs and foreign Governments or of willingness from UN agencies to provide help. The World Health Organisation needs to step up and apply pressure for access, so that emergency care can be brought to people. I heard stories of many people—particularly women—dying unnecessarily because of the lack of health care. That experience—observing hospitals turning people away in life-and-death situations because of their ethnicity and the fact that they are not recognised—echoed, to me, apartheid. I do not use that term lightly. Being forced into camps and not allowed out is the equivalent of being a prisoner in one’s own country.
Will the Minister reassure the House that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to help to improve the conditions I have talked about? Given that there are flood-prone areas, the need for shelter should be dealt with urgently. It is likely that the existing crisis will turn into a catastrophe if we do not act immediately.
The Burmese Government recently evacuated 120,000 people in Rakhine state, ahead of cyclone Mahasen. However, the lack of safe evacuation sites remains a key concern during the monsoon season. The Foreign Office has significant influence over the Burmese authorities, so in making representations, what pressure is it using, with DFID colleagues, for people to have the security to return voluntarily and safely to the places they came from, or places nearby? At the moment there is little hope that they will be able to return. Many people said to me that they had pretty good relationships with their neighbours. It was not those neighbours who caused the violence, but Buddhist extremists, who came and stirred up tension and conflict. Now, people are too frightened to go back, as are the Rakhine refugees who were caught in the violence. These are ordinary civilians, who were getting on with their lives. Both sides need security so that they can return. However, there is concern that the state government’s agenda is not to allow that, but to keep people in the camps. That is not sustainable.
The movement of the Muslim community in Rakhine state has been heavily restricted, as I have said. The story is one of segregation and desperation—a humanitarian catastrophe that cannot be dissociated from the fact that the Rohingya population do not have the right to Burmese citizenship, or, therefore, any further consequential rights, including access to humanitarian assistance, freedom of movement, or connecting with their Rakhine neighbours to trade with them.
One of the things that I experienced was trying to get to one of the few Rohingya villages that are left in the part of Rakhine I visited. Half way through the journey the Rakhine driver had to stop. He was too frightened to go beyond the point where he saw the military. He would not go further, and we had to find a Rohingya driver to take us further. On the way back we had to do the same thing. Likewise, we had an interpreter who was supposed to go to Pauk Taw with us. However, we were refused passage in the boat, because we were going to visit Rohingya Muslims in the camp, which was two hours away by boat, so we came close to not having access. The Rohingya interpreter was not allowed to go in with us to interpret, and we had to find another one. Rakhine interpreters were not prepared to go with us. One person agreed in the end, subject to anonymity. That gives an idea of the scale of the problem, and it is why we need to act fast. We need to ensure that what little good will remains between people—it is being annihilated by the understandable fear in the different communities—does not become overwhelmed, with little room left for reconciliation and reintegration with security.
I mentioned that the Muslim community’s movement is restricted. The critical point is that its members cannot do anything: they cannot do business, or trade, and supplies to those that still trade are blocked. They are therefore increasingly vulnerable, and the only route by which they can get food, shelter and help is through international agencies. The displaced Rohingya and Kaman told me they would never be allowed to return home because, in their words, the local authorities were trying to create Muslim-free zones. As the recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what happened was well orchestrated and backed by the state government. At best the national Government turned a blind eye, and at worst they were complicit.
A recurring theme that came up in my discussions with internally displaced people was the threat to their security and safety, which often prevented them from returning to their place of origin, even if they were allowed to. Will the UK Government use their position and influence to exert pressure on the Burmese national Government and state government in Rakhine, to ensure that security forces on the ground provide adequate protection to all ethnic communities, and particularly the Rohingya community? There are concerns—and this has been documented—that police who were present during the violence tended to stand by. There seems to be much more confidence in the security forces, and that must be encouraging. However, it would be helpful to know what the Minister thinks the UK Government can do to encourage the authorities both to help people to return home, and to resettle them with the protection they need to avoid further similar events: I am thinking of what happened in the key events of June and October last year, and March this year, in Meiktila.
