Mark calling for action in Burma

October 29, 2007 5:30 PM
By Mark Hunter

May I open my remarks by expressing our support for and solidarity with the pro-democracy demonstrators and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi in particular? We would all agree that they have dealt bravely with the impossible situation in Burma and deserve all the assistance that the international community can give. I add my voice to those condemning the indiscriminate violent attacks on the demonstrators and others in Burma over the last months, and the awful human rights violations that have occurred.

It is important to say on this occasion that those violations are continuing. There are widespread reports of the ill treatment and torture of detainees, of secret detention, and of sentencing in closed and unfair trials. The situation in Burma is still desperate. We do not know how many people are being detained, or under what conditions, or where or, in many cases, why that is happening. Amnesty International has reported that arrests continue in far greater numbers than the official figures given by the Burmese state media. Despite the regime's supposed co-operation with the UN, information about these detainees has still to be published. Surely the first step by the junta in resolving the conflict should be to publish information about those detainees, to allow immediate and independent access to them and then to release them.

The situation for the whole country is bleak, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as a result of forced displacement, the fear of violence and political, ethnic and religious persecution. With the current social and economic conditions further exacerbated by the violence of the past few months, is it any wonder that more than a quarter of Burma's population now lives below the UN-agreed poverty line of $1 a day and that one in 10 children die before they reach their fifth birthday?

The internally displaced people and refugees, as well as ordinary citizens, face widespread poverty and a lack of health care and education, and all depend on action from the international community. We must ensure that they are not disappointed. The Select Committee on International Development's recent report on British aid to Burma said that the £8.8 million currently allocated was an "unacceptable" level of assistance and recommended that the budget should be quadrupled by 2013.

In the light of the events of the past month and their repercussions on the number of internally displaced people and refugees, I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement tonight that he has reconsidered the Department's aid budget to Burma; but, as had been said, even doubling it still leaves many hon. Members with considerable concern that that will prove to be insufficient for the purpose. Perhaps when the Minister responds to the debate, she could also explain to the House DFID's new spending priorities for Burma, given that timely budget increase.

Of course, the United Nations should continue to play the leading role in resolving the issues in Burma. We certainly hope that the UN will continue to push for regular visits by the special rapporteur on human rights and Special Envoy Gambari, because it is only by continued investigation that we will establish precisely what happened during the riots and what the current situation really is. Burma must give the UN free, full and unfettered access to all areas and peoples, and those visits should be reported on and followed up by formal UN Security Council discussions to establish what, if any, progress is being made. Where no progress is made, the Security Council must act decisively and move to adopt binding sanctions, including an international arms embargo and a demand for the release of all political prisoners.

China, in particular, has an absolutely key role to play. Although we recognise the significant movement that the Chinese have made already by supporting the formal UN Security Council statement, they also need to stand ready and willing to support the adoption of a binding Security Council resolution if one should be necessary.

Thailand, India and the other ASEAN nations, as close neighbours and significant trading partners of Burma, also have a key role to play in resolving this issue, and they must support international mediation and reconciliation efforts. Perhaps when the Minister responds, she might inform the House whether discussions have taken place with those Governments about their trading practices with the current Burmese regime and whether they support US and EU sanctions and, if so, how they might help to bring pressure to bear on the regime.

We welcome the extension of the EU trade and investment bans to include timber, gems and precious metals. By targeting those sectors of the Burmese economy, the EU's sanctions will be better able to strengthen their impact on the regime; but to be effective, those measures must be implemented quickly and the sanctions must be watertight. They must, for example, include goods that are processed through third countries, as most of the gems and diamonds that come into the EU from Burma do at present.

We also welcome the agreement that a general EU investment ban will follow if the Burmese Government do not comply with the demands of the international community. However, if the international community is to keep up the pressure on the junta and the momentum on this issue, there must be a clear timeline for when such an investment ban might be implemented. Perhaps in her winding-up speech the Minister might clarify how long the Burmese Government would be given to comply with international demands before the general EU investment ban would be implemented. Will she say whether the Government have considered supporting the introduction of that ban at the next General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting if no progress has been made?

Further sanctions should also be planned to continue to increase pressure on the Burmese authorities and to make it clear to them that the international community will not stand idly by but will continue to act if they continue to break international law and human rights agreements. A strong message needs to be sent. Those measures should perhaps include sanctions on the very lucrative oil and gas industry, and as with the investment ban, they should include a clear timeline for implementation. Perhaps the Minister might say whether discussions about further sanctions have taken place and, if so, whether they included the specific possibility of introducing future sanctions on the oil and gas industries.

Although we acknowledge that the Government have taken a lead on this issue at EU level, we are concerned to ensure that existing sanctions are being implemented properly in all British dependencies and overseas territories. The Burma Campaign UK has reported that companies in Singapore have invested in Burma through their base in the British Virgin Islands and that an oil company has also invested in Burma through Bermuda. That will be a matter of great concern to the House.

In fact, Bermuda has not enacted the EU sanctions in its domestic legislation at all, and Orders in Council have not been applied there. In our view, if the EU sanctions are to work properly, in partnership with the respective Governments involved, the UK Government need urgently to review the effectiveness of the implementation of EU sanctions in British overseas territories. I therefore ask the Minister to inform the House whether any such review is being undertaken. Will she also give a commitment to ensuring that new Orders in Council are introduced to guarantee that the new EU sanctions have more meaningful and immediate effect?

In addition, the UK imported £19 million-worth of goods from Burma and exported £2 million in the first eight months of 2007. We do not, however, know the identities of the companies involved because the Government refuse to disclose their names on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Given the understandable and increasing interest of the British public in the conflict within Burma, will the Minister reconsider the Government's decision not to disclose the names of those companies that currently invest in Burma, so that they, too, can be held to account?

In conclusion, I am pleased that the Government have sought to make Burma the subject of this Adjournment debate. It is right and proper that the House has the opportunity to voice its concerns on this vital issue. The situation in Burma has been most grave for a long time, and the events of the past months have pulled the country dramatically back into the public eye and can leave no excuse for the international community not to act. The Government can be assured of support from the Liberal Democrats if they are serious about resolving the grave human rights abuses, if they are serious about resolving the humanitarian crisis and if they are actively engaged in helping to bring about a resolution of the crisis in Burma. For the sake of the people of that country, I very much hope that they are.

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