HC Deb 28 January 1947 vol 432 cc777-82
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I propose, with Mr. Speaker's permission, to make a statement on Burma.

On 20th December, I informed the House of the policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to Burma and of the invitation to members of the Burma executive Council to visit this country. Conversations with the Delegation have been proceeding and are now concluded. They covered a wide field.

I am glad to say that agreement was reached both as to the methods by which the people of Burma may, as early as possible, determine the future Constitution of their country and as to the transitional arrangements for the Government of Burma until the new Constitution comes into force. The agreed conclusions are set out in a Command Paper which will be available when I sit down. The main features of the agreement are as follows:

A Constituent Assembly will be elected in April next, elected by and consisting of Burma nationals only. The machinery of the 1935 Act will be used and the Assembly will therefore be elected by over six million adult voters. It is our intention, as soon as the Constitution has been framed, to bring the necessary legislation before Parliament without delay.

During the interim period, which will we hope, be short, Burma will continue to be governed, as at present, under the emergency provisions of the Act of 1935. The legal powers of the Governor and of the Executive Council cannot be altered without legislation, but it has been agreed that the Interim Government should be conducted generally in the same way as the Interim Government of India. Certain matters, at present formally reserved for the Governor, will in future be brought before the Executive Council.

Arrangements have been agreed on the representation of Burma abroad.

With regard to the frontier areas, we have given very definite pledges to the peoples of those areas. Ultimate unification of the frontier areas and Burma proper has always been our policy, but, and in this the Delegation are in agreement with us, whatever action is taken must be in accordance with their wishes and with their free consent. Arrangements have now been agreed to ascertain the wishes of the frontier people. In this connection my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs is visiting Burma and will leave this week.

Agreement has also been come to with regard to interim arrangements on finance and also on defence.

These conversations have been conducted in the most friendly and co-operative spirit, and His Majesty's Government feel sincere satisfaction that so wide a field should have been covered in so short a time. The conclusions set out in the Command Paper have been fully accepted by the majority of the Delegates, but two of the Delegates found, at the last moment, there were certain points on which they did not share the view of the majority. They had no alternative proposals to put forward, but felt unable to sign the conclusions as agreed. His Majesty's Government regret that that should be so, but they have no doubt that these conclusions afford the most practical way of dealing with the problem of Burma, and they are confident that they will have the support of the Burmese people.

Burma has suffered greatly in the war. Great steps have been made in rebuilding her shattered economy. It will now be for her own people, her own Government, to complete that process and build a new Burma. It will be for them to decide the future relations with the Commonwealth. We shall welcome them if they decide to remain members of it, and we think that will be to their interest, but in any event, they will carry with them, I believe, the good will and good wishes of this House. His Majesty's Government look forward to a continuation of the present method of consultation and co-operation in order to deal with all future matters which may arise during the transition period.

Mr. Churchill

Does this statement mean that we pay and we go, or only that we go?

The Prime Minister

The statement does not mean that we go. It means that the people of Burma have the right to decide in the future whether they should stay in the Commonwealth or go outside. Therefore, there is no decision to go. Secondly, with regard to finance, it is interim finance, and it concerns certain interest-free loans, which were decided upon by the previous Government, and have been continued by this Government, for the reconstruction of Burma in the interim period.

Mr. Churchill

We have to pay the money irrespective of whether Burma remains in the Commonwealth and Empire or not?

The Prime Minister

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will remember that at the present moment Burma is within the Commonwealth, and that Burma suffered seriously in the war, both by damage from the enemy and by damage which was ordered by His Majesty's Government for the purpose of delaying the enemy. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable that we should continue to assist Burma irrespective of what future decisions may be taken. The right hon. Gentleman will find the full details set out in the annexe to the White Paper.

Mr. Churchill

The answer to my question is that we are first to pay, and then to go?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's logical faculty seems to have deserted him. There is no decision here to go. There is no decision to pay in the future. There are interim payments which are in the form of loans, and the decision as to whether to go or to stay is for the Burmese people. It really cannot be reduced down to a proposition which is entirely inaccurate.