At the heart of the humanitarian crisis, as hon. Members have already said, lies the question of citizenship. The Rohingya have been described by the UN, as my hon. Friend has said, as the
“most persecuted minority in the world”.
When I visited camps, where malnutrition rates are dangerously near emergency levels and where people are forced to live in segregated areas cut off from their livelihoods and are struggling to survive, I did not expect citizenship and identity to top the list of issues that people wanted to talk about. However, every group of Rohingya men and women, including children, to whom I spoke told me that their priority was recognition of their Rohingya identity and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship rights, which were taken away from them in the 1980s. Many Rohingyas were keen to insist that ethnic Rohingya Muslims had been in Burma for centuries, yet the national and state Governments deny them their Burmese citizenship and their ethnic Rohingya identity, instead claiming that they are “Kala,” a racist derogatory term, or Bengali migrants from Bangladesh.
One woman lost her entire family—I met a group of women, many of whom had similar stories—and she told me, “If, after having lost everything, including my whole family, because we are Rohingya Muslims, the Government still don’t recognise me as Rohingya in my own country, then I might as well be dead.”
During my visit, the authorities were conducting a “verification exercise” in displacement camps, trying to force Rohingyas to sign forms admitting that they were Bengalis. Citizenship is key to the rights of freedom of movement, work, marriage and much more. The displaced Rohingyas are effectively living the lives of prisoners in the camps with no right to get out.
The authorities in Rakhine state recently issued a directive placing a two-child limit on Rohingya couples in predominantly Muslim townships in the region, which is a chilling development and a gross violation of their human rights. Will the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to prevent the Burmese Government from applying such discriminatory practices?
An urgent resolution is needed to the question of Rohingya human rights and citizenship. The future of Burma and its reform process can be assured only if the question of citizenship for the Rohingya minority is properly addressed. The UK Government need to act urgently to end the segregation and human rights violations in the region. I hope the Minister will work with his counterparts to apply pressure, and I echo the points raised by my hon. Friend about the need for international inquiries into what happened and into how we can move towards reconciliation and the protection of all minorities, including the Rohingya minority, in Burma.
I hope the Minister takes on board my hon. Friend’s point about the need for the Foreign Secretary to include Burma in his anti-sexual violence initiatives. Will the Minister explain, given that the EU has lifted sanctions, what leverage he thinks the UK Government and the EU still have to exert influence on the Burmese authorities to get the results that we need on this important issue? Why does the US have a different position? What does he make of that? How can we work with our US allies on this matter?
This is a critical issue for Burma’s transition to democracy. We all welcome the changes and improvements that have been made overall, but if people’s human rights are not secured—some 40% of the Burmese population come from minority backgrounds—Burma’s transition to democracy could be at risk. I hope the UK Government will not put trade alone at the top of their agenda. Trade is important, but human rights are integral to our discussions on trade and investment. The Minister should not overlook this vital and important issue, which is critical to Burma’s advancement over the coming decades.
There are three other speakers on my list, and I doubt whether I will be able to call all of them. I will be calling the Front Benchers at 10.40 am at the very latest. If speakers are quick with their contributions, we may get a contribution from all three Members.
I will be brief, because I want to give the other two hon. Members an opportunity to be involved.
The UN has a key role to play. I congratulate Yasmin Qureshi on bringing this matter to the Chamber. There have been some impassioned pleas on behalf of the Rohingya people, which is good because the House has an important democratic role to play in promoting the matter. The situation in Rakhine and Kachin states is one that must be highlighted internationally in the House today, as it has been in the past.
Some 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been forcefully displaced. There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and there are questions about access to aid; the hon. Lady has spoken about the amount of aid that goes towards that humanitarian crisis. Burmese officials, community leaders and some Buddhist monks organised and encouraged ethnic Arakanese, backed by state security forces, to conduct co-ordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages in October 2012, and they forcibly relocated the population. Christians have also been attacked, abused and displaced.
