HC Deb 03 April 1980 vol 982 cc705-15

1.1 pm

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I begin by thanking Mr. Speaker, or whoever was responsible, for giving me the opportunity to raise this subject today. I do not suppose that the selection of Adjournment debates was expected to have some continuity, but, having listened to the previous debate about moral judgment, I begin by saying that the moral judgment underpinning my contribution is that we are our brothers' keepers.

It is not my intention to analyse in any depth the events which have produced the present famine in Kampuchea, although the politics of the situation cannot be divorced from the threat. This forms a background for the present situation. The Pol Pot regime made a major contribution to the present difficulties. Much can be said about the lunatic aspirations of Pol Pot which clearly had nothing to do with either Socialism or Communism. In May 1975 he said: Of the 8 million people in Kampuchea we need only 1 million loyal to the marrow of their bones. That is a recipe for mass extermination, and that was his business.

I shall not recapitulate the events in Kampuchea. Instead I shall highlight the problem which has followed in the wake of the policies of Pol Pot which he claims are to be found in the works of Mao Tse-tung. The declaration of the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea states: Our people will build a peaceful, independent, democratic, neutral non-aligned Kampuchea which will advance towards socialism. Be that as it may, I believe that Kampuchea has a right to self-determination. It is not our job to interfere in the political internal affairs of that country. But at the same time we cannot, in all humanity, stand aside from the present problem. That is the main thrust of my argument today.

One needs only to turn to the reports from eyewitnesses who have visited Kampuchea. These reports have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Guardian, the Financial Times and The Times. All the reports had one thing in common—they stressed the effect of famine in Kampuchea.

The scanty harvest of 1979 has exhausted food in the Battambang province and the population of nearly 1 million have no more than one meal of rice a month available to them. Government officials, teachers and Government employees seem to take priority over everyone else in the allocation of food. Wages consist of rice at levels which mean starvation in real terms. An official of the Battambang province recently said that the province had no food left and that its people were totally dependent on international aid. Unhappily, that does not apply only to the one province. The survival of the vast majority of Kampucheans, who are not Government employees, hangs on the programmes implemented by UNICEF, the International Red Cross and other international organisations.

The people of Kampuchea have experienced genocide and war and now they are faced with mass starvation. Signs of malnutrition and disease are evident wherever one travels in that unhappy country. Thousands of sickly children, many without parents, have bloated bellies and brown hair—the symptoms of malnutrition. Every provincial hospital is filled with patients who are suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition. About 60 per cent. of patients at the grim, unlit hospital at Pursat are suffering from anaemia and debility. At Kompong, in the Chnang hospital, 140 of the 164 emaciated patients are there because they have not had enough to eat. Neither hospital, supposedly catering for an entire province, has a doctor.

Malnutrition makes people too weak to work and particularly vulnerable to disease. That is a vicious circle. The United Nations food experts have said that between now and December this year the country will need at least a quarter of a million tons of food to prevent mass starvation, and 40,000 tons of seed planting this month. Also, fertilisers and agricultural equipment are vital necessities. Whether the food arrives depends largely on the response of donor countries.

There is justified concern about the right sort of distribution of aid within Kampuchea, and, in my view, the United Nations must find a way of ensuring that the needy are fed because the problem will be exacerbated by a poor spring harvest.

In response to this, Oxfam has recently decided on a £6.5 million input into Kampuchea. It plans to allocate it between seed and agricultural equipment. I understand that there are prospects of establishing floating docks to alleviate the problem of the Mekong river, where there is a bottleneck of unloaded ships. Also, Oxfam has not ruled out the possibility of an airlift. This is valuable aid, but the immediate problem of food remains, and with it comes the problem of distribution.

Unfortunately, charges have been made about the Vietnamese army and its diversion of international aid. I am happy to report that a recent visitor, Mr. Paul McCleary, the executive director of Church World Service, has said that he is well satisfied that neither the Kampuchean Government in Phnom Penh nor the Vietnamese were impeding the distribution of food or aid to the people. Food is reaching the remotest provinces, but much more will need to be done between now and the end of the year in order to avert a catastrophe.