Mr. Churchill

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he will, in the near future, afford us an opportunity of debating this dismal transaction?

The Prime Minister

Certainly, but I think the House will agree that there should first be given time for the Burmese Delegation to return to Burma and discuss the matter. I am hoping the Debate will be no more dismal than was the Debate of 41 years ago in which the right hon. Gentleman had to suffer from some criticisms from those gentlemen who then sat on that side of the House.

Sir Peter Macdonald

Do the arrangements made with the Burmese Delegation allow for impartial scrutineers to be appointed to see that the elections are conducted in a fair and democratic manner as requested by some sections of the Burmese people?

The Prime Minister

I have not had any suggestion made. I have no reason to think that all proper precautions will not be taken to conduct the elections properly.

Earl Winterton

Has the Prime Minister made it clear to the Burmese Delegation that while His Majesty's Government are fully entitled to enter into an agreement, constitutionally the position is that any agreement is subject to implementation by this House through the mode of legislation, and did he make it quite clear that it is open to any one of us to disagree with the terms of the agreement and to criticise it in this House?

The Prime Minister

The noble Lord is correct. I would not like to say how many times in the course of the discussions I emphasised the point that all we could do was to make an agreement with them, and propose a certain line and make certain proposals, but that the decision must rest with this House.

Mr. Driberg

While very warmly welcoming the Prime Minister's statement, may we take it that the purpose of the Under-Secretary's discussions on the spot will be, while safeguarding the rights of the minorities and ascertaining their views, to ensure that these are not made into a delaying factor.

The Prime Minister

Certainly, there will be no attempt to delay. On the contrary, we hope to get this forward as quickly as possible. There should not be any delay in coming to a decision. There is no intention whatever of delaying.

Mr. R. A. Butler

May I ask, first, whether the representatives of the Karens were consulted about their participation in the proposed elections, and secondly, as I understand that the frontier areas are to be consulted as to their views, which is very right and proper, has there been any advance indication of their views prior to these consultations?

The Prime Minister

No, there have been various statements made, rather contradictory, but there is a conference being held this month in which the various frontier peoples will be meeting, and I hope that, either at that conference or at a subsequent conference, we shall get a full indication of their views. With regard to the Karens—I take it the right hon. Gentleman means the Karens in the plains and not those in Karenni—there was no specific Karen Delegation, because this was a Delegation of members of the Executive Council. The proposal is that the Karens should be represented in the Constituent Assembly.

Mr. Thomas Reid

Who were represented by the two members of the Delegation who could not see their way to sign this report?

The Prime Minister

They were two representatives who belonged to separate parties. I cannot say what numbers they actually represented.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Will the mission of the Under-Secretary be purely exploratory, or will he have any terms of reference at all?

The Prime Minister

It will be exploratory. There is a double thing here. We want to see that the people of Ministerial Burma and the people of the plains have a full opportunity of discussing the matter with one another, and we want to assure ourselves as to what are the views of the people of the frontier areas, and the mission is merely to facilitate things, and also to collect information.

Mr. Sorensen

How long is the Under-Secretary likely to be in Burma, and will he make a report on his return here? Further, does not the Prime Minister agree that this agreement is merely a necessity to implement the terms of the Atlantic Charter drawn up partly by the right hon. Gentleman opposite?

The Prime Minister

On the first point, I cannot say exactly how long. It would be useless to try to give a timetable, because we do not know. With regard to the other point, I think the agreement is in general accord with the Atlantic Charter.

Mr. Churchill

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware, or does he not remember, that when we were asked in this House, after the Atlantic Charter, about its application to Eastern countries and. other parts of the British Empire, a very full and precise statement was made by me, from his place, to which he was a consenting party beforehand? Would he kindly refresh his memory some time by reading it?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly refresh my memory on that, but as I remember, it's tenor was that we ourselves were carrying out the principles of the Atlantic Charter in the Empire and Commonwealth, because we were moving progressively towards self-government.