I believe the Burmese Government have engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and the use of restrictions. There have been violent mass arrests, aid to displaced Muslims has been blocked and there have been months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing, all of which builds up to a co-ordinated plan. A number of mass graves have been found. The news last night carried stories of displaced people and of hundreds—indeed thousands—of people murdered and buried.
Human Rights Watch has outlined the issue, too, and given many examples of those who have witnessed or suffered abuses. There are examples of state forces participating in some of the events. The local police have stood by in many cases. One soldier told a Muslim man who was pleading for his protection, “The only thing you can do now is pray for your life.” There is clearly no compassion or help from the security forces, which is disconcerting.
There are many other examples out there. Local authorities, politicians and monks have also made public statements and used force to deny Muslims their rights to freedom of movement, opportunities to earn a living and access to markets and humanitarian aid. All those things are disconcerting. On
I will conclude with a couple of points, because I want to give the other two hon. Members a chance to speak. The main Opposition party in Burma has been unfortunately quiet. Why are the Opposition quiet in their own country whenever we are highlighting the issue here? I am not being disrespectful to the Opposition leader, because I respect her greatly, but I think that has to be said. I ask for direction from the Minister on the effective delivery of humanitarian aid, on disease and deadly water-borne diseases and on the right of the displaced to return to their original townships—there is also the question of their citizenship. We must address all those issues, and I ask the Minister to take them on in his response.
Burma should accept an independent international commission to investigate crimes against humanity in Arakan state, to locate victims and to provide redress. Burma’s donors need to wake up and realise the seriousness of the Rohingyas’ plight, and they must demand that the Burmese Government urgently stop abuses, promote the safe return of displaced Muslims and Christians and ensure accountability to end the deadly cycle of violence in Arakan state.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and I give an opportunity for the other two hon. Members to speak.
My remarks will be brief, because I have previously spoken at length on these matters in both Westminster Hall and the Commons Chamber. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi for her excellent speech and the kind remarks she directed towards me. I will cut down my comments so that my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz may take part in the debate.
I should say at the outset that it is right to praise the progress that Burma has made, as hon. Members have done. Freedom of expression and media freedom have increased, political prisoners have been released and moves have been made to a form of democratic election, even though some seats are reserved for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released.
However, I will focus, as have other hon. Members, on the treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The last time we debated the subject in this Chamber, all Members referred to the plight of the Rohingya. The deaths number in the hundreds—or the thousands, according to some reports—and many Rohingya have been displaced to camps that have been described as some of the most dire in the world. My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali was particularly eloquent and moving in describing what she saw there on her recent trip. Rohingya mosques, madrassahs and homes have been burned down, and shops looted.
Although the violence has not been on the scale that we saw last October, small-scale violence remains. The perpetrators have been allowed to continue and have not been brought to law. Anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be increasing across Burma. In recent weeks, in the Mandalay area, clashes and deaths have been stoked by extremist monks from the 969 movement, and the security services seem to stand by and do nothing. There are parallels with what happened in Rakhine state last year.
We know that the Burmese Government set up an inquiry, but it was their own internal inquiry. Every speaker in this debate has said that that is not satisfactory and that we should have an international inquiry at UN level. I hope that the Minister will endorse that. As many Members have said, we also need complete, unfettered access to the camps, which are a dire situation, for all humanitarian and human rights agencies. I hope that he will support that also.
I would like to press the Minister on the stories that have emerged in the past few days about the two-child policy in Rakhine state. A couple of days ago, the Burmese Minister for Immigration and Population endorsed the policy, saying that it would benefit “Bengali women”. Note the phrase: he still refuses to recognise the Rohingya people.
Human Rights Watch says that the law violates international human rights protections and endangers women’s physical and mental health. Aung San Suu Kyi calls the policy discrimination and not in line with human rights, and health workers have reported an increase in illegal abortions and in women giving their children to other women in order to avoid fines or arrest. That is an appalling abuse of human rights, and it is another example of the unacceptable way in which the Rohingya people of Burma are treated.