Wherever one turns for evidence, one comes back to this serious assessment. The executive director of UNICEF has sent a message to its national committees in the aid-giving countries saying that the dry season crop, harvested in April and May, may be an almost total failure in many provinces. It is in the summer therefore, that death through starvation could be a major factor in Kampuchea.

The UNICEF programme director, recently in London, made reference to certain inputs in terms of vehicles. The Soviet Union has apparently supplied 600 vehicles, including 225 trucks. UNICEF and the Red Cross have given 275 trucks. As a result, food distribution has been cased. It is, however, a measure of the problem that a further 500 trucks will be needed over the next few months if distribution is to be speeded and the relief area widened. The systematic destruction of bridges was a factor of the Vietnamese advance of 1979. The Khmer Rouge wished to hamper that advance at all costs. The destruction of bridges, the digging of ditches and all sorts of ways and means were used to destroy the highways. There has been little in terms of restoration of those highways.

Movement by road is a major factor. I understand that there is a speed limit of 20 kilometres an hour, together with the possibility of guerrilla activity, especially after sunset.

I wish to refer to a relevant report by Nayan Chanda following a recent visit. He speaks of hundreds of people seen on the roads leading to the Thai border, travelling on bicycles and bullock carts and returning with rice and soya beans distributed by international agencies along the border. Some families, however, are so helpless, through failing health due to shortage of food, that they are unable to pedal a long way or to secure a bullock cart.

During the last few days The Guardian has done a service by printing articles by Martin Woollacott giving direct eye-witness reports from Phnom Penh and various parts of Kampuchea. I am sure that the Minister and officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have seen the article that appeared on Tuesday in which reference was made to the problems of children in Kampuchea. It is virtually impossible when reading these reports to perceive of any action that the nations of the world can take to obliterate the damage already done to children—damage of a psychological character, among other things.

Our responsibility, against that background, is to see that the children at least get the opportunity to grow and develop in spite of their experiences, which have been commonplace, in terms of death, killings, tortures and deprivation, the like of which we in the United Kingdom cannot visualise. The relief effort was reported in the Financial Times on 28 March to be in disarray. One of the reasons advanced was the difficulty in running the programme through the United Nations since the Pol Pot regime is said to be still recognised by the General Assembly of the United Nations as the legal Government. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will clarify the position. I understand that the report is not quite accurate. If it is accurate, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to indicate that we would be seeking to take an initiative to change that situation.

I am anxious to give the Minister adequate time to reply to the main points I have raised. West Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands are all reported to have made aid available in varying sums. But the message that emerges from the most recent reports of the situation in Kampuchea is one of considerable disquiet in terms of starvation and risks of large-scale death through malnutrition. It is to this problem that all nations, irrespective of their political analysis of recent events in Vietnam and Kampuchea, must address their energies. To direct attention to and to emphasise the urgency of the matter is the purpose of my speech.

I understand that £7 million was allocated by Her Majesty's Government for aid to Kampuchea some time ago. Estimates have now been made that suggest that £2¾ million has reached Kampuchea and that £2 million has gone to refugees in Thailand. There would appear to be an anomaly in those reports if they are accurate.

I hope that it will be possible for the Minister to clarify the situation and certain other points that I have raised against a background of a firm resolve that, in spite of all the difficulties, it is the Government's intention to try to alleviate as soon as possible the very grave crisis in Kampuchea.

1.16 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I am grateful for the opportunity provided by the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) to discuss again the human tragedy of Cambodia. This tragedy has been one of the most heartrending of recent decades. We have seen a country that is essentialy peaceful involved, against its will, in a war orginating in a neighbouring State. We have seen it taken over, by force, by a group of people who certainly describe themselves as Marxists, whose bloodthirsty fanaticism has exceeded anything known elsewhere, subjected by these fanatics to the brutal killing of hundreds of thousands of its own people, including a high proportion of the better educated and the potential leaders, and then, 15 months ago, on Christmas Day 1978, exactly a year before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, invaded and largely conquered by a Marxist neighbour of whom the Cambodians have long lived in fear.

This is an appropriate time to consider again the problem of famine in Cambodia. The first phase of the relief operation, mounted by a number of international agencies, for which the appeal of the United Nations Secretary-General last October raised over £100 million, came to an end on 31 March. We and other Governments are now considering our response to further appeals to enable the emergency relief operation, both inside and outside Cambodia, to continue through the monsoon to the end of 1980.

As it is almost exactly three months since the House last considered this question, I shall give the House the Government's assessment of how far the situation has changed. I shall first deal with one of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his speech, namely, whether the fact that the Pol Pot regime is recognised, as he called it, by the United Nations affects the provision of aid.

The situation is that the Khmer Rouge, as they now call themselves are accepted by the United Nations, by a majority vote at the last General Assembly, as the representatives of Cambodia. This is a different matter from the provision of aid and the provision of relief. What has tended to hold up a more satisfactory provision and distribution of aid has been partly the inadequacy of the infrastructure in Cambodia which was largely destroyed during the time of Pol Pot but also the reluctance of the Heng Samrin regime to accept more people from the international relief agencies.

For example, a number of countries have made offers of medical teams who are prepared to go into Cambodia, but the regime has accepted only three such teams, all from Eastern Europe. The situation has improved somewhat. The international agencies have been able to get more people into Cambodia, but not nearly as many as they would like. I hope that they will continue their efforts to persuade the regime to accept more.

In the first phase of the relief programme, the agencies working in Cambodia among displaced and refugee Cambodians in the Thai border area and in camps and holding centres in Thailand have delivered 70,000 tonnes of foodstuffs, several hundred vehicles, cranes, fork lift trucks, barges, tugs, about 50,000 gallons of fuel, nearly 50 tonnes of drugs, dietary supplements, medical and other supplies. As the House knows, the contribution of the Government in the first phase has been over £7 million.

The agencies have between them spent most of the £100 million to which I referred and have done their utmost to ensure, even in the chaotic economic, political, and security environment in which much of their work has had to be done, that it has been well spent, honestly spent and duly accounted for.

The agencies have gone to a great deal of trouble in providing information on the programme to date, though there remain gaps in the recording of what has been done, arising not from their unwillingness to provide information but because of the limits of their own ability to monitor what is going on inside the country.

I hope that the House will agree with me when I say that there are occasions when it is more important to get things done than to ensure that they are written down in detail for the record.

I also hope that the House, and indeed the entire international community, will join me in extending our gratitude to the agencies that have taken on this task—to the International Committee of the Red Cross and to UNICEF, as well as to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. In particular, I pay tribute to the Secretary-General's foresight in appointing Sir Robert Jackson to his role as special representative to co-ordinate the programme.

I am sure that the House will also want me to record its thanks and gratitude to the British voluntary agencies that have sent famine relief into Cambodia and to camps in Thailand and medical teams to the latter. A tribute is also due to the British people in general for their remarkable response to the appeals made towards the end of last year. According to my information, there is scarcely a single agency involved in humanitarian work overseas that has not made its contribution.

There is a difficulty about getting information about the exact situation inside Cambodia. A number of journalists have recently visited the country and we are getting a little more information, but, of course, journalists are not able to cover the whole country. It is clear that at the beginning of the second phase of the international relief operation we can record some success, but a lot more remains to be done.

The hon. Member asked whether food was going to civil servants, as opposed to the population for whom it was intended. Once again, we have inadequate information. It is probable that those in control in Phnom Penh have fed their own supporters—whether soldiers, Government employees or others—and those in the immediate vicinity of the city in preference to those who needed supplies in remote areas.

I believe that the agencies are doing what they can to improve the pattern of distribution and that they will continue to do so. In a recent report they have said that there is general agreement among international representatives in Cambodia that the great bulk of relief supplies has gone to those civilians most in need of help.

Our judgment is that the international effort over the past six months has succeeded, in conjunction with the harvest of two limited rice crops, in reversing the picture of widespread starvation, disease and death that drew the international response of last autumn.