At the root of the issue is the citizenship question, which has been referred to many times. I remind the Minister that even though the current Burmese Government consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali refugees, the first President of Burma said many years ago that the
“Muslims of Arakan”— that is, Rakhine—
“certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma…if they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races”.
I am sure that everyone would agree that the citizenship law must be sorted out. It is absolutely unacceptable that Rohingya children born in Rakhine are being denied the citizenship that they deserve. It is a moral disgrace. Does the Minister agree that it contravenes various UN protocols on the treatment of children?
We are a significant donor to Burma, and the UK has supported lifting sanctions. Given that we have done so, what other diplomatic tools does the Minister have at his disposal to put pressure on Burma to deal with human rights abuses? We are rightly and understandably positioning ourselves to take full advantage of the economic opportunities of that mineral-rich country. I understand that, and I support international trade, but if we go down that route while doing nothing to insist on human rights, it will be a tragedy for the Rohingya people, who are some of the most oppressed in the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I pay tribute to all hon. Members, who have made thoughtful speeches. I will move on quickly to my speech in the remaining time.
Let us remember that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won the election in 1990 with 60% of the vote and 80% of parliamentary seats. Although those results were not recognised, we must acknowledge that Burma is moving forward and taking steps as part of the reconciliation process.
My contribution will focus on three main issues: the Kachin state, land grab and humanitarian issues. I apologise for the speed. Kachin is predominantly a Christian state. I was pleased that Mr Speaker granted my urgent question in January. On the day of that debate, a child of 15 and a pastor were killed. I got a helpful response from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, saying that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we see as crimes go unrecognised in that state. The police stand by. Some 100,000 people have been displaced in Kachin. Although a ceasefire has been announced, it appeared to be on the very day that General Thein was in America. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that abuses are still taking place, even after the ceasefire.
The second issue is land grab. People who have been living on the land and using it to feed themselves have been displaced. The Asian Legal Resource Centre, in a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June, warned that Burma is in danger of a land-grabbing epidemic. Forests have been cleared, dams and pipelines are being built and the people are just being ignored. The Burmese Parliament has a land investigation committee, but it has seen only about 500 complaints, and many ethnic minorities do not even know that it exists.
Thirdly, on the humanitarian aspects, all Members have rightly mentioned the reports from Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and even the Kachin Women’s Association. There is a global movement against human trafficking. Women are being trafficked into China and back again. They cannot do anything with their lives once they have been humiliated in that way. Attacks are consistently systematic. The reports are clear, and they all say the same things: people are being threatened. Local aid groups say that workers are also being threatened by local administrations. A child died after drinking from a stream poisoned by pesticides.
Daw Suu Kyi has gone the extra mile to ensure that her country moves on. Although EU sanctions were lifted, with some criticism in some quarters, I ask the Minister to raise a number of issues in exchange. First, will he raise the human rights issues set out in the reports and ensure that he speaks to the Burmese Government or his counterpart and that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights finds a place in Burma, as agreed by the Burmese Government? Will he ensure, more importantly, that aid given to
Burma goes to the correct people in a transparent way, so that women who have been raped get the support that they need?
In the long term, a constitutional solution is needed, as is a second Panglong conference. We must use our resources and expertise to ensure that the NLD’s aim of equality of nationalities is supported. Religion must not be used to divide people; people must be allowed to live and choose their own religion, whatever it happens to be. We have a long history with Burma, and we should be able to walk hand in hand as Burma finds a new constitutional settlement that respects human rights and the rule of law. As one worker said, we need to move away from the ceasefire process to a peace process. We can help Burma step out from behind the faded politics of the past. That can be achieved only through dialogue, respect for each group and the rule of law and, most importantly, reconciliation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi both on securing this debate and making an excellent speech in support of it. It is a matter of great concern to her constituents, to Members across the House and in the wider community.
We should start by welcoming the major changes made in Burma over recent years. The country had been so long isolated from the rest of the world, had suffered severe repression for many years and was of concern to the world community. That is why this Parliament was so pleased to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi to Westminster Hall and to hear her message of hope, and why the world is renewing and expanding business and other relationships with Burma. We welcome the corresponding economic growth that is taking place.