Nevertheless, if I were to sum up the prospects now, I could do no better than report and endorse the assessment of a senior United Nations officer that at the beginning of April the danger the people of Cambodia face is that of widespread and severe malnutrition in the rest of 1980.

A critical element in the plans of the relief agencies for the next stage is an attempt to ensure that the next major harvest takes Cambodia a long way towards agricultural self-sufficiency, by providing about 30,000 tonnes of seed rice and associated agricultural support equipment to be used in the major rice-growing provinces. Cambodia ought to be at least self-sufficient in food. It used to be a food exporter, and that is the position to which the world must aim to restore the country.

In the meantime, there is a need to provide considerable quantities of foodstuffs and to ensure that they are widely distributed around Cambodia before the rains make road movement difficult.

The latest request from the agencies for further support has been a request for $120 million—about £50 million—of which about $40 million has been pledged, to cover their expenses for the next three months or so, beyond which they naturally find it difficult to foresee their needs.

I am not at this stage in a position to give details of the contribution which the Government will be making, particularly since we have to keep in mind the existence of other distressing humanitarian problems, for example, in Somalia and in other parts of Africa. But we will naturally be responding to the request from the agencies both directly and through a joint contribution from the European Community.

Comment in the press and elsewhere tends to concentrate on the relief programme inside Cambodia, but we should not forget the work that is being done in Thailand and along the Thai border, where more than ¼ million Cambodians are being cared for by the Thai and international authorities.

In January I was able to visit two camps in Thailand where Cambodian refugees were being cared for. I was impressed by the progress that had been made. One of the camps, containing 112,000 refugees from Cambodia, was under the supervision of a young British man who is a former member of the staff of one of our well-known weekly magazines.

According to the information that I was given, the improvement in the conditions of refugees in the two or three months preceding my visit had been remarkable. Certainly it appeared that, with few exceptions, and certainly among the children, the problem of starvation had been overcome. The death rate had dropped dramatically.

No praise can be high enough for those who have looked after the refugees in those camps in Thailand. A great tribute is also due to the, Government of Thailand for the action that they have taken.

It is important to remember that much food has gone into Cambodia over the "ox-cart" bridge, carried by ox-cart or on bicycles deep into Cambodia. Behind the massive humanitarian effort, the political problem has, regrettably, moved no closer to a solution. Without such a solution, there must always be a danger that famine will recur.

The Vietnamese army, which outnumbers its various opponents by 6 or 7 to 1, has not made any major advances during the dry season so far. The prospects are that the widespread guerrilla activity will continue for at least a year more. That must have implications for the feeding and living standards of the people of Cambodia.

If there were one thing that could lead to a major improvement in the humanitarian plight of the Cambodian people, it would be an end to fighting and the withdrawal of the Vietnamese occupying army, leaving the Cambodian people with appropriate assurances free to choose a Government of their own which could live in peace with all its neighbours, and concentrate its entire efforts on restoring—with the disinterested help of the international community—the health and prosperity of the shattered country.

When my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal spoke in the House on 6 December, he pledged the Government's support for efforts leading to a Government of Cambodia freely chosen by the Khmer people themselves. That remains the essential priority.

We and our colleagues in the European Community have recently taken a step further our close links with the five member States of ASEAN which rightly see their stability and prosperity threatened by the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia—in which, incidentally, they see a close parallel with the Soviet invasion of Afganistan.

At the beginning of March my right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary was present in Kuala Lumpur for the signing of the EC-ASEAN co-operation agreement, and the 14 countries present joined in a statement linking the problems of Afghanistan and Cambodia and calling for Soviet and Vietnamese withdrawal from these countries. They emphasised that a solution in Cambodia should be sought through a neutral and independent status for that country. With out peace and stability, and above all without the withdrawal of Vietnamese occupying forces, it is difficult to be confident of a better future for the Cambodian people.

Indeed, there must even be a question whether the Khmer nation can survive. That is why, quite apart from the need to relieve famine, one of the first priorities of British policy in South-East Asia will be to work with our friends to ensure that the Cambodian people are once again able freely to decide their own destiny.