It is also right to acknowledge the significant persuasive role of President Thein Sein in bringing about change, and the patient diplomatic role played by Burma’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which worked steadily to persuade the previous regime, often facing criticism for what seemed to be their cautious approach. All that offers hope for the future, for Burma and for its people.
As we have seen elsewhere in the world, however, such rapid change can often release old tensions and conflicts that have been repressed under the old regime. That is why we must acknowledge the progress that Burma has made towards peace and democracy. The conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states demonstrate all too powerfully why there can be no complacency, whether from President Thein Sein or us and the international community. My hon. Friend Valerie Vaz alluded to that.
The Rakhine conflict started a year ago, following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman and the killing of 10 Muslim men. June and October in particular saw shocking inter-communal violence, with more than 200 deaths and by now an estimated 140,000 internally displaced persons, predominantly Rohingya. Conditions in the camps are shocking, as ably reported by my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali.
The conflict also raises fundamental human rights concerns, including the seemingly arbitrary arrest of hundreds during the Government-imposed state of emergency. The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma noted
“harsh and disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim populations in the IDP camps” and received “credible allegations” of
“widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations”.
“extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment in detention, deaths in detention, and denial of due process and fair trial rights”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also mentioned the chilling report from Human Rights Watch “All You Can Do is Pray”, which expresses considerable concern about possible state collusion in what is argued to
“amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
I understand and welcome the fact that our ambassador has raised that report with the Burmese Government. Will the Minister tell us the outcome of those talks, and whether the claims will be discussed at the highest level between the UK and Burma? The senior Minister of State at the Foreign Office commented that
“further independent investigative work would be required”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 5 June 2013; Vol. 745, c. 1248.]
Will the Minister here today elaborate on what investigations the Government would like to see and on what steps the UK is taking to secure an inquiry and to ensure that the Burmese Government recognise the gravity of the report?
President Thein Sein initiated an inquiry into the inter-communal violence last year, and the Rakhine investigation commission finally reported at the end of April. Unfortunately, it seemed to provide further evidence of the rejection of the Rohingya community, as the report referred to them as “Bengali” throughout. That reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East. There were a number of comments on the birth rate among the community and, as mentioned in the debate, the two-child policy imposed on the Rohingya was reaffirmed last month, a move I am pleased to see was condemned by Aung San Suu Kyi as discrimination that
“is not in line with human rights”.
What discussions have there been with the Burmese authorities and in the European Union or the UN about the Rakhine investigation commission report?
In particular, the report notably failed to support a review of the 1982 citizenship law, which denies the Rohingya citizenship and renders them stateless. What recent representations has the Minister made in support of a review of the law and of positive action to address the prejudice and discrimination suffered by the Rohingya community? Does he agree that continued segregation, as endorsed by the commission, should not be seen as a permanent solution? There was also a strong emphasis in the report on a greater presence for the security forces. Given that we have already discussed grave concerns about their past role, is the Minister satisfied that they can be deployed as a force for good and to calm the tensions, and that they will be held accountable for their actions?
Non-governmental organisations have reported worrying difficulties in supplying vital humanitarian support to the thousands who have lost their homes, and that was acknowledged by the investigation commission, which concluded that 15% of food needs are unmet and that
“some 90% of needs are unmet in the construction and provision of shelter”.
Can the Minister provide an indication of how reliable those figures are and tell us what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are taking to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian support, an issue stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South? Can the Minister also update us on the current safety of internally displaced persons and on efforts to protect them from the monsoon season? What recent representations have been made to the authorities in Thailand and Bangladesh regarding the treatment of Rohingya asylum seekers? Is the Minister aware of any work by the Burmese authorities to stem the violence and to promote inter-religious dialogue?
The focus of today’s debate has been primarily but not only on Rakhine, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East is absolutely right to say that the human rights situation in Kachin state also requires international attention. That conflict intensified in November last year, after the 17 years of ceasefire. There are now estimated to be 90,000 internally displaced persons, to whom humanitarian support was reportedly restricted. There is also evidence that, unfortunately, those fleeing Kachin and seeking asylum in China have been turned back, adding to the humanitarian crisis. As has been mentioned, the UK has contributed £3.5 million in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Kachin conflict. Is the Minister confident that assistance is reaching those who need it, and can he update us on the humanitarian situation?
Amnesty International has received claims of extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour and sexual violence, and concerns about the involvement of elements of the Burmese army. What investigations have the Government made into the actions of the armed forces in Kachin. What representations has the Minister made in support of justice for the Kachin civilians?
We support the Government in welcoming the agreement in the past couple of weeks between the Burmese Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation to begin dialogue and to work towards a ceasefire. Does the Minister consider that to be a likely scenario? What assistance can the international community and regional bodies provide to ensure that the talks prove successful.
As mentioned by a number of colleagues, the Foreign Secretary has been rightly commended for his work on tackling sexual violence in conflict. Understandably, there have been calls for Burma to be included in the initiative. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Swire, stated:
“Over the summer, the British embassy in Rangoon will be scoping options to expand the initiative to Burma.”—[Hansard, 5 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1120W.]
Can the Minister assure us today that the urgent need to end the sexual violence and to hold those responsible to account has already been discussed with the Burmese Government? Can he elaborate on how and when the preventing sexual violence initiative could be expanded to Burma, as also discussed by Andrew Stunell? Furthermore, will the issue be raised at the G8 next week?
In April, the EU Foreign Affairs Council took the decision to lift sanctions, with the exception of the arms embargo. Some have argued that that was premature, and this morning’s debate has certainly highlighted that far too many people in Burma are still waiting for sustainable peace and respect for human rights. That is not to say that those things cannot be achieved, but does the Minister agree that the EU’s decision to lift sanctions must place an even greater obligation on Burma to comply with international law? Will he assure us that the UK, bilaterally and through the EU, will use the lifting of sanctions to press for more concerted action on human rights? What discussions have the Government had with the authorities in Burma since the sanctions were lifted, and what expectations have been set out? Answers to those questions will enable Burma to move on and start to build the democratic, peaceful and prosperous society that its long-suffering people richly deserve.
I am pleased to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Hood, and I am delighted to be under your guidance.
I congratulate Yasmin Qureshi on securing this important debate, and on the articulate and passionate way in which she put her case. She is absolutely right to highlight the concerns about human rights, sexual violence, displaced people and other ethnic violence, as well as the humanitarian concerns that she articulated. Many other hon. Members made a significant number of points, which, unfortunately, I will not have time to address in their totality this morning, although I will try to deal with the particular points made in the debate. If I do not have time to respond to all of them, I or the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Swire, will of course be happy to do so in writing after the debate.
I must first reiterate a point that Mr Spellar and other hon. Members have made. There has been progress in Burma in the last two years. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in the Burmese Parliament building alliances and working to strengthen the process of reform. There has been a general relaxation of the crippling censorship and onerous infringements of freedom of expression that once characterised Burma. Civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, unions and individuals are freer to organise and to act. The international community—Governments, NGOs and others—deserve praise for their significant pressure on successive Burmese Governments, which has led to the improvements of the past two years. However, that does not mean that there are not significant issues that need to be addressed, as we have heard this morning, and that progress is not still a long and difficult road ahead.
It is right to acknowledge the strides that have been made in Burma since President Thein Sein took office, and it is also right to continue to express our concerns and to take action. Human rights and ethnic reconciliation remain at the heart of UK policy and our discussions with the Burmese Government. I assure hon. Members that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are significantly engaged at senior ministerial level with Burma. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, was the first EU Minister to visit Rakhine last year. He visited five camps for people displaced by the violence and heard for himself the terrible stories that Rushanara Ali outlined in her articulate contribution. He also heard the stories of loss and abuse. He raised at all levels in the Burmese Government the need for a co-ordinated humanitarian response, accountability and security. That has been followed up by the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
I want to take the opportunity to address head-on the point made by hon. Members about European Union sanctions. As the right hon. Member for Warley rightly said, the arms embargo has not been lifted. Its purpose, which was agreed in the EU, was to deepen engagement and to encourage reformists. It was also agreed and suggested by Aung San Suu Kyi, although she has said that it
“is time we let these sanctions go...we can’t go on relying on sanctions forever to aid the democracy movement.”
I assure hon. Members that human rights will be at the centre of UK and EU policy on Burma. EU Foreign Ministers have agreed a comprehensive framework that sets out how we will work with the Burmese Government and apply pressure on them to address the many challenges that Burma still faces.
My right hon. Friend Andrew Stunell made a key point about the importance of humanitarian aid and the alleviation of suffering in parts of Burma. It is not just about those who are suffering from being internally displaced, although that is of course a pressing concern. The UN is building temporary shelters for 24,000 people, but 40,000 more remain vulnerable to flooding, a point that hon. Members rightly made. We must continue to do more. Significant work has been done and continues to be done, but I want to ensure that hon. Members understand that we do not pass UK taxpayers’ money through Burmese Government mechanisms; we do so through the NGO community, most if not all of which does sterling and excellent work on the ground.
We are a leading donor to Burma and in the past few years no country has given more humanitarian aid to the Burmese people than the UK. Our commitment to aid for Burma is £187 million over four years until 2015. If hon. Members are interested, I will be happy to provide details of the geographical breakdown of where that money is being spent. It is focused on health care, responsible investment, good governance, improving livelihoods, strengthening the work of Parliament and civil society, and, importantly, assisting people affected by conflict with a focus on ethnic reconciliation.
Britain also has a package of emergency measures. Nearly 80,000 people will be able to access safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities. Acutely malnourished children will receive treatment in the rural camps to which some hon. Members referred, and hygiene kits will be available for 40,000 people. There is significant co-ordination and co-operation between the FCO and DFID to ensure that we maximise the impact on the ground of UK taxpayers’ money.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove referred to the relationship between the UK and Burmese militaries. At the request of Aung San Suu Kyi during her meeting with the Prime Minister last year, we have an accredited defence attaché in Burma. She specifically recommended that appointment as a key channel for engagement with the Burmese military. As my right hon. Friend said, the Chief of the Defence Staff visited Burma from 2 to
The hon. Member for Bolton South East made an essential point related to the recent report from Human Rights Watch—the UN special rapporteur raised similar concerns in his report in February. I reiterate the point that she rightly articulated: the report contains disturbing and specific allegations, backed up by evidence. We will follow up those allegations directly with the Burmese Government. If serious crimes have been committed, those who perpetrated them must be held to account for their specific actions. That should be done through a clear and transparent investigative and prosecution process that meets international standards. Further investigative work must fully establish the facts that will be required for an informed assessment of whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed. The Government are looking carefully and seriously at the contents of those reports.
Some hon. Members referred to the two-child policy. I want to put on record the fact that a presidential spokesman in Burma said on
Finally, I want to address a point that several hon. Members made about the initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. There is support for the initiative throughout the House, and significant progress has been made in engaging the international community, including the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London in April. Sadly, Burma is not the only place that suffers from terrible and unacceptable levels of sexual violence. Somalia, Mali, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria are but a few examples. As the right hon. Member for Warley pointed out, during the summer the British embassy in Rangoon will scope options for increasing UK engagement and embedding the initiative to tackle sexual violence in Burma. Wherever it occurs, whether in conflict or elsewhere, sexual violence is completely unacceptable, and the impunity that has existed for too long must be stopped.
Valerie Vaz rightly raised the issues in Kachin state. Although significant challenges remain, there has been progress recently, which we should encourage. With its expertise in Northern Ireland, the UK is playing a positive role.
In conclusion, the UK will remain a constructive, supportive and critical partner for Burma, committed to supporting reform efforts to ensure that the Burmese people, wherever they live in Burma, can live in peace and harmony, for the betterment of themselves and their families.